Jack Niewold's Blog

Viewing Church and Culture Through The Great Tradition

What is Christianity all About, Anyway?

What do we Christians mean when we talk about salvation? What does it mean to be saved? As Christians who strive to follow the Bible in matters personal and social, what is involved in the concept of salvation, and how does one achieve the status of “saved”?

It should surprise no one that there are wildly differing answers to those questions, so let’s begin with the words of Jesus, always a good place to start.

Jesus said many things about salvation. Those who followed Him recorded what he said. Here are a few from the Gospel of John. Perhaps the best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, reads that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus says “He who hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:24). Even later in his earthly ministry, Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me:” (14:6). Near the end of his life, shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus said while speaking to Pontius Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (18:37). After the resurrection, John says of his own gospel that “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

What are we to make of these and many other statements of and about Jesus on the subject of salvation? Several brief points:

First, there is a human need for salvation. And this need is universal. If this were not so, the gospels would make no sense. Moreover, our consciences tell us it is true. We bear a guilt of some kind, a guilt that is part our own doing, and part the doing of something or someone else. It is a guilt that attaches both to our sinful nature and our sinful choices. It is a guilt that we cannot seem to erase by our own efforts, no matter how hard we try. Salvation consists of having something done about that guilt, of having it taken off our consciences and our souls.

Second, Jesus is the One who has dealt with our guilt. He has come to remove it from us by dying for us and taking it upon himself. There are technical doctrines that spell out this central event in all of history, but all of them agree on this point: That Christ came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15).

Third, the nature of belief is far more than mental assent. Though it entails cognitive agreement with the truth, the scriptures say that even “the devils believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). It is a matter of serious intention that is required. The will must be involved. When this is so, Jesus will take you as seriously as you take him. “You will seek me, and find me,” God says, “when you will search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

Fourth, even though salvation is technically “free” in the sense that it has been accomplished for us, it is not “cheap.” Jesus always framed a decision to follow him as one fraught with high moral significance. He likened it to taking up one’s cross daily and following him (Luke 9:23). There is a steep price to be paid to believe in Jesus Christ and to follow him. The gospels tell the stories of some who were both willing and (sadly) unwilling to pay that price.

Fifth, part of the price to be paid is captured in the biblical term “repentance.” The root of this old word means to “think anew.” To repent is to turn away from the habits, the assumptions, the worldviews, and the allegiances that have characterized our lives prior to his call, and to follow the new path on which Jesus leads us. “I have come to call sinners to repentance,” said Jesus (Luke 5:32).

There can be no true conversion unless repentance is front and center to the notion of believing. Repentance is first of all an abrupt break with the past and taking up the way of Jesus. On the other hand it is a process, a lifelong turning away from the sins that continue to beset us. A child who trusts Jesus as savior, and who has few specific sins to confess, will still enter a life of confession and repentance that will last a lifetime. If this is true for children, it applies all the more to those of us who have many sins and much rebellion in our backgrounds.

Sixth, salvation has social aspects. It begins with a private act of believing and trusting, expressed in prayer that confesses sin and professes Jesus as Savior and Lord. But then it takes concrete form in baptism or rebaptism, participation with the life of the people of God in church, and observance of the disciplines of faith such as study of the Bible, testifying to others of God’s mercy toward you, sharing the Lord’s Supper with other Christians, and sacrificial giving to God’s work in the world.

Seventh, the scriptures know almost nothing of private, isolated Christian belief. That doesn’t mean a person cannot be saved in secret, but rather that it is normative for the believer to share a common life with others of like mind. We do not know how to live an effective Christian life unless we see it modeled in others, nor will others see Christ in us unless we are held accountable by other believers.

There are many people who believe in Jesus, who say their prayers, read their Guideposts and abstain from certain social practices, but nobody knows them as Christians. That is not their primary identity. They live solitary, fruitless, often confused lives, half in this world and half out of it. Their habits and pastimes differ little from the world around them. They will probably go to heaven, but their rewards will be few.

Eighth, nobody attains perfection in this world. We are all of us tainted by sin, and it is only the constantly renewed grace of God that gets any of us to the finish line. “Therefore, as you have always obeyed,” St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “so now continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

Finally, it is a wonderful adventure to be a serious Christian, and none of us who have experienced such a calling would trade it for anything else. And though our gaze is fixed on the Celestial City on the distant horizon, we have a clearer understanding of this world. We are pilgrims, passing through, but seeking the happiness of all we meet on the way. We are fit for the world to come only insofar as we are fit for the world at hand. As an old Christian hymn has it, “perishing things of clay / born but for one brief day, / pass from my heart away; / Jesus is mine.”

If your heart is crying out to be saved, you have but to get on your knees and seek God. Those who seek, he says, will find. But you must come with your whole heart and be willing to go where he leads. He will soon call you by name and lead you. For you will be the sheep of his pasture, and you will know his voice. And he will give you life both eternal and abundant.

Tomorrow may be too late, so do it now.

“Should Life All Labor Be?”

The title above is from Alfred Tennyson’s Homeric poem “The Lotus Eaters,” in which he pictures a people sated on the narcotic of hedonism and pleasure. Odysseus and his men encountered these strange sybarites when their ship was blown off course. The Lotus Eaters inhabit “a land in which it seemed always afternoon.” “Let us alone,” they say, “Time driveth onward fast, / And in a little while our lips are dumb. /   Let us alone. What is it that will last? / All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past.”

Homer’s Odysseus and his mariners were tempted away from their journey by the enchanted shores of the Lotus Eaters. “Oh rest ye, brother mariners,” those sensualists call out, “We will not wander more.” In spite of warnings, some of the mariners ate of the enchanted fruit and had to be dragged back on board the ship. The land of the Lotus Eaters has ever since represented the seduction of once-purposeful people to a life of self-satisfaction. It is the broad way that leads to destruction spoken of by Jesus. It is the indifference of modern, affluent societies that has led to historical amnesia and spiritual torpor.

It is said that only a third of Americans supported the Revolution in 1776. Another third opposed it, and yet another third was indifferent. Those indifferent masses are the enduring nightmare of all who care about the future of the nation. Many have no skin in the game. They are net takers who contribute little to the life of our republic. They are those who care little about first order affairs; their days are spent, as is the case with multitudes of youth, in hedonistic pursuits: the latest tunes, fashion, entertainment and self-absorbed pastimes of many sorts. Older such pococurantes settle in with hobbies, golf or tennis, pornography, travel or sports, and other secondary and tertiary matters more in line with lazy affluence. Innumerable churches promote this head-in-the-sand posture towards history by purveying an inner-directed, happy-clappy religion with little apparent public dimension.

Indeed, the public expression of the Christian faith is often considered off-limits in our hip, postmodern congregations. I have noticed that it is usually youth ministers, fresh from their seminary studies of “missional” and “emergent” church models, who promote a quietism towards popular culture and partisan issues. By doing so, they perpetuate among young Christians the indifferentism that the cultural left finds so easy to manipulate.

The late, and great, Vaclav Havel spoke of “the attractions of mass indifference and the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.” He considered obsession one of the greatest dangers to civilization, but indifference to be an even greater danger.

Tyrannies always depend on the vast mushy middle to remain complacent and pliable. Compliance can, after all, be bought by welfare handouts, by rewards for not working, and by the demagoguery that appeals to the populist urge to blame others for one’s own problems. The mushy middle is easily swayed by images of cool, by prefab gestures of compassion, and public pieties such as diversity and multiculturalism. Their votes are guaranteed by more food stamps, by a few more months of unemployment compensation, or by a late-in-the-game, well-produced TV commercial. Millions of people go to the polls and decide on the basis of hair style, skin color, high-sounding platitudes, the last TV ad they saw, or the alleged sins of this or that candidate.

How ironic it is that most elections come down to winning the momentary and fickle allegiance of great numbers of people who ultimately care little for either the freedom or tyranny their casual votes ensure.

“Should life all labor be?” Yes, because it takes intention and action to preserve a free nation.

When Fearlessness is Foolishness

In the 1999 cult classic movie “The Blair Witch Project,” three young people enter a strange Maryland woods to make a movie concerning old rumors about strange deaths that have occurred there. Grizzled locals warn them to call off their project. But Heather, Mike and Josh are typical hip, secular and profane twenty-somethings whose breezy narcissism prevents them from perceiving danger. Their habitual insouciance, including cursing God and ridiculing those who tell them to go home, leads to their ultimate disappearance and presumed death in a ruined house. The movie moves through a strange crescending sense of horror even though no sign of a slouching evil Presence is ever explicitly shown.

How is it, that the “wealthy curled darlings” of our time—often young but not always so—seem oblivious to the enchantments of nature that not many generations ago formed a kind of unposted boundary between the safe and the unsafe?

My friends will know that for several years I have been fascinated by an essay written by Lisa Polito titled “Everywhere is Here” (Oregon Quarterly, Winter 2008). In this story concerning the death of James Kim in the Oregon wilderness in 2006, Polito tries to understand why a young, upper-class family from San Francisco would find themselves in the vast forests of southwestern Oregon, cut off from the world around, burning the tires of their late-model Saab in a desperate attempt to attract attention to their plight.

On their return to the Bay Area from Seattle at Thanksgiving, the Kims had decided to take a detour across the mountains to the coast rather than stick to the main highways. As Polito retraces their harrowing journey deep into the untamed woods, their world begins to fall apart. Their two cell phones prove useless, their four-wheel European sedan cannot match the ruthlessness of nature, and their sense of invulnerability quickly ebbs away. Having run out of fuel, James takes off on foot for help while leaving wife Kati and two daughters with the car. Days later, after the family is rescued, James is found face-up in the water of Big Windy Creek, sixteen miles away, having frozen to death.

Polito speculates that the Kims, like so many people in our technological times, had been lulled into a false sense of security, and had lost the age-old instinct of Here versus There. The primeval anxiety that used to afflict those who left the comfortable Here and traveled to the alien There has largely disappeared, replaced by a nonchalance that sometimes fails to register danger. “Emboldened by this easy, instantaneous connection to civilization, quite literally at our fingertips, we step through our front doors virtually fearless,” she writes. “With a cell phone in hand, everywhere is here.”

Camille Paglia recently wrote about young women on American campuses who give little thought to their dress, who walk confidently along paths and into places no coed from the 1950s would have gone alone, apparently oblivious to the peril that lurks in the dark.

One of the unrecognized effects of contemporary secular worldviews is that they have flattened the moral terrain. They have told us that everything is pretty much the same, that we construct our own reality, that materiality is all there really is, that the spiritual dimension of the world is an internal orientation, nothing more, and that we are more or less free to experiment with ideas, habits and images with no consequences.

Young-adult literature reflects a now-habitual blending of right and wrong, good and evil, innocence and guilt, so that it is difficult for the mind of today’s typical adolescent to grasp the notion that there are hidden dangers of every sort in the world, some natural, some spiritual; and that, even more, those dangers can be and should be avoided.

In my own experience, having grown up in the Mid-Century Moment of America (Michael Barone) where Here and There were more clearly delineated than they are now, I watch today’s popular habits with alarm. I am often considered retro because of my negative views of tattoos. I find the omnipresence of Netflix troubling because many people who are untrained in critical thinking and ignorant of historical trends receive much of their information through Hollywood downloads. I find the postmodern, indifferent shrug a threat to civilization, and the casual attraction to outré behavior a soul-killing reflex. I was recently stunned, and outraged, by a group of guitar-toting youth who had taken it to be their right to intimidate a small band of Christians in a nearby small city.

Today’s incipient barbarism is different from that of ages now gone. Today’s barbarians have little fear of the cosmos whereas our prehistoric ancestors knew that the world was a menacing realm best treated with respect. They keenly sensed both Here and There. Their response was pantheism and superstition, to see all of nature as fraught with unpredictable forces to be placated. Today’s barbarians are atheistic, or perhaps post-theistic; they scoff at the notion of Here and There.

Paradoxically, it was the coming of Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel that tamed much of that primitive fear and menace, that “disenchanted” much of the natural world, and allowed a safe zone for the development of modern science. But the Christian gospel also warns us that the Prince of Darkness is still largely in charge, and that He must not be trifled with.

But today’s fashionably bad boys and girls, fascinated with their transgressions and impatient with older subtleties, have no time for such distinctions as Here or There.

Until it is too late, as it was for Heather, Michael and Josh, as well as James Kim.

The Monuments of Unaging Intellect

Ezekiel Emmanuel is a doctor, and one of President Obama’s chief advisors concerning the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare. Mr. Emmanuel thinks that when we turn 75, our options for further thriving should run out. If we can make it on our own, fine, but if we need public medical assistance, sorry. Can anyone say: “death panels?”

Mr. Emmanuel is, I believe, about 58, so his take on all of this is, I suspect, somewhat academic. I’ll turn 73 in about two weeks, and I have a mean dog in this fight. I’m not too worried that Mr. Emmanuel’s kind of passive euthanasia will come about soon, but the fact that some people are thinking about it makes me nervous.

The nineteenth-century poet Walter Savage Landor wrote on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday: “I strove with none, for none was worth my strife. / Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art: / I warm’d both hands before the fire of life; / It sinks, and I am ready to depart.” He lived nearly another fifteen years, dying at 89. His friend the writer Algernon Swinburne wrote of his final days: “The last fruit of a genius which after a life of eighty-eight years had lost nothing of its majestic and pathetic power, its exquisite and exalted expression.” Landor may have been ready to depart at 75, but some of his greatest dramatic masterpieces would have gone to the grave with him.

Oh, to be 58 again, like Mr. Emmanuel! I hit my stride only in my 50s, and to some extent I’m still going strong. Seventy-five is rapidly becoming the new 65, and if American healthcare can escape the worst ravages of progressive tampering, we might all look forward to vigor into our 90s and beyond. How will Mr. Emmanuel feel when he turns 75, surrounded by his grandchildren, and the actuarial table strongly in his favor, yet a victim to his own principles? Sure, longevity has a social cost, and we don’t yet know what all of that means to Social Security and Medicare, but there’s not a healthy 75-year-old around who would not look forward to another decade or two.

It used to be that old age was venerated, but with the recent advent of the Age of Resentment nobody who has anything more than his neighbor, even if only a few years of happy dotage, is safe.

Vladimir Horowitz played his last, great piano concert at the age of 85. President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly thereafter. He lived to the age of 87. Jacques Barzun, the staggeringly brilliant cultural historian, wrote his magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence at age 92. He lived for another nine years. Composer Elliott Carter, who died two years ago, wrote his final piece at age 104. Katherine Anne Porter wrote her novel Ship of Fools in her seventies, and she lived to 90, writing to nearly the end of her days.

We all have or had a favorite ancient aunt or uncle, grandfather or grandmother, whose hoary wisdom and wit have enlivened our holidays. When Shakespeare asked, “Why so large cost, having so short a lease, / Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?” the answer is, I Am Not Done! As I wrote in my wedding vows to Marilyn my wife: “But we are here, cupped in each other’s hands, / At home at last, the day still early morn, / The winter past, and seasons still to run, / Love giving life, and life by love reborn.” If man knows not his time, neither does he know his span.

True, old age should rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas), but it should rage even more against the snuffing of the light.

Utopian socialists always equate old age with superannuation, and hence expendability. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, in the sad annals of the twentieth century. The fact is that with the extended adolescence now so common among those of Dr. Emmanuel’s generation, it is just possible that they haven’t grown up yet. Give them a few more years, and they will sing a different tune.

Grandfather’s View of History

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

John Adams wrote that. It is the grandfather’s view of history. In many ways, you and I are the beneficiaries of the Founding Fathers, who studied war and politics. Our fathers were the second generation: builders, farmers and businessmen. We are the grandchildren, the poets, musicians, and artisans. We’ve inherited a world where law and order have already been established first by the warrior and then by the tycoon.

The late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth were the generals, the revolutionaries, the pioneers. The twentieth century was the great era of designing, building, defending and consolidating. The twenty-first is a time for reflecting, refining and recreating.

That’s how history goes. Yet, it falls on that third generation to start the cycle over. The third phase of civilization is where decline and decadence set in. It is the generation of leisure that breeds, unless resisted, discontent, intellectual laziness and resentment. Progress is itself not inevitable, and many civilizations have carried in their DNA the genetics of their own destruction.

John Adams was himself the heir of an earlier civilization. He and his compatriots faced a decision: luxuriate in the enchanted fields of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, or become men of purposeful action. These were very bright men, the best educated of their time. They could meditate on Seneca or Cicero, but were also prone to the seductions of the French progressives of the day. Would they turn inward, spend their days in pubs and libraries (the internet cafes of the day), or perhaps become Jacobins and throw over all their Puritan forefathers had built?

Or would they heed the call of history, and start civilization all over again?

Of course that is the choice before us today. The entropy of civilization is all around us: the world-weariness of the gadget-crazed young, the manic pursuit of personal development among the middle-aged, the faux piety of the religious, the moral senescence of the old. We are becoming a trans-generational, self-titillated culture of lotus eaters. The West is becoming, in the words of Tennyson, “a land in which it seemed always afternoon, / Living and lying reclined / On the hills like Gods together / Careless of mankind.”

What is to be done? Any prescription will sound self-serving and provincial in so insouciant a world. Each must ask himself: Am I what God intends me to be? Or do I fight against that? Am I merely a product of my times? Or am I more than that? Have I pushed boundaries today, or only defended them? Do I owe any thanks to the past, or commitment to the future, or is it all just about Me, Here, Now?

Have You “Leaned In” Today?

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. That makes her smart, right? She’s also the author of a best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg travels the country, often with other smart women, telling even more smart women to throw off the shackles of cultural expectation, to stand up and say “I Am Somebody,” and to get out there and shift some paradigms. If only American women could stop beating themselves up and hiding their natural leadership gifts under a bushel, why, we’d all be better off. Lean In: to yourself, to your talents, to the future.

“Our economic growth depends on having women fully engaged in the workforce,” she writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Our companies perform better with women in management. And our homes are happier when men and women share responsibilities more equally.”

She seems especially sensitive to being called “bossy,” which in her lexicon is the other “B” word. Doggone it, Sandberg seems to say, all you have to do is put your hands on your hips, look sidelong at life and declare with Sandra Day O’Connor’s pillow, “I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas.”

That’s the ticket. The only problem with America is faulty self-esteem. The only solution? “Lean In” to a career, give it your all, shuck the old values of playing nice, and you’ll rise to the top. She’s even confirmed all of this by asking her women audiences to raise their hands if they’ve ever been called “bossy.”  Who could imagine so many women would have borne this silent putdown so patiently for so long, some even jumping up and down while raising both hands!

I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg is a wonderful human being and that she means well. Her injunctions to the women in her world are decidedly softer than the vein-bursting screeds of feminists of the past. But she reminds me of another smart woman, Susan Patton, whose recent book Marry Smart is profiled in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Whereas Sandberg tells women to lean into a career before thinking about marriage and family, Patton says the better advice is to lean in to finding a husband WHILE women are in college. Your whole life will go better if you find the right man soon enough, she concludes.

I’ll let these two have at one another over their contrary views of what it means to “lean in.” For my money, the way America is going to be saved is for some people to begin to lean out.

Charles Murray, he of the scandalous (to liberals) book The Bell Curve, has said that the elite classes, to which Sandberg belongs, have shirked their historic role of modeling successful social roles to the lower classes. These classes have become self-referential and isolated from the middle and lower classes. The elite classes are predominantly liberal and Democratic, educated, and comprise the majority of the urban and suburban technocrats. They are the very kind of people Sheryl Sandberg is, as are most of the women who make up her audiences.

Rich elites have the time, money and social capital to spend their careers “leaning in” to the opportunities and privileges of companies like Facebook. They are the people for whom a bit of self-esteem is the only thing standing between them and their own self-actualization. As Betty Smartt Carter, who reviewed Sandberg’s book, writes: “I see the attraction of Sandberg world: a place where the old gender/work division are nothing but the lingering scent of fields and woods–part of our agricultural heritage. We can ignore those, right? We can all choose to do what we like no matter who we are and what our parents believed fifty years ago.”

Most of the young women in my world have done about all the leaning in they can possibly do. Many are already more ambitious then their husbands, smarter even, and pretty confident of themselves. But they’re facing some awfully formidable obstacles. “Leaning in may be a good thing,” Carter writes, “unless you’re already pulling the wagon toward a cliff.”

The fact is, it is precisely the world created and sustained by the Sandberg-type classes that has become one of the great obstacles looming before much of the young middle class today. The Leaners-In of the superzips have made their concordat with the Obama administration’s class war; they’ve exempted themselves from that war’s assault on the middle class; they’ve thrown their money into the huge pot labeled “The Poor,” but they themselves wouldn’t know a poor person if it were their own nanny. They obsess over their own “authenticity” but haven’t a clue concerning the laws of necessity that govern the twenty-somethings on the other side of Atherton, Evanston and Belmont.

Reviewer Carter writes: “Sandberg’s book is culture-specific to America’s northern and western centers of power. If she lived in my southern hometown, where the calendar is always stuck on 1985, she might have to write a different book: “Lie Down: Women, Work, and the Desperate Need for Sleep After Doing It All By Yourself.”

A New Evil Empire, and a New Cold War

Many of you forty years of age or older will remember the sense of relief that came with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. (Of course, as Peggy Noonan reminded us at the time the Gipper died, it did not fall, it was pushed–by Ronald Reagan). After the Berlin Wall came down, and some months later when the Soviet government fell with hardly a shot fired, a collective sigh of relief was heard among those of us who had gone through the long insecurity that we called the Cold War. 

That forty-five-year, low-grade anxiety where nuclear weapons and ongoing unsettledness characterized a national psychology came to an end so suddenly that we didn’t know how to react. Mostly we just breathed easier and pinched ourselves for a couple of months every morning to make sure it wasn’t a dream. 

The years of wondering if this would be the day when a major city was vaporized, or if this would be the year when the dark scenes of the 1984 movie “Red Dawn” would actually come to pass, had hardened us to a kind of stoicism. The Carter years were especially bad, while the Reagan and Bush “41″ years were a little better. Still, we had memories of bomb drills, of hiding under our school desks, of survival measures and back-yard fallout shelters.  

When the Cold War ended, historian Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “End of History,” the dawn of an age when free markets and universal democracy would make such a dangerous world impossible ever again. Fukuyama was spectacularly wrong, as is obvious now that we’ve experienced a couple of decades of Islamic terror, North Korean irrationality, and the unfriendly ascendance of powers like China, Russia and Iran.  

Today the Cold War has returned. This time, however, not because of any of those external threats. The Cold War is now an internal, civil war. The New Cold War is being waged by a President and a political party that wishes to destroy the America of one half of its population. It uses not nuclear threat and terrorism, but the undermining of the rule of law, the intimidation of groups and individuals by state agencies such as the EPA, the NLRB, and the IRS, the inconceivable expense and complexity of the Affordable Care Act, the mobilizing of the poor and rich against the middle class, and the cheapening of the national narrative by those who respect neither our historical customs nor our founding documents. 

Millions of us now feel in our bones the same sense of disorder that troubled our childhoods and younger adult years. We now have the same concern for our children and grandchildren that colored the 1960s and 1970s, when we began our careers and families. We witness the hostility of an administration that cares little for the values of thrift, personal piety and self-reliance that we grew up with. We patiently endure a popular culture that wags its sanctimonious finger in our faces and calls us racists, bigots and homophobes, while it smears the virtues and decencies of a civilization it has never claimed as its own. 

We lived through the tormented years of the despotisms of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro. The face of tyranny now looks different, with its perfect teeth and flawless stage presence, but the feeling in our bones is familiar to us.  

As civil people, we are reluctant to draw the conclusion from this, but until we do so we cannot know what we are up against. We know we are at war once again, and that this war will take reserves of determination and perseverance that may be new to us. We know that life will not return to normal until the New Evil Empire is resisted, and, like the old Evil Empire, collapses of its own internal contradictions. Then, and only then, will we once again breathe freely.  

The 1950s and The Treason of the Intellectuals

The history of the decline of American middle-class civilization in the 20th Century remains to be written. From the 1920s to the present, a continuous thread weaves its way through this story. It’s a story that features what one writer has called “the treason of the intellectuals.” It’s a complex tale of what happens when a culture is abandoned by those who were meant to guide it, and who in the end come to hate it. 

But let’s start with your grandmother, or perhaps your mother, if you are my age. 

Many of you will remember the efflorescence of “higher culture” that characterized America in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was a middle-class phenomenon. Let’s refresh our memories. Those of you too young to have been there can go along for the ride. 

America in the 1950s was an exciting place, not at all like the popular caricatures.  A rising prosperity following WWII led to more leisure and more disposable income, and Americans decided to do some self-improvement. 

Remember the Readers Digest classical music LPs that lined our living room shelves, along with Readers Digest condensed versions of high quality books? Remember The Great Books series that covered every age from Plato to Joseph Conrad?  Remember the proliferation of encyclopedias and coffee table books? Remember the inexpensive prints of the great Renaissance painters that began showing up on our parlor walls along with Norman Rockwell?  

Remember the crossover music that played on our radio stations in those days, making Wagner and Rachmaninoff favorites of our sisters and mothers, even as the latter  learned to play Percy Grainger and Brahms on the piano? Remember the suave Liberace and the mischievous Victor Borge? 

Remember the Wurlitzer and Hammond electric organs that took center stage in thousands of American homes in those years? Stay-at-home moms were overnight transformed into the gowned and sequined stage performers of their newly perfervid imaginations.  

Sure, there was a popular culture with its Elvis and Buddy Holly, but the same people who listened to Billy Halley and the Comets also followed the arc of Van Cliburn, who enjoyed international status in the 50s. TV shows by the score used as their theme music Tchaikovsky, Reznecek, Rimsky-Korsakov and others. Melodies of Chopin were set to popular lyrics. Charles van Doren, despite later problems, became a cultural hero for his knowledge of Shakespeare and western philosophy on the TV show “Twenty-One.” Bennett Cerf, an accomplished litterateur, was a regular feature on “What’s My Line?” 

Today, few people can name the conductor of a major orchestra, but in those days we were all familiar with the names of Stokowski, Toscanini, even the young Leonard Bernstein. The vast majority of today’s technologically savvy generations probably don’t know the name of a single living diva, but we all knew  the names of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. We had all heard the lucent Mario Lanza sing, and Andre Previn play the piano. 

America in the 1950s was the pinnacle of a maturing society. Historian George Marsden considers that decade to have been the apogee of what he calls “The American Enlightenment.’  Two generations in the making, the 1950s were a brief period of brilliance when  “an informal Protestant establishment” dominated culture,  providing a broadly tolerant secularism that easily coexisted with nonconformity of many kinds. Those who did not care for the young Billy Graham could change the channel to the serene Fulton Sheen. 

Political writer Michael Barone dubbed the period “The Midcentury Moment.” For roughly fifty years, Barone writes, America had shared a single, graduated popular culture. High and low were mixed, and held effortlessly in the same mind. By 1955, the millions who tuned in to “I Love Lucy” every week were the same ones who took their kids to the museums and concerts on weekends. This singular culture brought into working class living rooms high-tone TV like “Kraft Television Theater” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” as well as the slapstick of Sid Caesar and Milton Berle. Nearly 10% of all Americans tuned into the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday. 

America in the 1950s was a more cosmopolitan society than it had ever been, or would ever be again. Servicemen who had been to Italy and Polynesia would never be the same when they returned home. French and Italian love songs, along with Hispanic salsa, filled the airwaves. Air conditioned cars with tubeless tires made road travel more comfortable, while buses became “Scenicruisers.”  Sleek new trains crossed and re-crossed the continent. Stylish aircraft based on World War Two bombers made air travel fast and comfortable, even if it was more expensive than most Americans could afford. Who of my generation can forget Ike’s beautiful Lockheed Constellation, or the Boeing Stratocruiser of the movie The High and the Mighty

The slacker was also born in the 1950s with the appearance of James Dean. Indeed, the idea of the teenager was an invention of the times. High school rebels with duck tails and low-riding Levis were everywhere, long before Fonzi tickled our nostalgia. Though the era is known for the senate hearings of Joe McCarthy, I worked in a factory with a man who was known for his atheism and communist sympathies. He was odd, but he was not ostracized. As for social responsibility, Hollywood was constantly reminding us of our scientific hubris with an endless string of horror movies. In the early fifties we already knew we were polluting the world, at least with radiation.  

Still, there were problems, and a host of social pathologies persisted. Anybody interested in a “yes.. but” approach to 1950s’ America will find plenty to justify it. Much of the new Turtle Wax was applied thinly. But there is no denying that the country was developing a more inclusive public philosophy. According to Barone, the two political parties were far more ideologically inclusive than they are today. Compromise was the modus vivendi of Washington, DC. The gentrification of the culture, which I’ve already described in part, was shepherding great swaths of the population in the direction of an American belle époque

And all of this took place when America’s median income was about $5000 per year. Most middle class families lived on about $400 a month, and mom worked, if at all, only part-time.

 

***

 

There was one group of people unhappy with the democratization of Western Civilization: the intellectual aristocracy, particularly those who considered themselves progressives. This new class, alienated by choice, considered itself the master of the plantation that insured that America hummed along. These individuals detested the suburbs, where this new taste for the arts and humanities was making itself felt. They perfected the institutional sneer that came to be associated with Levittown, “civil religion,” the “booboisie.” 

Nobody expressed this better than Dwight MacDonald, in his essay “Masscult and Midcult,” in which he assailed “the enemy outside the walls, the swamp,” by which he meant the new rising middle-class culture. The intellectual priesthood talked of the rise of the  “middlebrow,” the man (or woman) with a patina of culture and learning but in fact still largely uncouth.  

Books like The Hidden Persuaders, The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit appeared, authored by those intent on deprecating the superficiality and philistinism of American middle class life. Richard Hofstader wrote a best seller, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, aimed at the despised middle class. 

This new literary genre of social critique picked up where Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, H. L. Mencken and Aldous Huxley left off before the Depression and WWII. The intellectual mandarins of the post-war decade decided to throw back the barbarians. In their minds, the middle class was getting uppity. 

Whereas in earlier times an intelligentsia had consisted of a small, scattered group of alienated individuals, such as the nihilists in the work of Dostoyevsky or Zola, in the 1950s a much larger group of educated writers and personalities emerged who were fundamentally at war with American and western values. The “professional” intellectual of later years was coming into his own, centered in New York and full of unappeasable indignation. This was the era of Edward Shils, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag and C. Wright Mills. The patron philosopher of this new class was Herbert Marcuse. 

There were those who resisted this toxic tide, who understood that a legitimate intelligentsia were motivated by corrective animus rather than a desire to violate, destroy and pillage. One thinks of Will Herberg, Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann. Lippmann had noted that the new intelligentsia was collectivist, and that collectivism is always profoundly irreligious. “It is no accident that the only open challenge to the totalitarian state has come from men of deep religious faith,” wrote Lippmann.  

But the times they were a’changin’. The intellectuals’ will to power was irresistible, and a full-fledged, secular counterattack along class lines set in. This movement was camouflaged as a political movement, but it was really a class struggle. The Vietnam War was a mere cudgel with which to batter middle-class America, and its usefulness disappeared with the ending of the draft. Any other cause that could be associated with  Mills’ ‘Power Elite” would have served equally well. 

The aristocracy put its foot down against any notion that the middle class should advance any further into the sacred groves of the intelligentsia. This is the back story of Norman Mailer, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Angela Davis, Jerry Rubin and a host of others who came later, such as Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Eric Holder. It is the subplot of movies such as Elmer Gantry, The Graduate, If, The Strawberry Statement, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, the anti-Vietnam movies of the 70s and 80s, and the even later American Beauty.  

The rubes who had flocked to the siren call of high culture had to be beaten back, and nothing would serve as well as ridicule. The Bunkers, Archie and Edith, were cast as stereotypical lower middle-class ignoramuses, soon to be put in their place by a multitude of transgressive sitcoms with their casts of ethnic, cultural and sexual superiors. 

The “American Enlightenment” that peaked in the 1950s was not yet self-confident, and was effectively smashed by the counterculture of the 1960s. We have not seen its like since. The spirit of rebellion, superiority and perpetual antagonism spread and  hardened throughout the decade and was mainstreamed in the 1970s, as David Frum has shown in his book How We Got Here: The Seventies, The Decade That Brought You Modern Life.  Frum chronicles the Saturnalia of the ’70s, a shift from faith, classical music and Great Books to pop-psych, religious cults, narcissism, guilt and disco. In short, Frum writes, the American personality was transformed during the 1970s into the postmodern, hedonistic, ironic type so familiar to us today.

 

***

 

But one has to separate the history from the mythology. As the philosopher Nietzsche wrote, ‘those who choose to cast out their own demons must be careful not to enter into the swine themselves.’  The scriptures likewise warn against those who sweep out one devil only to make the home more fit for seven others more evil than the first. 

Indeed, the civilization of 1950s’ America was Mycenaean in its magnificence compared with the Iron Age that followed after the mid-1960s. Only one who has lived through these decades can understand what has been forfeited. The 1950s have been parodied for so long as the Land of Ozzie and Harriet that its true character has been lost to a narcissistic age suckled on illusion, chronological arrogance and self-congratulation. A brief Carolingian Renaissance declined into a new Dark Age of well-armed but illiterate barbarians. 

Why did this happen?  

Much of the answer to that involves the intellectuals. Never before in history had a broadly-based social class of cultural overseers abandoned the very civilization that birthed them, relinquishing their role as conscience of the society in order to become its saboteurs. Without a constructive program to offer, and centered on unending protest of the actual, the intellectuals had little to offer other than unrealistic utopianism and ossified socialism. Many of them did not bother with this side of things, and satisfied themselves with mere destruction of the past. 

Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist and political scientist, had warned back in the 1940s that a capitalist economy will create a class of intellectuals who come to oppose and eventually destroy the free market of ideas and enterprise even as they depend on it for their wealth and prestige. 

More recently, the history of the continued war of the intellectuals on American traditions and institutions is the theme of Fred Siegel’s The Revolt Against the Masses. Siegel shows that the roots of modern liberalism are in class snobbery and contempt for the middle class, rather than in high principle. Siegel quotes Randolph Bourne, a writer for the New Republic in the 1950s, to illustrate the emerging mentality of the new class of intellectuals; Bourne laments “the downward undertow of our [American] civilization with its leering cheapness and falseness of taste and spiritual outlook, the absence of mind and sincere feeling which we see in our slovenly towns, our vapid moving pictures, our popular novels, and in the vacuous faces of crowds on the city street.” 

One might have expected as much from the keening fundamentalists of the right, but few were prepared when the learned classes themselves became the iconoclasts and vandals. 

The left is now safely in charge of American culture. But rather than ushering in the Age of Aquarius, the intellectual aristocracy has dumbed down life in this country to the point that art, literature, poetry and even classical music are but appendages of liberal causes and identity politics. Many of the features of Bourne’s middlebrow culture are eerily familiar to us today, but in a new form. Today, a widespread culture of moral relativism, intellectual intolerance, class arrogance, and historical agnosticism coexist with the splendors of technology and the blessings of physical health. 

But not everybody is enchanted by the secular empire around us “We see all sights from pole to pole, / And glance, and nod, and bustle by; / And never once possess our soul / Before we die.”      

Five Words and the Coming of “Blackwhite”

I’ve written often about the subversion of everyday language in the name of progressive causes. Progressives, for those who are unclear, are those people and institutions that purport to speak in behalf of the putatively oppressed, whether women, minorities, the poor, homosexuals, etc. For a less nuanced view, we might call them liberal Democrats. When progressives take common terms and turn them to their own use, their meanings are inverted, or, indeed, perverted. Once these terms–which in our older lexicon were always good, stout substantives–begin to be used in new ways, they eventually become normalized according to their new usage. 

Capturing and altering language is a critical step in consolidating the power to control others. Our language is already being corrupted. We all see it happening, even if we don’t know exactly what it means. Let’s look at five words that illustrate how this is happening. 

The word “diversity,” for instance, has changed from comprising a range of types to preference of a particular type that excludes other types as illegitimate. This has most often involved racial minorities. It is now widely recognized that “diversity” is a word that denotes, and a method that enforces, a specific political orthodoxy rather than allowing differences of opinion. 

“Tolerance” as a common term has come to indicate mandatory non-judgmentalism, whereas before it connoted one’s willingness to entertain opinions and behaviors with which one openly disagrees, or even finds repellant. Mandated “tolerance” is a cudgel often used to silence traditional Christians. 

“Inclusiveness,” once a term that spoke of voluntarily accommodating views that were not normative to the person or entity extending the inclusion, now means laying aside one’s very right to exclude, an abdication effected through social sanction or legal compulsion. “Inclusive” has thus become, ironically, an exclusionary term, often used to describe only progressive ideas and sentiments. 

University faculties regularly think of themselves as “inclusive” when a department of 60 liberal professors has admitted three members who are self-identified conservatives. 

The term “social justice” has come to mean the imposition of elite expectations on unwilling subjects for the benefit of other, favored groups, rather than the volitional and discretional conduct of public policy by consensual, even-handed, humane standards. Social justice is the effort to take the fruits of one man’s labor and give it to someone else who did not work for it. Thus “social justice” is the essence of injustice, not distinct in kind (but only in degree) from earlier forms of slavery. 

“Bullying” is another instance of twisting of language to suit progressive ends. We all know bullying is boys behaving badly, right? Well, not so fast. Among many of those now drumming the word into our collective awareness, bullying covers a much broader range of activities, including language, facial expressions, and gestures. The word has further specificity in that it is coming to refer to such behavior directed not towards others in general but towards homosexuals. 

The word “bullying” has taken its place with “diversity,” “tolerance,” “inclusiveness,” and “social justice” as a code word encrypted with a specific political meaning. This encoded meaning is the one preferred by the elites that serve the racial, homosexual, class and gender industries. 

It is important to note that it is not only the new usage of old words that is critical, but the frequency of usage of the words. Thus, you will now hear almost daily someone speaking as an authority on the subject of bullying. This continuous repetition of old, nearly-forgotten moral words is the first tip-off that some kind of change is happening. This seems currently to be taking place with the word “dignity.” Keep an eye on that one. 

Radicals know that when an old word is increasingly used in a new way, the new definition will soon become the primary definition. At first, old and new definitions of a single term are mingled. But a mental process sets in. A subtle psychological shift takes place as people repeatedly hear a word they thought they were familiar with, but which is now being used in contexts and in ways they had not thought of. The human psyche comes to equate the more recent with the more relevant. And soon the new meaning usurps the place of the old. We have seen this at work with such words as “gay,” “straight,” “gender,” and “sex.” 

This turning of words on their heads is a tactic of all totalitarian regimes. In his novel “1984,” George Orwell called the perversion of common terms blackwhite. “Like so many Newspeak words,” Orwell writes, “blackwhite has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.” 

Christians have the responsibility to preserve the old meanings of words. It is important that believers not join secular bandwagons draped in the comfortable moral terms of our own tradition, if those terms are in the process of being perverted. To be a Christian is to develop the powers of discernment to know what is happening around oneself.   

 

The Fall of the Humanities and the Rise of the Theorists

“Hang up philosophy! / Unless philosophy can make a Juliet,” says Romeo.

UCLA recently gutted its English department, replacing required courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton with au courant courses on gender, race, class and other trippy subjects that ease the attainment of graduate degrees without requiring much knowledge of actual literary content. This has been the regrettable direction of the humanities for a generation, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute writes: 

“The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.” 

The political and cultural Left knows that a critical part of undermining existing traditions is to erase the memory of our forebears, especially those memories ensconced in works of literature, history and music. Rather than simply outlawing the study or enjoyment of, say, Charlotte or Emily Bronte, why not instead place Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in a theoretical matrix where those masterpieces can be dismissed as nothing more than cries of feminine or other minority oppression? 

Do you think I exaggerate? When I was in my doctoral program I had to read and critique reams of such sophomoric material, often written for journals whose readership was confined to the local MFA program.  

“And when night / Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons / Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine,” writes Milton in Paradise Lost. The Evil One wants to make The Present the auditor and judge of The Past. And so our academics, as true sons of Rehoboam, wish to subject The Great Tradition of our civilization’s literature to theories now in fashion. They know that when classic literature is read in its unmediated splendor, it judges us and relativizes our present obsessions, and threatens the sterile pieties of contemporary liberalism. 

Wisdom, temperance, and moderation, Aristotle’s Good, True and Beautiful–in other words, the fruits of the humanities–are no longer the pearl of great price of the typical secular university. It is no wonder that fewer and fewer students are choosing majors in the humanities. It seems that English departments, in seeking to extinguish the light of the past, are also extinguishing themselves. 

Of such cultural fools the philosopher Nietzsche wrote: “Not a few of those who meant to cast out their own demons went thereby into the swine themselves.”

 

 

 

 

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