23 November 2005 - Wednesday

Always greener

Reading a World movie review today, I decided that we evangelicals have a great problem with nostalgia. We think too highly of the past. We lean too heavily upon history as a direct social model for the present day. Thus, I believe, our inaccurate reminiscences are keeping us from being morally coherent and intellectually relevant in the modern world.

We seem to have embraced the reverse of the myth of human progress. We believe the world is getting worse and worse. Standing up for Christian values, therefore, means pointing to our ancestors -- "They had it right! Do that!"

The trouble is, this requires us to fight tooth and nail against any interpretation of history that would impugn our forebears' legacy. ("Revisionists!" we cry, hardly stopping to consider the meaning of the word.) This, in turn, prevents us from learning the real lesson of history: that our ancestors struggled with sin too. Their nobility was a lie just as our tolerance is; both are flimsy restraints upon a depraved nature. Therefore, the morality we deprive from such history is weak; it is worth little against real evil, which is perfectly capable of adapting to the idiosyncrasies of different cultures.

Such nostalgia, furthermore, weakens evangelical Christianity's rhetoric in two important ways. First, it keeps our apologetics flabby. By appealing to the days when Christianity ruled the land, we are inviting attack based on the very real evils that existed during those times. Claiming the successes, in other words, obligates us also to accept credit for the failures. While some evangelicals can negotiate this terrain and emerge with a strong argument for our beliefs, the necessary intellectual sophistication is rare.

Second, this weakens our rhetoric because it alienates certain groups of people -- elements in society who identify with people oppressed or marginalized under the utopias we remember so fondly. Baptists who miss the genteel society of the early nineteenth century, for example, would do well to remember that some branches of their church were once unusual (even subversive) in welcoming slaves. Modern seekers who identify with the oppressed blacks of that era, therefore, are probably not interested in being told what a wonderful society existed back then. We would do much better, in fact, if we spent our time pointing out how countercultural our message is/was no matter what culture we are discussing.

As I said before, all of this came to mind because of a movie review. Covering a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the current issue of World Magazine, Gene Edward Veith makes some historical observations I find immoderate.

The first hint of nostalgia comes in the fourth paragraph, which is a little too pointed:

The movie is sumptuous to look upon, capturing well both the sights and the feel of early 19th-century England. We are immersed in a graceful culture where sexual immorality is a devastating blow to the family honor. And where a gentleman's moral character changes a woman's hostility into love.
This "graceful culture" is a fairy tale -- and not Austen's fairy tale, but Veith's. Did not many 19th-century women, anxious to secure financial and social support, overlook moral weakness in their men? Remember, Elizabeth Bennet is unique in the novel for her insistence upon the man's character; the novel shows her rejecting the dominant value of her society, which would have her put economic safety and worldly honor first. To glorify her culture is to miss out on the strength of her character altogether. Furthermore, Veith is ignoring the darker side of the "devastating blow to a family's honor" associated with (a woman's) sexual immorality. In the novel, Jane and Elizabeth agonize over the shame brought down by their sister -- shame that threatens their lifelong happiness, security, and social standing despite their total innocence. Does Veith really find that desirable in a culture?

He continues:

Women resonate with [Austen's] portrait of the strong, intelligent, and exquisitely feminine "lady."
... Who sometimes had virtually no say in her own future, who could not legally own any property once she married .... No, my friends, I'm pretty sure Austen's heroine is interesting precisely because, in the eyes of her "graceful culture," she is not very ladylike at all. Recall that both her attractiveness to and her rejection of Mr. Darcy are scandalous (to his caste and hers, respectively).
And they really resonate with a specific kind of masculine character: the forceful, honorable "gentleman" that 21st-century guys would do well to emulate.
... Especially the part about the total lack of gainful employment, the social striae that kept them from viewing their fellow humans as equals, and the near-total impunity with which they could break a woman's honor .... Clearly, a proper gentry is the tonic for our social ills.

Here's my point: true moral fiber is always countercultural. Christians are called to resist the temptations of "the world," not just modernity. We are not doing ourselves any favors by getting bleary-eyed over yesteryear's state of affairs. Homesickness is natural, but we should be longing for a different kingdom entirely, not for any social state of the past.

P. S. Why another P&P film? Perfection was attained 10 years ago. You don't mess with perfection, people. (Update: Yes, I am being ironic on purpose. But thank you for your concern.)

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