Imagine, if you will, just as a thought experiment, a nation that for two generations has been forming almost all its children in state-run schools.
Imagine, further, that these schools started, at the beginning of that period, to become uncomfortable with expressions of religion in the classroom, which had seemed normal and unproblematic in the past. And that gradually the merest mention of religion -- or at least of the historic faiths of that society -- was all but prohibited in educational institutions. And not only there. Imagine, just to be thorough, that those historic faiths received only glancing and nervous treatment in history and literature classes, and running through the textbooks was a not-so-subtle tendency to portray the history of religion as mostly a matter of bigotry, conflict, war, repression, and ignorance. The morals once taught by those faiths, when examined at all, tend to be looked upon as, at best, controversial and, at worst, just plain wrong.
What might come from forty years of such schooling?
Suppose, to turn to a different but related question, that over the same period a whole new network of electronic media arose that replaced most people's sense of the public square as a local network of families, neighborhoods, and churches with -- what? It's hard to say, but let's call it some sort of virtual reality with occasional resemblance to the world. The more practical products of the new kind of schooling who decide to work in the information network will probably head towards the sterner (and better paid) fields: politics, economics, business, science, where real-world standards provide continuity with the past and a rough reality principle. The less practical will gravitate towards and define what has come to be called popular culture: everything from the attitudes absorbed by young mothers from talk shows and women's magazines, to the manners and morals of children who think pop music, television, and "PG-13" movies are the real world, to the ways that even adults frame the big questions -- and gauge success or failure.
What might the culture of such a nation come to be?
Of course, to trace that out, you would also have to imagine that -- however improbable -- churches, universities, courts, businesses, legislatures, and even large numbers of parents with a normal sense of self-preservation would basically acquiesce without saying or doing very much to ward off obvious tendencies. And, in many cases, would actually join the parade. All without the kind of harsh measures that were typical of the totalitarian regimes of the past. It would be, if such a thing were imaginable, a virtual capitulation by adults and public institutions to an extent that few would have earlier believed possible absent widespread social coercion.
But enough imagining. Even before the media fugues this week over the death of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, it was clear that a phenomenon like the twenty-four-hour obsession with that talented and sad figure is not at all unusual now. What other event -- in a world beset by multiple crises -- has gotten as intense attention in recent memory? We see similar evidence all the time of our culture's basic incapacity to engage or even to identify matters truly deep or mature or abiding. If that assessment is wrong, I will be happy -- ecstatic -- to be corrected. But from what I see, the cultural matrix now almost entirely comes from very young people, whatever their actual ages, whose only real claim on our attention is that they are somehow part of popular culture.
If you have been to any but a rare few colleges and universities in the past half century, you will, of course, have been taught to laugh at such an idea. It's patriarchal, patronizing, moralistic, bourgeois, repressive, and cannot be taken seriously in the twenty-first century. And anyway who are you? Your "traditional values" are just another cultural construct. To think like that you would have to have been taught very young something quite different than virtually every one of our cultural institutions has been teaching for the past forty years -- and that all of us now believe. Not a few in your Church.
Some Biblical scholars suggest that one reason the Israelites had to wander in the desert for forty years was so that the generation who had known the fleshpots of Egypt would die out and that a fresh start could be made with a people who knew only the discipline of the desert. Presumably, the process also works in the opposite direction. If so, we have a neat explanation for where we find ourselves now.
Despite this once almost unimaginable shift in our culture, America remains surprisingly resilient (see Roger Scruton's Notable in the column at the left). Some of the early Protestant settlers of this land thought of themselves as engaged in a new Exodus. That, of course, very quickly proved to be an illusion. But they gave America an idealism that survived all its trials, even the life-and-death struggles of slavery and civil war, and somehow survives against great odds today. We should, however, not indulge in sentimental illusions of our own. In circumstances like ours, we cannot expect any quick fixes in politics, culture, or even religion, much as we need them. And we should be wary of all those -- of whatever party -- who tell us such remedies lie near at hand.
The real challenges we face now will require a long period of reflection and reform. Forget four-year election cycles. It's hard to imagine how even forty years of traveling in a very different direction would be enough to restore what we have lost.
Robert Royal. "Imagine." The Catholic Thing (June 29, 2009).
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