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Volume 18, Issue 3: Childer

Beyond All That

Douglas Wilson

In the course of training and bringing up children, human societies do lots of dumb stuff. And one of the most natural mistakes in the world is that of falling into contempt for this, rather than cultivating the right kind of respect. As children are taught well, and educated, they will at some point find themselves looking down on some very common, and seemingly mindless, practices around them. If they drift into a sophomoric grasp of what it means to be cool, they will look down on it with contempt. But if they have been reared with a Chestertonian affection for the world, and with a deep loyalty to it, they will see the absurdity of that practice, whatever it is, and will nevertheless rise to an eloquent defense of it.

I was recently listening to Johnny Cash sing Kris Kristofferson's song "Sunday Morning Coming Down." In the course of that song, a burned-out stoner musician is wandering around the streets Sunday morning, and he stops outside a Sunday School and "listens to the songs that they were singing." The picture is a very stark one—especially for someone like me who has long experience with the kind of dumb songs that are sung in many Sunday Schools. But the idea of a wistful addict standing on the sidewalk, and hearing in those songs a superiority that was far above all the hard-knocks wisdom he had acquired in a hard and disobedient life, should make us stop and reflect.
The illusion of cool depends on the false notion of the perfectibility of man, coupled with the idea that large strides in pursuing that perfection can be made if we only tear down the (obviously) stupid structures that are getting in the way of our innate goodness. And so the cool ones make fun of the school they just graduated from, the courses they had to take, the clothes that somebody made them wear, and the songs they used to sing in second grade. They simply "take away," under the assumption that as soon as all that stupid artificial stuff is gone, then wisdom will bloom in a thousand places.
But where the cool imperative is allowed to have its way, what we actually get is "crude and really stupid" instead of "refined and a little dumb." In other words, many of the strictures of civilized life are meant to interfere with man's natural tendencies. Someone like Rousseau would say this is the source of institutional evil. But we know from Scripture that man is naturally sinful, not naturally wise, and that societal restrictions are designed to protect us from ourselves. The junior-grade custodians of those restrictions may not know the larger strategic value of what they are doing—take, for example, the young Sunday School teacher who is teaching the kids to sing, "The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that's the book for me. . . ." She may not know the larger issues involved, but that does not mean that those larger issues are not there. That was one of the dumbest songs I ever learned, and also one of the most important. It may have been the song that Johnny Cash heard with longing.
Now because we are a sinful race, it is possible for our customs and traditions to become radically corrupted. Christian children who are being brought up to wisdom must be brought up knowing that there is a point where you have to be willing to turn against your people and say that they have set aside the Word of God for the sake of their own traditions. But there is an enormous difference between this prophetic stance, which Scripture honors, and the "above it all" disdain that comes from the cool fool.
The difference is the difference between love and pride. A sixth-grader, motivated by love, can talk to a fourth-grader and say, "Just wait until you get to read that. I really liked it." A sixth-grader interested in puffing himself up will take the advantages that two trips around the sun gave to him and say, "That is so stupid. But I understand why they would make you read it." The two sixth-graders can both have "grown out of" what the fourth-graders will enjoy. But love rejoices in them enjoying it, while pride uses the occasion to win some kind of grotesque competition with them. And the difference is affection, what Chesterton called loyalty to the world.
We are never that far away from cultural barbarism, which is something that the poseurs of cool refuse to understand. The artificial cultural constraints that we place on our tendencies toward that barbarism are in fact artificial—just like the dikes in Holland that hold back the ocean are artificial. The apostles of cool like to make fun of inconsistencies that they perceive in the pattern or color of the dikes, refusing to understand what they are there for.
If one of your fundamental assumptions is that "oceans do not exist," then mocking the foolish custodians of the dikes might make some kind of sense. But if you are aware of the alternative, then that will never be forgotten, even if you notice funny things here and there. Affection and loyalty always have a sense of balance, and are always able to ask, "Compared to what?" Maybe one of the dike custodians picks his teeth in a funny way. No reason for us all to drown.

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