How should we judge the health of a culture?
We might do it by pointing to its greatest virtues. The Greek city states between 500 and 300 B.C., though they were not especially densely populated, gave the west the architectural “language” it still employs for everything from grand hotels to private homes. The colonial house, in this sense, belongs to a Greek colony before the American. Athens gave us the ideals and some of the techniques of democracy. She invented the drama, and the great troika of tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, are unsurpassed by anyone to come, except for Shakespeare himself. Without Greek sculpture there is no Michelangelo, no Rodin. All philosophy, said Alfred North Whitehead, is a footnote to Plato.
We might do it by pointing to its greatest vices. In Victorian England, if the physical grime from industry was thick, the moral grime of “scientific” approaches to education and human welfare was a veritable crust—over the molten rock of licentiousness, violence, and greed. Think of the women and children recruited for miserable and dangerous work in the mills, just because they would agree to work for lower wages than the men, who for their part might go hang, or drink away their idle lives. Across the water, in the United States, men prided themselves upon their love of liberty, while accepting as an accomplished fact the enslavement of some millions of their fellow men; and then they erupted into a war that cost the nation seven hundred thousand souls, from which she emerged with a moral mission to take her liberty to the rest of the world, by force if need be. As for us, well, more than a million children are snuffed out every year, as we make violence to the innocent pay the price for our lusts.
But perhaps we should do it by pointing to the ordinary things, those things that are characteristic not of the particular culture, but of all cultures.
How do we bring together, in a healthy way, young men and young women, so that they will learn how to forbear with the shortcomings and be grateful for the virtues of the other sex; so that they marry and then have children, raising them in the haven of a home that will be “home” even for their children’s children, should God grant them to live so long?
How do we teach children the history of their nation and their civilization, so that they will both admit their failures and honor their achievements? How do we instill in them a kind of patriotism that is as natural as a sapling sending down its roots deeper and deeper into the soil? How do we foster a love for the peculiarities of our home, its “rocks and rills,” simply because it is our own, our native land?
How do we adorn our homes and our public places with art that comes from the people and is for the people? What whimsical craftsmanship is to be found on the steps of the post office, or the balustrade at the courthouse, or the eaves of the dry goods store? Do we build what is simple and sweet, or rather what is dull and drab? Do we build what is colorful and bold, or rather what is garish and obnoxious? Do we build what is noble and grand, or rather what is gigantic and inhuman?
What songs do we sing? If our captors asked us to sing the songs of Sion in an alien land, would we know any? How many of us could pick up a guitar or a fiddle nearby and play a love song passed down from ear to hand to ear to hand, from one generation to the next? What music brings together grandparent and grandchild?
What are the children doing when they are not in school or at work? Where is the child-culture that flows like a boisterous stream parallel to the great slow river of what the grown men and women do? What games do they play, whose origin no one knows? What wisdom and skill do they pass along beside or beneath the notice of their parents? With what kinds of gangs or teams, if any, do the streets swarm?
When we get together with all of our neighbors, what do we do? Do we build a house, raise a barn, glean the corn, bale the hay, march in parade, listen to patriotic speeches, play music, compete in games of skill or speed or strength, sing songs, honor the dead, or fall to our knees in prayer? Do we in fact do anything with our neighbors?
When we gather to determine a course of action for securing the common good, can we eventually put aside our differences of opinion and get something done? I am speaking here about localities. A bridge needs repair. Can we find a way to repair it expeditiously? Are there ministers of public order on our streets? Do we know the names of a few of them? Are they well integrated with the people they serve? Can quarrels be settled by policemen without recourse to law?
How hard is it to begin a small business? Can a young man with a strong back and skilled hands and a willingness to work set himself up without much ado? Are craftsmen easy to find, and their work apparent to all? How many young men who are not going to be doctors or lawyers or professors can earn a sufficient wage to begin a family? How many young married women need not farm themselves out for a middling wage, but can do the intimate and necessary work of family life and even culture itself?
What do the people do with their leisure, if they have any? Have those with an inclination to read been trained in the appreciation of good books? What are the stories that everyone knows?
How do they worship together? Are the churches and synagogues full? Do people have a shared sense of their place in the world before God? Are their lives as parents, children, teachers, students, workmen, businessmen, neighbors, and citizens integrated at all with their lives as mere human beings standing in the light of eternity? Which is more likely to be heard, a church bell or a police siren? What stirs the heart? What causes people to set aside their enmity?
These are not extraordinary things.
They are also, I am coming to believe, interrelated things. I am not saying that each one implies every other one, necessarily. I am saying that they are characteristics of human culture, and that a healthy culture will manage to get most of them done most of the time.
So when we ask, “Why are the churches empty?” we might also ask, “Why are our public buildings so ugly? Why do we no longer have any folk art to speak of? Why do neighbors not know one another? Why are there no dances for everyone of all ages to enjoy? Why is the sight of a young lad and lass holding hands as rare now as public indecency used to be? Why is no one getting married? Why have family trees turned into family sticks, or family briars?
“Why are there so many feral young men and women, tattooed and slovenly, loitering about shopping malls or slouching towards the internet for their porn? Why are there so many old neighborhoods, roads, and bridges crumbling, while millions of young men are unemployed or, worse, unemployable? Why do so many teachers believe it their duty to tear down the glories of their own civilization, calling it ‘critical thinking,’ without a passing thought as to what will remain in their place? Who are what used to be called the “leading men” of an ordinary town? Are there any? Who are what used to be called ‘city fathers’? Are there any?
“Where are the songs of yesteryear? Where are the poems? Where are the holidays? What happened to the parades and the marching bands?
“What virtue do we honor, other than what we call tolerance, which turns out not to be tolerance at all but the ‘virtue’ of demanding that there should be no honor granted to virtue?”
For once I bring a little cold comfort to the leaders of my church. They are not the only people who have proved to be massively incompetent. We are all implicated. We have made a poor show of it.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Jolly Flatboatmen” was painted by George Caleb Bingham in 1846.