Archive for February 2013

An impotent deity

February 13th, 2013 — 2:32pm

In an early chapter of C. S. Lewis’s last book, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, there is a curious passage where Lewis contrasts the medieval concept of “Nature” with earlier pagan deifications of “Nature” as a goddess. Here is the paragraph in full (pp. 38–39):

As long as the concept [of Nature] covers everything, the goddess (who personifies the concept) is necessarily a jejune and inactive deity; for everything is not a subject about which anything of much interest can be said. All her religious, and all her poetic, vitality depends on making her something less than everything. If she is at times the object of real religious feeling in Marcus Aurelius, that is because he contrasts or confronts her with the finite individual – with his own rebellious and recalcitrant self. If in Statius she has moments of poetic life, that is because she is opposed to something better than her self (Pietas) or something worse (the unnatural, such as incest and fratricide). Of course there are philosophical difficulties about this opposing to the goddess Nature things which the concept Nature must certainly include. We may leave Stoics and other Pantheists to get out of this scrape as best they can. The point is that the medieval poets were not in the scrape at all. They believed from the outset that Nature was not everything. She was created. She was not God’s highest, much less His only, creature. She had her proper place, below the Moon. She had her appointed duties as God’s vicegerent in that area. Her own lawful subjects, stimulated by rebel angels, might disobey her and become ‘unnatural’. There were things above her, and things below. It is precisely this limitation and subordination of Nature which sets her free for her triumphant poetical career. By surrendering the dull claim to be everything, she becomes somebody. Yet all the while she is, for the medievals, only a personification. A figurative being on these terms is apparently more potent than a deity really believed in who, by being all things, is almost nothing.

Viewed in this light, the modern concept of Nature appears as a regression to pre-medieval paganism. For the modern, Nature is all. Never mind that we don’t use the term “deity”: all that shows is that we’ve jettisoned the old pagan personification while retaining the pagan concept. Nature is everything, which means everything is Nature; this means we can contrast and confront Nature with nothing above or below her (nothing can be supernatural, or unnatural, if Nature is all and includes all). This, in turn, means Nature is invisible to all evaluation, there being nothing with which to compare her – she is, in short, “almost nothing.”

Of course, in practice it’s not quite so simple. On the modern view of things, human choice is the great rudder by which the ship of Nature shall be steered; one might even go so far as to say we’re Masters of the collective fate. If so, we’re better than anything we profess to believe: our modern creed offers no reason whatever to think of ourselves as anything more than a plank in the ship. Indeed, we can’t even distinguish sea from vessel – for again, the vessel is all, and all is the vessel.

Medieval might be an upgrade.

Comment » | Science, Theology, and Priestcraft

Notes from across the pond

February 6th, 2013 — 2:50pm

Two quotes from T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society:

You have only to examine the mass of newspaper leading articles, the mass of political exhortation, to appreciate the fact that good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions. . . .

The tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women – in all classes – detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.

Written in 1939. Remarkable.

Comment » | From the Dead Thinkers

How oars leveled a society

February 6th, 2013 — 10:20am

In his gripping account of the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the summer of 480 BC, John R. Hale observes this about the contribution of the Athenians:

Athens alone had mobilized its entire citizen body for the naval effort. . . . The hoplites of Athens had traded their shields and spears for rowing pads and oars. As for the thousands of common citizens, the naval expedition had given them for the first time a feeling of true equality with horsemen and hoplites. Oars were great levelers. Rowing demanded perfect unison of action, and the discipline inevitably generated a powerful unity of spirit. Rich and poor shared the same callused palms, blistered buttocks, and stiff muscles, as well as the same hopes and fears for the future. A new unified Athens was being forged on the decks and rowing thwarts of the fleet. (Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, p. 47)

In Hale’s estimation, it was deployment of the entire Athenian citizenry in naval engagement (at the bold prompting of Themistocles) that laid the foundation of Athenian democracy: because citizens steered the ships of war together, they were eventually prepared to steer the ship of state together.

It’s a fascinating study of how a mutually shared “liturgy” paved the way for a radical reconception of public life and civilization.

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

The lure of Downton Abbey

February 5th, 2013 — 1:53pm

Which event was more culturally significant: the airing of the Downton Abbey Series 3 finale in the U.K. on November 4 last year, or Barack Obama’s reelection in the U.S. on November 6?

It’s a ridiculous question, of course, but I ask it to expose what I think is an unfortunate tendency among amateur cultural analysts like myself: we tend to regard the goings-on in halls of political power as more important indicators of where a culture is going than the stories that are capturing the hearts and minds of its people. Arguably, the opposite is true: the stories are more culturally formative than the political events. (I might suggest that the drop in viewing from 37.8 million Americans to 20.6 million between President Obama’s first and second inaugurations illustrates this – the story was more captivating in 2009.)

On to the real reason for this post: I’m interested in why so many people (including myself) have fallen for Downton Abbey. Various answers come to mind. The storytelling is good, the casting is (in my judgment) outstanding, and visually the show is enormously pleasing.

I’d like to suggest another feature that may be attracting people to the series, and urge that God’s people in the 21st century sit up and take a cue. The feature I have in mind is decorum.

Downton Abbey is the story of a British aristocratic household in the early 20th century. As such, it is permeated by a very rich, at times nettlesome, but by no means harsh or cold formality. The problem of social stratification does arise more than once as we follow both the lives of the aristocrats themselves and those of their body of household servants, but the formality to which I have referred exists – and “works” charmingly – on both of these levels. The servants dress just as formally as the lords and ladies, albeit much less lavishly. They address each other by their appropriate titles (“Mr. Carson” [does anyone know his first name?] or “Mrs. Hughes”) as surely as they address their superiors as “m’lord” and “m’lady.” Conversation on both levels of society, and across the levels, while not stilted, is bounded by strict propriety even when parties are thoroughly aggravated. Informality and rudeness are simply not tolerated; there is an unapologetic keeping up of appearances, though due to the character of (most of) the characters this doesn’t degenerate into rigid stuffiness or stifling of candor. Parties do disagree – sometimes vehemently – but not at the cost of decorum; and when decorum is breached, there is great cost indeed (one thinks of Lord Grantham’s brief “forgetting of himself” in Series 2).

I’m persuaded that part of the Downton attraction, at least in North America, is that we suffer from pathological informality, indecorousness, and incivility; and deep down, when exposed to the beauty of manners – dare I say, cultured ways of behaving – we realize we’ve lost something precious. We’re not yet such brutes as not to see that wholesome propriety is refreshing. The splendid respect, for example, with which Lord Grantham and his daughters address each other, even when provoked, or with which John Bates and Anna Smith carry off their romance, cannot fail to resonate. It’s magnificently human.

I know this may sound outrageous, but I think one of the best ways for Christians to contribute to the healing of modern cultural ills is to work on their manners. We North Americans do love our freedoms, our rights, our independence. We get real itchy when someone tells us we ought to obey rules, especially if they can’t show us chapter and verse. We don’t want those fancy-dancy Old World ways imposed on us. And I guess it’s true – there’s no law that says you have to wear a tie to dinner or church; comb your hair when you get out of bed; keep your elbows off the table and thank the host for dinner; address your elderly neighbor as “Mr. Smith”; refrain from using certain words and phrases in polite company; or even make sure your company is polite. You can be as informal, indecorous, and uncivil as you darn well please.

But I’ll tell you where this is going. I live in a part of the country where Christian thinking was jettisoned long ago, and the remainders of Christian civilization have slowly but surely followed. And while sin isn’t any more sinful than it used to be, it has a lot fewer cages now. It’s on the loose and everywhere to be seen. I stopped at a four-way stop the other day, about the same time as another vehicle driven by an elderly man. In an attempt at courtesy, I waved him through. Instantly, he began gesticulating wildly, and in a most unflattering manner, indicating that he was most certainly not going to go through, and that I needed to get my posterior in gear. Finally, I pulled through, treated to more hand signals to my right. All I could think was: “Here’s what an old man acts like who’s lived his entire long life in a place where people don’t have manners, where he’s had to deal every day with rudeness and incivility.” It was incredibly sad.

I see the effects of the loss of decorum, the loss of civilized manners, especially when I do family counseling. People haven’t learned the art of conversation, so they can’t articulate things clearly. This is frustrating enough; but to compound matters, the moment either party feels frustration, all responsibility to maintain control, respectfulness, or even basic courtesy, is out the window. It’s considered okay to raise your voice to ridiculous decibel levels, spew profanities (I’ve even heard Christians defend spewing profanities in the name of Christian liberty), say horrible things you don’t mean and will (hopefully) regret an hour or two later, and – if things are exasperating enough – throw objects or engage in other forms of physical violence. And these aren’t even the abuse cases! Human character without the discipline of decorum slides into putridity.

It may not sound like a big deal to teach your child to say “please” when he asks for the carrots; or to close her eyes, fold her hands, and sit still during family prayers. It may not seem like a big deal that your children say “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” when given a directive. I suppose it’s no sin to forego such formalities. A life without decorum isn’t so much immoral as it is immature and brutish. It lacks the infrastructures on which excellent virtue can be framed. And couldn’t we then say that, at some level, to be uncivil is to be unholy? Here I think Downton has something important to teach us, as do all great stories that exhibit the compelling beauty of decorum.

Comment » | Life Together

Death by email

February 2nd, 2013 — 1:18pm

Someday I bet we’ll see books with great titles like Death by Email, because it’s hard to believe the people who were smart enough to create email weren’t smart enough to think about what it would do to average workers like me. Think about this. How would you feel if every single day, thirty or forty times a day, someone walked into your office/cubicle/study and dropped a pile of work on your desk? And here are the rules: you can’t close your door, you can’t stop any of these people from walking in or leaving the work on your desk; and in fact you must do something with whatever they’ve left for you (even if it’s just taking it to the trash so your desk doesn’t look like a paper bomb went off at the end of the day). Would you put up with this? No chance. But that’s precisely what happens in my inbox every waking day of my life. And the idiots who invented email never thought that some of us would like to be able – just now and then – to not receive emails. We’d like to be able to do more than post an automatic response like: “Hi, I’m out of the office, but please, keep dumping your stuff on my desk so I can sort it all out when I get back.” Some of us would like to be able to suspend our receptivity for a day or two at a time, and make the sender re-send his or her crap when we actually feel like having our workday invaded by all the work everyone else in the world thinks we should be doing. We’d like a modicum of control. Just a smidge, mind you, a little something to make us feel like self-directed humans again. I say this as an email user, well aware that email is nearly passé. Think of all the other, more efficient ways we’ve found to digitally put work in other people’s workspaces!

[Deep breath.] Sometimes you just gotta rant for a minute. . . .

Comment » | Things Come Lately

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