Say Something

 

Russell Kirk, man of letters and father of conservative thought in America, said somewhere that it’s impossible even to go out to dinner without being bombarded by the “vulgarities of the culture.” He mostly had in mind the growing inclination of restauranteurs to blare obnoxious music over loudspeakers, making meaningful conversation at dinner all but impossible.

But I remembered Dr. Kirk’s observation during an outing to the movies a few years ago with my wife. We went to see the movie “Persecuted.” (An interesting movie but not a great one. To its credit, it deals with important themes, most notably the distinction that must be made between a commitment to the truth and a commitment to the state.)

We sat in the top row of the rather small theater. (The older our eyes get, the less malleable we become regarding our distance from the big screen. Every few years, we move a row further back.) Just prior to the start of the movie, three teenagers walked in, moving past us in the row to take up seats at the far end to our right. There were, perhaps, five to six seats separating us from these kids. The group consisted of two girls and a boy, with one of the girls and the boy being an obvious “couple.”

About two-thirds of the way through the movie, I noticed some commotion among the group to my right, and when I looked down the row, I was surprised to see one of the girls, having removed most of her clothes, sitting on the boy’s lap facing him. These two teenagers were, you will be surprised to learn, entirely uninterested in the movie’s treatment of the tension between our faith commitments and our loyalty to the state.

Now, I’m no prude. Neither am I blind to the proclivities of teenagers, but this business of taking off your clothes in a public setting was a new one on me. These kids were perhaps 15 or 16 years old. I don’t think the boy was even growing whiskers yet (I got an up close and personal look at his face a little further into our story.)

So I sat there in my seat for a moment or two trying to decide what, if anything, I should do about the activities at the end of the row. At first, I was really irked. They were, after all, being a distraction from what was taking place on the screen. But then, as I thought about it, I found another reaction emerging: fatigue. The cultural decay all around us feels increasingly like a relentless assault, and sometimes I grow tired of the conflict and want to simply withdraw from the engagement.

There’s a popular, angst-ridden teenagery song from a few years ago called “Say Something.” I think perhaps Christina Aguilera recorded it. In the song, she talks (at length) about throwing in the towel on some relationship she had hoped would lead to greater things. Now, when you merely read the lyrics of the song, they sound a tad bit incoherent and more than a little redundant. But when Ms. Aguilera actually sings, you can feel more of the emotional weight of her painful disappointment that the other person in the relationship is unresponsive and checked out. (In my mind, I picture Ms. Aguilera emoting these words as some young guy sits on the couch, obliviously enmeshed in a video game or watching ESPN. In real life, some poor woman has written an entire book on this very phenomenon.)

I confess that I feel a little fatigued sometimes when I hear one of these incessant calls for Christians to “engage with the culture”. It is one thing to challenge believers to be a prophetic witness to the impact that Jesus has on our lives. It is quite another thing to have an emotionally needy craving for cultural acceptance. I confess that when I consider the frequent Christian drum beat about “cultural relevance”, I sometimes catch a whiff of craving. Not always, but neither do I think that the emotional neediness is entirely absent.

If the call to cultural engagement is accompanied by any expectation that the culture is going to love us back, I’m afraid we may ultimately find ourselves in poor Ms. Aguilera’s shoes.

I have learned over time that the extent to which I experience fatigue while engaging the culture is directly related to which expectations I carry into the engagement regarding my own responsibility for the outcome. If I believe that the way to measure success is by how the culture responds, then not only will I be disappointed but, like Ms. Aguilera, I will be sorely tempted to throw in the towel.

I was recently reading the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet receives his commission. It is a famous section in which Isaiah has a vision of the scene around God’s throne. His reaction is pretty typical of other reactions that people have had upon seeing God in person. (Throughout scripture, the reaction to actually seeing God falls inevitably somewhere along a continuum between abject terror and actual unconsciousness. I’ll just observe that any notion that people do a happy dance of some kind when first encountering God face-to-face is pretty much unsupported by the historical record.) In Isaiah’s vision, God asks for a volunteer to “engage the culture” of Isaiah’s time. Isaiah, being one of the main characters in the story, steps forward and volunteers for the task. So far, so good. But this is the point at which things take a surprising turn. God’s instruction to Isaiah is to proceed with a prophetic witness, the purpose of which is to further entrench the culture in unbelief and hard-heartedness.  In other words, God’s mission for Isaiah was to increase the culture’s opposition to God by his faithful prophetic witness.

Gulp.

I’m quite sure this is not what anyone means these days by “engage the culture.” In fact, I feel pretty confident that no one is even considering the possibility of measuring the success of Christian ministry by the extent to which it provokes a cultural backlash against God.

Of course, one of the differences between our engagement with contemporary culture and Isaiah’s specific commission is that God made explicit, for Isaiah, what he expected regarding the impact of Isaiah’s message. But even though God hasn’t specifically said how to measure our own results from engaging the culture (although Jesus did warn, “Don’t be surprised if the world hates you…’), I have learned that cultural engagement is less fatiguing when I don’t harbor hidden expectations regarding specific outcomes.

What if, in the 21st century, the church is destined to play Isaiah’s role and with similar results? That’s a question I wonder about. A lot.

Regardless of our impact on the culture, it seems inescapable that a resolute determination to provide a faithful witness is an act of love toward those who come after us. Poets, I find, often understand these things before the rest of us. It was T.S. Eliot who said:

“We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory…We fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation it will triumph.”

In his memoir Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky tells of his imprisonment and unspeakable torture at the hands of the Soviet KGB. Their mode of operation was to torture prisoners in order to extract “confessions” to entirely fictitious crimes against the state. In one dramatic moment, recounted by Sharansky, he was at the breaking point, on the verge of confessing to the KGB’s made-up charges against him just to make the torture stop. But in that excruciating moment, he suddenly recalled how the strength and courage of those who came before him had enabled him to keep his commitment to the truth up to this point. And he realized how, if he broke down and confessed to a lie, it might in some small way undermine the determination of those who came after him. It was his memory of the courage and faithfulness of his predecessors which, in that moment, gave him the strength and courage to endure horrific torture and the subsequent years-long separation from his wife.

So it may be that there is much more at stake in our own cultural engagement than whether we redeem our contemporary culture. Perhaps growing weary in doing good really betrays a secret lack of love for those who come after us.  A lack of gritty determination on our part now may very well have the effect of undermining the lives and futures of those who come into the world long after we’re gone.

It wasn’t that I considered all of this that night as I sat there feeling tired at the thought of dealing with the children at the end of the row. But I had pondered these thoughts enough previously that I recognized my own CEFS (“cultural engagement fatigue syndrome”) when I saw it.

For the sake of these children, for the sake of the other movie theater patrons, and for sheer decency, I decided to interrupt their little soiree and introduce myself. I suspected I would embarrass them by my actions, but avoiding the embarrassment of misbehaving children has never been a particularly weighty aspect of my overall decision-making paradigm. (You can ask my own children how that works.)

So I barged in on their amour, catching them in flagrante delicto as they say. The young girl, experiencing a sudden collapse of interest in the boy, leaped to the far seat while attempting (mostly unsuccessfully) to cover up. The boy, eyes the size of silver dollars, sat staring up at me. I leaned down and positioned my nose about three inches from his face and said, “I want the two of you to cut it out. Right now.” The young man, clean-cut, whiskerless, and wearing a terrified expression, simply nodded and said, “yes, sir.” I informed them I was going to speak with security and then I would be back.

By the time I arrived back in the theater, the group in the corner was the very picture of quiet propriety. You would have thought they were watching the most fascinating movie of all their lives. My wife informs me that, while I was absent from the theater, there was a mad scramble among the kids to make themselves more appropriately attired. You can imagine my surprise.

I sat there, for the rest of the movie, thinking of some things I wanted to say to the kids after the show. It was not my intent to deliver some lecture but to offer a heartfelt warning and a sincere invitation to consider an alternative approach to their lives. But, alas, it may not surprise the reader to learn that while I wanted to speak to the kids after the show, they were distinctly uninterested in speaking with me. In fact, 10 minutes before the movie was over, they all stood up and quietly got out of Dodge.

There is a long-running debate, even among Christians, regarding whether the culture is really more degraded than in times past. One would hope that, when children are having sex in the public square, the observation that things in the culture are badly awry would be completely uncontroversial. But probably not.  The observation, “there is nothing so vulgar left in human experience for which you cannot find some professor somewhere to justify it”, is all too true.

Alas.

I wonder what life will be like for my grandchildren. It is their presence here which reminds me of the potentially dire consequences of apathy and fatigue on the part of those of us who came before them. And so I persevere.

I opened these reflections with a little bit of Russell Kirk and I find that he has other relevant things to say about preparing for the future from within the ruins of our cultural decay.  Some food for thought for those of my friends who still have little children to raise, or grandchildren to love:

“In a violent time, it is prudent to rear children on tales of peril — and of heroism. If enough of the rising generation take the heroes of fantasy for their exemplars, the wolf will find sustenance less readily. ‘What sharp teeth you have!’ ‘The better to eat you with my dear.’ Give us more woodcutters, in the nick of time.”

This post first appeared as an essay in Touchstone Magazine.

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  1. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Keith Lowery: I wonder what life will be like for my grandchildren. It is their presence here which reminds me of the potentially dire consequences of apathy and fatigue on the part of those of us who came before them. And so I persevere.

    Thank you for the reminder, Keith.

    • #1
  2. David C. Broussard Coolidge
    David C. Broussard
    @Dbroussa

    The song you are thinking of is Say Something by A Great Big World and “features” Christina Aguilera.  I like the lyrical nature of the song, and I think you nailed the interpretation of it, though it is sung more from the male perspective than the female.

    I regularly talk about how the conservative abrogation of engagement in the culture war has led to it being more and more perverse.  Now if it is going to be fought, it is much worse, like the fatigue you mention. I liken it to not cleaning up your house, not doing the dishes, the laundry, vacuuming, etc.  Let it go a day and it’s not a huge deal. Let it go a week and it is still manageable, some people only clean once a week.  A month and it’s bad, a year, and it’s nigh unlivable.  The right has not fought the culture war seriously for five to seven decades and cleaning it up now is like cleaning a house from a TV show about hoarders.  It’s exhausting just to think about it.  My complaint isn’t so much that Christians haven’t engaged in these conflicts, because they have, it is that the politicians and pundits on the right didn’t support them.  They want those social conservative votes, but they certainly don’t want to actually deliver on any of what the social conservatives want.

    Now we have a landfill of a cultural landscape and we would need a bulldozer to clean it up, but if we don’t it will just get worse and worse.  Some external factor will likely force a change, but those tend to be negative in nature.

     

    • #2
  3. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Great post, Keith.

    We had a strange experience in my house last night.  Over dinner, my wife and my teenage daughters wanted to watch the movie Grease, principally because my older daughter planned to use the song You’re The One That I Want in a dance routine.  My girls had not seen the movie before.

    I was hesitant, honestly, but went along with my impression that my wife thought that it was OK.  In fairness to both me and my wife, it’s been quite a long time, probably decades, since either of us watched the movie.

    Unlike me, my girls have been raised in a Christian homeschool environment.  They are 13 and 18 years old.  Grease was rated PG.

    My girls — and my wife and I — were appalled at the crudity of the movie and the open references to teenage sexuality.  My wife wasn’t sure if she understood the references when she first saw the movie, though watching it now, it’s hard to see how anyone couldn’t.

    Of course, the overall message of Grease is just horrible.  It actually gets very, very close to being a good message.  The problem is that lovely, good girl Sandra Dee transforms into the slutty, smoking Sandy in the final scene.

    And this plot twist was completely unnecessary, because remember that just before Sandy shows up in all her whorish sluttiness, Danny shows up wearing a letterman’s sweater.  His friends give him a hard time, but he holds to his decision to make something of himself for the sake of the good girl.  But then instead of welcoming Danny to the light side, Sandy joins him on the dark side.

    This culture is so insidious, isn’t it?  It creeps in through movies, and TV shows, and catchy songs, all delivering evil messages.

    Why did this happen in our country?

    The answer seems quite clear.  It’s the libertarians and their First Amendment view, which was not put into operation in this country until the 1960s.  For over 150 years under our Constitution, essentially no one thought that the First Amendment prohibited the regulation of vulgarity, pornography, or obscenity.  Then this changed, under the radically Leftist Warren Court — and much of the political Right went along with this change, led by the libertarians.

    Man, I’m really starting to think that the libertarians are even more terrible than the Leftists.

    • #3
  4. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    This culture is so insidious, isn’t it?  It creeps in through movies, and TV shows, and catchy songs, all delivering evil messages.

    Insidious is a good word. The overly crude stuff is almost easier to deal with than the sheer amount of subtle messages in nearly every single show, song and movie.

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    Man, I’m really starting to think that the libertarians are even more terrible than the Leftists.

    Ha… it’s almost as if you’re reading my mind!

    • #4
  5. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    Grease was rated PG

    PG isn’t really safe anymore. Too bad you can’t find a G rated movie that isn’t animated.

    • #5
  6. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    Great post, Keith….Man, I’m really starting to think that the libertarians are even more terrible than the Leftists.

    Thanks for your kind words.  I confess I’m far more sympathetic with libertarians than progressives for the simple reason that progressives are wrong about everything while libertarians are only wrong about some things.  

    The evolution of language has dealt a blow to conservatism by inverting the concept of human happiness away from the notion of happiness being grounded in fulfilling our purpose.  There was probably no distinction in the founder’s mind between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of virtue.  But now the very same word, “happiness”, is understood as being almost entirely an artifact of the pursuit of pleasure and is largely untethered from virtue.  At a minimum, it means psychological satisfaction. My libertarian friends embrace a modern view of where happiness can be found.  But, alas, they cannot find happiness in material pleasure or apart from the actual truth for where happiness is really found. I love my libertarian friends, but they chase after unicorns sometimes. 

    None of this is to disagree that changing first amendment jurisprudence has done great damage. I’m just less sure that we can blame all of that on the libertarians.

     

    • #6
  7. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Keith Lowery (View Comment):
    The evolution of language has dealt a blow to conservatism by inverting the concept of human happiness away from the notion of happiness being grounded in fulfilling our purpose.  There was probably no distinction in the founder’s mind between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of virtue.  But now the very same word, “happiness”, is understood as being almost entirely an artifact of the pursuit of pleasure and is largely untethered from virtue.  At a minimum, it means psychological satisfaction.

    Finding your bliss is a lot like catching soap bubbles. 

    • #7
  8. The Cynthonian Member
    The Cynthonian
    @TheCynthonian

    I mostly lived in my Christian community bubble, until one day in the early 90s.  I was standing in the checkout line at my local public library in relatively conservative (especially in those days) Orange County, California.   This was before self-checkout, and sometimes you actually had to stand in a line to check out materials.  A couple of places ahead of me in line stood someone, whose back was to me, wearing a t-shirt with the then-less-frequently-heard F-word written across it.  I don’t recall the entire phrase, but it stood out to me because it was on a t-shirt in a public library!   I remember thinking, “There are kids here!   Don’t these people have any restraint?   Where are their parents, who should be feeling them they can’t wear that shirt in public?” I believe the wearer was probably in his late teens, early 20s at most.   I don’t believe the library staff said anything to the patron, but perhaps the same slogan wasn’t repeated on the front, so they may not have seen what I did.

    Not long after, the same word became common on bumper stickers.

    The culture has continued to degrade ever since.  

    • #8
  9. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Great post, Keith.

    We had a strange experience in my house last night. Over dinner, my wife and my teenage daughters wanted to watch the movie Grease, principally because my older daughter planned to use the song You’re The One That I Want in a dance routine. My girls had not seen the movie before.

    I was hesitant, honestly, but went along with my impression that my wife thought that it was OK. In fairness to both me and my wife, it’s been quite a long time, probably decades, since either of us watched the movie.

    Unlike me, my girls have been raised in a Christian homeschool environment. They are 13 and 18 years old. Grease was rated PG.

    My girls — and my wife and I — were appalled at the crudity of the movie and the open references to teenage sexuality. My wife wasn’t sure if she understood the references when she first saw the movie, though watching it now, it’s hard to see how anyone couldn’t.

    Of course, the overall message of Grease is just horrible. It actually gets very, very close to being a good message. The problem is that lovely, good girl Sandra Dee transforms into the slutty, smoking Sandy in the final scene.

    And this plot twist was completely unnecessary, because remember that just before Sandy shows up in all her whorish sluttiness, Danny shows up wearing a letterman’s sweater. His friends give him a hard time, but he holds to his decision to make something of himself for the sake of the good girl. But then instead of welcoming Danny to the light side, Sandy joins him on the dark side.

    This culture is so insidious, isn’t it? It creeps in through movies, and TV shows, and catchy songs, all delivering evil messages.

    Why did this happen in our country?

    The answer seems quite clear. It’s the libertarians and their First Amendment view, which was not put into operation in this country until the 1960s. For over 150 years under our Constitution, essentially no one thought that the First Amendment prohibited the regulation of vulgarity, pornography, or obscenity. Then this changed, under the radically Leftist Warren Court — and much of the political Right went along with this change, led by the libertarians.

    Man, I’m really starting to think that the libertarians are even more terrible than the Leftists.

    Warren was a Republican. 

    • #9
  10. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    JoelB (View Comment):
    Too bad you can’t find a G rated movie that isn’t animated totally woke and full of LGTBQ++ grooming.

     

    • #10
  11. Unsk Member
    Unsk
    @Unsk

    Jerry, you are showing your age. Sandra Dee, while pretty, married Bobby Darin in the early sixties. Grease was released in 1978. 

    In Grease, John Travolta was Danny, Olivia Newton John was Sandy and Stockard Channing in her late 30’s ! at the time played the high schooler Rizzo.  I was never a big fan of the film, crude and inappropriate references or not. And no there was no innocence that you could find in a late fifties high school in the movie. It was a crude misinterpretation of a fifties period piece. 

    • #11
  12. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Excellent post and you describe very well my own sense of the times. 

    I have taken to “saying something” lately. In my case, I’m the obnoxious woman at the checkout counter complaining about the push to ban plastic bags. I know it’s not quite as brave as confronting teenagers having relations in a theater, but I really can’t stand the stupidity and bullying from the greenies. 

    Colorado passed legislation to require vendors to charge 10 cents a bag at the checkout starting January 1st this year. Every vendor from the grocery store to the auto parts store has to count the number of bags you use and charge you 10 cents each. Meanwhile everything — and I do mean nearly everything — you’re purchasing is packaged in plastic. But, that highly compressible, whispery thin grocery bag is going to destroy the planet!!

    I don’t care a whit about the 10 cents. It’s the stupidity of it and the fact that the (Democratic) state legislature of Colorado* imposes on consumers simply because they can, not because it will do any good. Bullies.

    *I also point out that, seeing as we’re living about as far away from (ocean) water as you can get, it’s not like our grocery bags are going to end up creating islands of plastic pollution in the Pacific (or Atlantic)! It’s so incredibly stupid and I don’t mind grousing about it even though the poor clerks can’t do a damn thing about it. I just want everyone around me to hear the truth of the matter. Go ahead, call me Karen.

     

    • #12
  13. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Great post, Keith.

    We had a strange experience in my house last night. Over dinner, my wife and my teenage daughters wanted to watch the movie Grease, principally because my older daughter planned to use the song You’re The One That I Want in a dance routine. My girls had not seen the movie before.

    I was hesitant, honestly, but went along with my impression that my wife thought that it was OK. In fairness to both me and my wife, it’s been quite a long time, probably decades, since either of us watched the movie.

    Unlike me, my girls have been raised in a Christian homeschool environment. They are 13 and 18 years old. Grease was rated PG.

    My girls — and my wife and I — were appalled at the crudity of the movie and the open references to teenage sexuality. My wife wasn’t sure if she understood the references when she first saw the movie, though watching it now, it’s hard to see how anyone couldn’t.

    Of course, the overall message of Grease is just horrible. It actually gets very, very close to being a good message. The problem is that lovely, good girl Sandra Dee transforms into the slutty, smoking Sandy in the final scene.

    And this plot twist was completely unnecessary, because remember that just before Sandy shows up in all her whorish sluttiness, Danny shows up wearing a letterman’s sweater. His friends give him a hard time, but he holds to his decision to make something of himself for the sake of the good girl. But then instead of welcoming Danny to the light side, Sandy joins him on the dark side.

    This culture is so insidious, isn’t it? It creeps in through movies, and TV shows, and catchy songs, all delivering evil messages.

    Why did this happen in our country?

    The answer seems quite clear. It’s the libertarians and their First Amendment view, which was not put into operation in this country until the 1960s. For over 150 years under our Constitution, essentially no one thought that the First Amendment prohibited the regulation of vulgarity, pornography, or obscenity. Then this changed, under the radically Leftist Warren Court — and much of the political Right went along with this change, led by the libertarians.

    Man, I’m really starting to think that the libertarians are even more terrible than the Leftists.

    Warren was a Republican.

    And a Progressive, as most Republicans have always been.

    • #13
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