BEAR GRYLLS comes in for some criticism not only because of his promotion of survivalist skills, but because of his muscular Christianity, which he describes as the backbone of his life.
He is a far-from-typical product of Eton, and he recently criticised his Alma Mater for its failure to teach him important life skills, including fitness and communication. He believes that young people need exposure to risk, and that learning to take appropriate risks is empowering. Struggle, he believes, increases strength and resilience. He speaks of those at Eton who were brilliant at school, but were disasters in life because they missed “the one thing that really matters in life, which is called the fight”.
In the early Christian centuries, the Passion of Christ was often seen as a struggle, a fight to the death
and beyond with the forces of evil. Those marvellous ancient Passiontide hymns often express this: “The royal banners forward go” and “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood portrays Christ as a young hero who mounts the cross to conquer. The cross itself mysteriously understands the purpose of Christ’s agony, and speaks of its own task to raise him up and support him through his final hours.
I have often felt recently that we have downplayed that element in the Christian life which used to be described as spiritual warfare. We underestimate the necessity of struggle in Christian discipleship, the need for discernment and resilience, the sheer hard slog of keeping going through adversity.
Trouble comes in many forms: it may be the challenge of living with physical or emotional limitation; it may be the struggle for integrity in circumstances where there is no obvious right answer; it may be living with injustice, or battling against an addiction or the seduction of self-pity. Wherever the struggle confronts us, it is the most obvious reality of daily life.
The language of warfare has become unpopular for obvious reasons: we do not want to glorify war; it sounds to some ears exclusively male; it can produce an excessive interest in manifestations of evil. But the point about evil is that it is often not glamorous. Evil is banal, as Hannah Arendt said, commenting on the crimes of Adolf Eichmann.
Christ went to his death for the salvation of the world because of petty jealousy, corruption, fear, timidity — not all of them great sins, but cumulatively enough to seal his fate.
In God’s providence, this squalid death becomes the antidote to the squalid compromises that we all make to avoid “the fight”. Perhaps we could all be more courageous. The last word of the cross is not agony, but victory.