I nearly laughed out loud when I first saw your letter, simply because your question introduced me to the wonderful idea of a Calvinist gladiator. But surely, I thought to myself, this must be a case of misidentification—probably nothing more than a new get-up worn by Chaplain Cooper at a basketball game, or perhaps some outrageous behavior from one of his cheerleading sidekicks, whose aleatoric on-court and off-court antics can be disorienting to the unprepared.
But I smiled for another reason, too. Calvin is an institution that can be described very effectively by what it doesn’t have. We don’t have a football team, for instance, or cheerleaders, homecoming queens, homecoming courts, classes in wrestling or boxing, squash courts, ROTC, a billion-dollar endowment, a chancellor, a sergeant at arms, a rector magnificus or a mascot.
We’ve come close to having mascots, of course. There have been various cartoon versions of the Coffee Shop Guy, with his large head, beatific mien, and aura of deep thoughts. We’ve had a bust of Moses, in serial incarnations. We’ve had the knight logo, and the team names of “Knights” and “Knighties.” We’ve had many busts and pictures of John Calvin, notably the one with John sharing the peace sign with all who pass by. All of these have participated to one extent or another in our institutional identity. But I was pretty sure that we did not have an official mascot.
Until I read your letter. Until I started asking questions.
We do apparently have a mascot—see the picture for a good look.
And I now understand why you asked about a gladiator, because that, at first glance, is just what this mascot looks like. I have it on good authority that this is “Cal the Knight,” not a gladiator at all. I’ll leave it to those with greater visual literacy than I can muster to determine exactly how this character is a knight and not a gladiator, but there’s no avoiding this fact: when I show friends a picture of this mascot, no one immediately recognizes it as a knight, and almost always for the same reasons—the helmet, the scandalously short skirt, and the three-toed feet. If you’re hoping for something from Camelot or The Faerie Queene, you’ll have to wait for alterations. This is no gentle knight pricking on the plain, but rather a towering, pale-skinned, blue-eyed pugilist, menacing the crowds with those bared arms, buskined legs and that horsehair mane.
Apparently this mascot was introduced to the crowd at the first Calvin-Hope basketball contest this winter, where it was revealed that several other candidates had been in contention as well—a lethargic John Calvin (rejected as an oxymoron), some apparently Dutch person in wooden shoes (rejected for the racist stereotype), and a presidential look-alike in a wrestling singlet (rejected for aesthetic reasons). Cal the Knight won the initial jousting match, apparently, but now he is in a battle with principalities and powers.
Dear Pacifist, you can almost certainly hear the drumbeats of war approaching already. Cal the Knight is being tested, not by the Bower of Bliss, but instead by many foes in the field. Can you hear the objections of fellow pacifists, especially in these war-like times? Can you imagine the theological squabbling, notably between the antithesis troops and the common grace brigades? Our Italian alumni have been heard murmuring about ethnic stereotypes and ethnic confusion, and the International Brotherhood of Collosseum Gladiators and Tourist Guides has been asking that photographic evidence be sent to Rome for potential action on a copyright violation. The alumnae in general and the Gender Studies graduates in particular have been asking why a knight was chosen when there is ample evidence of knighties in the tradition as well. Calvin’s Young Republicans and the Progressives from years gone by have also stepped into the ring, claiming that their preferences were never consulted. Protesters from the 60s are finally finding common cause with the veterans of WWII in their opposition to this particular warrior. With a little imagination, you can predict the responses of those who champion the rights of those who often were at the receiving end of the gladiators’ attention—wild animals, political enemies and Christians. Cal the Knight has been reading up on animal rights organizations as well as on Amnesty International and the World Council of Churches. It’s a real mess, and likely to grow ugly before too long.
Which is why those who have anticipated your final question have been talking up bread and circuses as weapons of mass distraction, mainly to keep people from spending so much critical attention on poor Cal. Just exactly what this idea will become when it is turned into policy and practice is not yet known. But the rumor mill is already grinding out scenarios that will allow Cal the Knight to slip quietly away into the side-court shadows again. And distraction is an enormously powerful force. If Cal turns up at basketball games next season, I wager that everyone will be far too seduced by other entertainments at the college and around the world to give his existence another moment of angst-ridden consideration; Cal should be able to resume his work as mascot unnoticed and unmolested. A mascot is, after all, a symbolic figure meant to bring good luck to the institution it represents, and the future Calvin College may need Cal the Knight after all—Calvinist good luck being in short supply, lately.
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