Monday, January 5
They Make a Desert and Call It "Culture"
There's a lot of talk here and there about Christians engaging our own culture on its own terms. All good and well. Children must have milk first before they move on to meat.
Man is most free, and most human, when he celebrates a feast, in honor of the divine. That is when distinctions among men come the closest to vanishing; the very word “celebrate,” in Latin, suggests a crowding together. It cannot be a feast in honor of ourselves; that is but self-absorption, with food. It cannot be a dinner for making your way in the world, hobnobbing with Important People. It cannot be a fundraiser for the candidate you believe will return the most money to your pocket. If the Lord does not build the house, they labor in vain that build it, says the Psalmist.
[I'm reminded of the last opening ceremonies of the Olympics, where the teams, rather than marching in a dignified order, united towards a greater goal, schlumped along, waving, and taking video of itself with hand-held camcorders. Who raised these people, wolves? --MGA]
We might say too, if the Lord does not call the feast, they cry in vain that call it. Look at our paltry attempts to establish wholly secular feasts, or to remove from even a national holiday the last traces of the holy. These attempts reflect not the establishment or preservation of culture, but its evisceration. We took that fine day on which America once remembered the sacrifice of her men in the horrible trenches of Flanders and the Argonne, the day called Armistice Day because that was the day when World War I ended, and shifted it to some Monday or other, tacking upon it the innocuous name Veterans’ Day, and obscuring the meaning of the Sunday before it, to boot. So have we also done with Oblivion Day, the day whereon we forget the liberty for which our fathers gave their lives. So have we done with Residents’ Day, the day whereon we ignore the men who resided for a time in the White House, two among whom, Washington and Lincoln, we used to revere around that time for some benefits or other they conferred upon us. So would we also do with Dependence Day, were it not for the embarrassing fact that it is otherwise known by its specific date, the Fourth of July. We have made the very phrase “national holiday” almost a contradiction in terms. Can anyone tell what is holy about Labor Day?
I do not wish simply to mourn the loss of a vaguely Christian American culture. I am noting the loss of culture itself. For, whether we like it or not, it is an historical and anthropological fact that culture without cultus does not exist. Pieper puts it thus: “However dim the recollection of the association may have become in men’s minds, a feast ‘without gods,’ and unrelated to worship, is quite simply unknown.” What is left to set man free from work and politics, for the heartiest enjoyment of his fellow creatures on earth, together, across the generations, even across the centuries? [...]
Here no doubt some may object. “But we do have a culture,” you say. “You might look down upon it as shoddy or stupid, but it is still a culture. We have sports, just as the Greeks had. We have music, we have plays. We’re Americans.” First of all, it is not true.
For example, we certainly do not have sports just as the Greeks had, unless there are some hidden communities in the mountains whose men come together to worship and to honor the gods of baseball by displaying the excellence they owe to those gods. Our sports are businesses, and the players businessmen; and our vacant lots are in fact vacant lots, vacant of boys impersonating, in mimic play, the idiosyncrasies of their heroes. [More.]
But that alone will not arrest the long, slow collapse of our civilization, or, even more important, lay any sort of foundations for a lasting future culture, whether Western or not. Sure, there are a few good things out there these days, a few extremely clever if often sadly troubling sitcoms, some interesting stylistic tics in the graphic arts, Dale Chihuly, Shake Shack, Umberto Eco, Seinfeld, iPods, blue M&Ms, wireless internet, gourmet macaroni and cheese, etc., but they are frosting without cake underneath.
There is very little to be gained by dialogue with contemporary culture if we do not also elevate it, shake it hard, and slap it out of its stupor. We are losing, slowly, all that it means to be human, substituting bovine contentment for true joy. We have to teach our fellow humans to be human again.