Lords of Misrule
Holy disorder and hope for the world.
I attended an all-boys high school. It saw itself as the modern Canadian incarnation of the institution Thomas Hughes celebrates in his nineteenth-century novel Tom Brown’s School Days. These days, though, especially when friends find out that my classmates and I were separated into “houses,” they are much less likely to bring up Hughes than Hogwarts. Yet like both Brown’s Rugby School and Harry Potter’s magical analogue, my high school had a variety of eccentric and archaic rules. Even though these rules didn’t always serve an obvious purpose, we were told that they were important for establishing our school identity. When I look back on some of these policies—like the one dictating which shades of grey our socks could be—I have some doubts about their importance for community formation. One tradition that actually was important to our collective identity, however, was an event called the House Supper, our end-of-year celebration before Christmas break. Teachers, students, and their families were invited to a formal dinner, which was followed by skits put on by the students. The graduating class always performed the final skit of the night, and custom decreed that the students would dress up as our teachers and caricature their eccentricities.
It’s easy to see how this tradition posed some risk for the faculty, as it asked them to trust the students’ comedic good taste. The line between good-natured ribbing and hurtful insults is a thin one. Part of the challenge for us as students was to approach that line without crossing it. In our year, we got very close. Our skit was a parody on Dante. It followed a student as he was guided through Perdition and Paradise, where he was shown the eternal fates of our teachers. William Shakespeare, who took the place of Dante’s Virgil, explained the punishments and rewards meted out to our instructors, as well as the logic of their justice.
Reimagining the festive impulses of our Christian past wouldn’t just help change that reputation, however deserved or underserved it may be; it would also allow us to engage with our culture’s deeply inconsistent attitude toward institutions.
I can imagine many teachers balking at a tradition like this one. It could easily have turned mean-spirited or encouraged disrespect for the staff. Yet the goal of the grad skit was not protest. It was not about fundamentally changing the system, which for the most part we valued. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the House Supper helped cement our sense of belonging to the school. Poking fun at the teachers, and briefly taking over their position of authority, was not about expressing opposition to the school’s rules, but about recognizing their limits. While the regulations we had to follow were intended to help us learn and mature, they were not designed to be followed forever, or to be totally applicable elsewhere. We were not always going to remain students; I don’t think I even own a pair of grey socks now. The temporary, jovial suspension of the school’s usual hierarchy in the House Supper was a reminder of this, and thus vital for encouraging student support for that hierarchy the rest of the year. We were more willing to tolerate a process of indoctrination (I use the term here neutrally), even when we found it irritating or limiting, because we had a ritual way of affirming that this process was not ultimate. It did not have the final say over our lives, intellectually or morally.
The House Supper is a modern version of what anthropologists call “Feasts of Misrule,” periods of celebration when the normal moral order is suspended, its social hierarchies are reversed, and certain license given to behaviour that is usually discouraged. Throughout the medieval period in Europe, and well into the Renaissance, festivities like this played an important part in the Christian calendar. Probably the best known of these nowadays is Carnival, mostly because it is still celebrated in some places before Lent. In the past, however, there were many different feasts and celebrations that worked this way, frequently during the Christmas season. In Tudor England, for example, a “Lord of Misrule” was appointed by a variety of different institutions—small towns, universities, even the king—to organize festivities and act as the master of ceremonies in Yuletide and New Year celebrations. In Scotland, the same job held the even more impressive title “Abbot of Unreason.” Servants were often were chosen for this role and given a crown to highlight their topsy-turvy authority. These traditions likely developed from the even earlier religious custom of electing a boy bishop, chosen from a church’s choir, to parody the real bishop. During an appointed church service, the real bishop would formally step down, and the chosen boy would take his place. In France, this boy bishop was sometimes part of the special rituals for the Feast of Fools, a New Year’s celebration that involved a variety of other role reversals, improvisational worship, and some serious partying after church was over.
This mixture of the sacred and profane can seem very weird, particularly to those who think of religious institutions as stewards (or imposers) of moral discipline. For medieval and Reformation-era Christians who participated in the Feast of Fools, however, there was a pious logic to this occasion for holy disorder. The Feast of Fools was a reminder of the biblical maxim that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25) and a way of affirming Christ’s assertion that the last shall be first. It also insisted that even the institutional structures of the church were not identical with the kingdom of God. A little sanctioned, pious mockery was a way of acknowledging that, even at the best of times, these church structures can be frustrating, or limiting, or fail to fully embody the divine love of Christ. The Feast of Fools was, in other words, a fun way of making the distinction between a church and the church.
Christian feasts of misrule took for granted what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as a tension between “ordinary human flourishing” and the “total transformation” to which Christianity ultimately calls its adherents. Taylor gives the example of celibacy to explain this friction. Paul’s epistles suggest that celibacy is best, at least in principle, for Christian devotion. As Paul himself acknowledges, though, it seems unreasonable to expect lifelong celibacy from every Christian. If nothing else, it would pose some significant challenges for long-term church growth. Christian attitudes to money reflect the same basic tension. On the one hand, Jesus makes some pretty radical claims about money, like in Matthew 19:21, when he tells a young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor.” On the other hand, the apparent requirements of sound fiscal management have generally made Christians feel like this command might not be directed at everyone. In either case, there seems to be some inevitable degree of conflict between ordinary human flourishing—family life, financial security, stability—and the goods that Christians have always seen as of a higher spiritual order—total fidelity to Christ, faith in God to provide for our needs, and so on.
Feasts of misrule acted as a reminder that human institutions will never fulfil, with complete satisfaction, the demands of total transformation. They did not represent a rejection of prevailing structures, but testified to their limits. In an important way, too, feasts of misrule could picture the kind of society we hope will arrive when Christ returns. In their egalitarian impulses, their inversion of existing hierarchies, and their affirmation of the body and bodily pleasure, Christian feasts of misrule can be understood as looking forward to the resurrection of the body and the levelling of all human institutions before Christ.
Many Comment writers have argued that Christians can play an important role in protecting the life of institutions that serve the common good and foster a pluralistic public sphere. The innovative recuperation of misrule, or of new faithful ways to recognize the “carnivalesque,” might help Christians claim that role more authentically. This is especially so in a time when Christians hardly have a public reputation for creativity, playfulness, or comic self-deprecation. Reimagining the festive impulses of our Christian past wouldn’t just help change that reputation, however deserved or underserved it may be; it would also allow us to engage with our culture’s deeply inconsistent attitude toward institutions. It is a common lament, across the political spectrum, that our institutions are somehow failing us. Church attendance is declining, union membership is decreasing, the press is in shambles, and community organizations are losing political influence. Small-scale, local institutions whose members interact face-to-face have an increasingly marginal place in our lives. This marginalization has been helped along by an individualism that sees autonomy as the virtue that trumps all others. At the same time, though, we also find ourselves increasingly under the bureaucratic power of institutions that have a national or global presence, especially governments and large corporations. These institutions, which are made up of individuals who for the most part do not know each other, are not only thriving but are also increasingly seen as arbiters of public virtue.
The large-scale institutions we are most familiar with are those run or closely administered by governments: the military, public education, mainstream political parties, the courts, the prison system, and in most developed countries besides the United States, the medical profession. We are so used to the powerful presence of these institutions that, though concern about their overreach is common, it is generally assumed that they should serve something more than purely practical ends. In my country, Canada, our system of socialized medicine is frequently presented as inculcating a national moral commitment to mutual care. In the United States, even those inclined to believe “the government is the problem” often place a high value on the military’s power to shape the ethical identity of both individuals and the nation.
It is no longer just governments, though, that have claimed responsibility for shaping public ethics. Increasingly for-profit corporations, especially those with national or international reach, are taking on this role. Partially, this is just about attracting customers, but it is also the result of two growing beliefs: that large corporations can represent a coherent vision of ethics and that they are appropriate agents for carrying out the moral education of the public. The growth of these beliefs is evident in the increasing detail with which corporate codes of conduct are written and in the striking confidence these companies have that such codes make sense for all their employees and all the places in which they operate. These companies often express very high moral aspirations. Consider the audacity, from a theological point of view, of Google’s former moral motto: “Don’t be evil.” As Augustine might have told them, this turns out to be more difficult than it seems, particularly when you have tremendous influence and wealth. The phrase has been used against the company a few times, including in 2013, when Google was found to be systematically avoiding corporate tax in the United Kingdom. At times, efforts at corporate morality can seem almost comically hypocritical. It was hard to give much credence, for example, to the moral authority Bank of America claimed for itself when it called for the repeal of a North Carolina law preventing trans people from using the bathroom of their choice. This was the same company that had received more fines since the 2008 financial crises (roughly $76 billion) than any other bank for its misleading and fraudulent practices. The company’s statement about being “steadfast in support of non-discrimination” doesn’t carry much water when one realizes how disproportionately minorities (including trans people) suffered from a recession caused by the financial industry’s staggering ethical blindness.
In this strange turn of events, the Reformation-era attempt to purify society nearly eradicated a major societal check on the ambitions of large institutions.
That’s not to say efforts at corporate virtue ought to be dismissed outright. A recent day of anti-racism training, which Starbucks required for all its employees after two African American men were arrested without cause in a Philadelphia location, will hopefully make at least a small difference to the way people of colour are treated in their cafés. As the curriculum Starbucks required rightly points out, its stores function for many people as a “third place,” a public or quasi-public space for gathering outside the home and work. Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who popularized the term, argues that “third places” are deeply important to the vitality and democratic life of local communities. It might be a little concerning then, even if we acknowledge the practical value of the company’s educational efforts, that as Starbucks cafés become increasingly common as a local place to meet up, their ethical guidelines should be so uniformly administered by corporate leadership in Seattle.
Ultimately, what state-run and large-scale for-profit institutions have in common is their totalizing impulse and their abstract understanding of the individual. Though the ethical ideals they represent and the moral training they provide are often genuine public goods, there are certain inevitable limits to any moral vision that operates on their scale. It has to conceive of human beings as largely interchangeable, discreet units rather than as social animals inextricably tied to a local network of contexts and loyalties. A community-based organization, such as a synagogue or a Rotary club, has a lot of leeway to adjust its moral requirements to the nuances of a local context. In contrast, large-scale institutions usually function the same way everywhere. We thus find ourselves in a social climate where a small number of hugely powerful institutions have gained increasing influence on our public morality. Because of this, the most common way different groups have sought to extend the implementation of their ethical vision is by leveraging the power of these institutions to enforce it. This is as true of Christians as it is of any other group. (Consider, for example, how many American Christians “held their nose” and voted Trump because they wanted to make sure a conservative justice would be appointed to the US Supreme Court.) This contest over the soul of big institutions encourages political polarization, since every ethical dispute is seen as one battle in a total war between wholly incompatible systems. This is also why we tend to discount the genuine virtues fostered by institutions that endorse some positions or goals we oppose. As an instructor at a public university, I see this tendency apparent in the paranoia I hear many evangelicals express about the supposedly pernicious influence of the academy. It would not be difficult to think of instances on the flip side, when the ethical commitments of religious organizations have been counted as a threat to public moral hygiene. We find ourselves in a strange situation. We live in increasingly diverse communities, but we are less and less supported by the kind of institutions that foster face-to-face relationships and mutual support within those communities. At the same time, many modern people have a surprisingly high level of moral identification with institutions that operate on a larger scale, like national political parties or grocery chains. In this context, the ethical communities that most define us have become increasingly abstract, since we can only know a tiny fraction of the people who make them up.
Modern governments and large corporations have a lot of power to be forces for good, but they are invested in what political scientist James C. Scott calls “high-modernist ideology,” that is, “a self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature . . . and, above all, the rational design of social order.” Indeed, governments and large corporations have often collaborated closely in projects that seek to order society for the sake of economic prosperity. Yet for all the obvious positives such projects can bring about, neither the utopian confidence they tend to promote nor their usual assumption that ordinary human flourishing is readily compatible with morality sits easily with the gospel. Christ’s promise about life to the full is not really about a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.
Ironically, as Taylor and others have pointed out, the Reformation had some aspects that anticipated high modernism’s optimism in large institutions. Many reform movements (Catholic and Protestant) were driven by the desire to promote a society-wide commitment to total Christian devotion. This often involved top-down, state-enforced forms of re-education, like in England, when in 1549 the old Latin Mass was replaced with the new English Protestant liturgy, enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer. Modern Protestants might be sympathetic to the goals of this legally enforced change, but its compulsory imposition everywhere in the country was not particularly sensitive to local needs. In Cornwall, in the southwest of England, for example, the new liturgy was very poorly received, largely because most people spoke Cornish rather than English. Cornish Christians, in fact, were so indignant about being forced to adopt the Book of Common Prayer that they joined an armed rebellion against the English king. That rebellion was violently put down.
This holy fool could help us remember that, theologically speaking, history is more comic than tragic.
The Reformation was also the period that most vigorously suppressed feasts of misrule. Catholic and Protestant religious leaders increasingly saw these holidays as encouraging licentiousness, which they often actually did, though those opposed to the feasts grossly exaggerated how much this was really the case. By the time the 1700s rolled around, only a very few Carnival-style celebrations remained in Europe, and they were usually heavily regulated. In this strange turn of events, the Reformation-era attempt to purify society nearly eradicated a major societal check on the ambitions of large institutions. This does not mean that the Reformation created modernity or that it is responsible for its totalizing impulses, but it does suggest that Christians have long found it hard to resist the power of oppressive institutions without becoming overconfident in the new systems intended to replace them. In their heyday, Feasts of Misrule reminded very powerful Christian organizations that they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. For Christians today, especially as our political influence wanes, Feasts of Misrule, or at least some version of the “comic” attitude they promoted, might serve a very different purpose. A willingness to poke fun at the very institutions we invest in might make us less despairing when they fail to fulfill our expectations. In terms of our involvement with large-scale institutions like governments and multinational corporations, some form of genial Christian mockery could empower us to acknowledge and promote the goods they bring about without buying into their utopian pretensions. Some modern way to celebrate what feasts of misrule affirmed could also make us more optimistic about smaller-scale institutions. “Carnivalesque” practices acknowledge the inherent limits of any human institutional structure. Yet by revelling in the joys of direct human interaction, these celebrations prompt participants to recognize that all institutional structures ought to serve the good of the community, not the other way around. They make abstract, rule-bound communities feel real again.
Secular communities in our own time have sometimes utilized this community-forming power of misrule, often to great political effect. Street festivals organized by immigrant communities and pride parades stand out among several such examples. If Christians are looking for ways to share our values in a pluralistic public sphere, we might find a resource for doing so within our own traditions of the Carnivalesque, which are spiritual as well as political. We find ourselves living in a society full of rules; perhaps what we need is a new—and doubtless very different—Lord of Misrule. This holy fool could help us remember that, theologically speaking, history is more comic than tragic. In a comedy, the story wraps up happily, and it ends with a marriage feast.