Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Romans 1:32. The Poisoned Apple—II. The relevance of irrelevance

If the rejection of God, as a force to reckon with intellectually and morally in the education of children, were all that is being forced on us in the City, it might be possible to live with. But the prince of the City has seen the expulsion of God from the schools as an opportunity to expel some of God’s friends and to invite in some new gods. Non-pagan classics have been discarded. Christian counseling for students in crisis is forbidden. Even serious moral issues can only be informed by secular sources, within the school.

Principal among the new gods are the bellwethers of culture. Icons of popular culture are a very efficient way for the prince of the City to lead millions to their destruction by guiding a very few leaders. It would be overreaching to suggest that all these popular figures are endorsed in the schools, but clearly some are. For instance, the poets of the beat generation, like Dylan Thomas and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, are practically deified in English classes today, while George Herbert and Christina Rosetti are ignored. I have even heard John Lennon referred to as a great poet. But the problem is not merely that the standards have declined, nor that the past is being forgotten, nor even that the revisionists have been at work, touching up the Mona Lisa with a nose ring and a tattoo.

The poison that has brought about all these evils is the notion that one can revise the past on the basis of one’s desires and beliefs, and that revising the record of the past makes the new view of the past true and legitimate. This historical heresy attaches to the educational system from top to bottom. A kind of ever-evolving new orthodoxy has gripped the upper levels of education today. One reads thesis titles today that assert feminist themes or liberation themes or gay themes to bodies of history or literature that had little or no content of that kind. It is as though demonstrating bigotry in Joseph Conrad can make Jack Kerouac a great writer.

And we are teaching this to students at lower levels of education, teaching them that each succeeding generation can decide for itself what is good from the past and let the rest go. (Of course, they do anyway. But in the past, the new generation has always been informed to some extent by the values of the previous generation. The difference today is that rejection of the past is an article of the new generation’s faith, and only current values and fashion, not inherited models, guide the selection from the new generation’s inheritance.) Moreover, the assertion of a new identity, which is understood to be a vital process for each generation, rests on the rejection of the past, on whatever grounds one likes. Daily, the City dreams up new excuses for changing or dismissing the record of the past. Each revision severs another link to the past, our heritage, our responsibility for what we do with what we have received. We lick up the poison like mother’s milk.

Relevance is a favorite criterion for rejecting the past. This is a charge that stands up against the Gospel, provided one has the right sort of intellectual preparation. Shakespeare is no longer relevant, Shelley is no longer relevant, Lincoln is no longer relevant, so Christ, who is far older than any of those, can hardly be relevant today. Relevance invents new icons every hour. Jesus’ fifteen minutes of fame was a long time ago, regardless that we still have neighbors who need us to love them.

It is an irony that one can therefore discern what is most relevant to the society’s needs and lacks by identifying those things that the society regards as irrelevant. Great literature is irrelevant, according to popular culture, and thus the need for great literature is more pressings than ever. Jefferson and Lincoln are irrelevant, so the inference can be made that never has the need been greater for an understanding of freedom and justice. The Gospel is irrelevant, according to the bellwethers of progress. But just when it is least regarded, the Gospel speaks most powerfully to our culture today.

Simone Weil wrote “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.” Who is saying anything eternal today? Who even supposes it to be necessary? All we are looking for today is a sound bite that will work for the next few hours.

The first cousin to relevance is progress and change. We expect progress and change today. Revision of the past and rejection of previously held standards are the modes we use to accommodate rapid change. We are so used to debunking the past that it hardly seems to be much of an obstacle any more.

The record is clear. Antisepsis, anesthesia, and antibiotics made idiocy out of the previous 4000 years of medical history. Space exploration, nuclear fission, and the bomb have made yesteryear’s physics seem like superstition. Pills, genius training, and the eugenics of genetic screening and selection have made the family ethics of the past indecipherable.

And as for the horse…

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man.” (1 Cor. 10:13 AV) The notion that there are some arenas in which man has made no progress at all cannot be given voice in today’s elite intellectual circles. Progress and change are now the modes to which we as individuals and as a society have become adapted. Relativism of various kinds has now become so ingrained in our thinking that the possibility of a fixed point has become hard even to entertain.

Because of God’s expulsion from the schools, education today has in fact become training in narcissism. Through the veneration of progress, we indirectly worship ourselves. After all, we are part of that progress that we believe to be ongoing. Moreover, we are taught that we alone are fit to judge relevancy in our age. Finally, relativism ultimately means that all conclusions about morals, reality, law, and destiny are relative to our selves, to what we think and believe. Our own thoughts create the only moral reality we can know: “…to thine own self be true…” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Sc. 3) is the watchword of the zealous relativists. (Shakespeare placed those words and several other vacant moral platitudes in the mouth of Polonius, a busybody halfwit, which should demonstrate the contempt in which Shakespeare himself held them. Ironically, endless repetition in almanacs and other organs of homely wisdom have paradoxically raised these words to almost biblical authority over the intervening centuries.) That is today’s lesson in the classroom, the City’s training camp, and the students, apt to the appeal to their vanity, do not fail to hear it.



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