Time Passages

  • Posted: March 24, 2014
  • Category: Politics
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My mind loses itself before I notice it’s gone. I’m driving along in my car, listening to “Soft Rock”, known by those in the know as Adult Contemporary. Given the deterioration in my eyesight and reaction times, I should probably focus more on my driving than on the song’s lyrics. Of course I could simply drive a bit slower and less aggressively given my diminished skill set, but as yet I refuse to go quietly into that good night. In any case, the seductive lyrics of Time Passages catch me in their grip and I am now a menace to the texting driver beside me.

It was late in December, the sky turned to snow.

All around the day was going down slow.

Night like a river was beginning to flow.

I felt the beat of my mind go drifting into Time Passages.

Al Stewart has a way with words, but has never really rung the cash register of fame and fortune the way other more commercial songwriters have. I guess that is why Yoko Ono left him for John Lennon and Paul Simon left him for Art Garfunkel. They both came to understand that there were better prospects to walk the red carpets of celebrity with someone other than Al Stewart. But Al Stewart’s song, Time Passages never fails to make me slip and fall into that place where I must “Buy a ticket on the last train home tonight.”

I’m talking nostalgia. Nostalgia, that peaceful meadow in our imagination seducing us into the soft framing mists swirling over its grassy expanse, with bordering trees framing entrances to hidden canyons where I lose my way.  Soon I am in those great canyons of memory whose walls the mists of nostalgia sometimes hide, sometimes reveal. As I age, nostalgia grows ever more seductive. I don’t believe that I am alone. With our vision blurred by the passage of time, we remember the past days of our lives when spring was in the air. Caught in the twisting canyons of memory, I change the channel on my car radio from its regular Adult Alternative station to 50’s on 5, where hits from the 1950’s and early 1960’s still play for those of us who remember how it was.

Lost in the canyons of my mind, I don’t hear how banal the music is. I guess you had to be there to get it. What can I say? I was there. I get it. These songs are as old as I am. Oceans of water have gone under the bridge since the Everly Brothers first made Bobbysoxer girls in poodle skirts squeal. I thrilled to the guitar riffs of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” as I arrived at her house on my first real date. With a girl!!

Back in those Time Passages, all the girls were cute, all the cars fast and I was cool. Those old songs are airbrushed photographs of who I was and what I thought I was. Unlike more modern music, both the lyrics and music are so simple and clear that understanding the words to the songs doesn’t strain my brain. I sing along without any conscious effort or visible talent. It is a time of remembering. Like the music, the times seemed simpler back then, the complexities fewer, the culture purer.

Who am I kidding? , I know that wasn’t true. We were human back then, just as the kids are today. The vices to which we were prone are theirs’ as well. We were as weak as they are in confronting them. There are those who bully and there are those who are bullied. There is lust and avarice, not to mention pride, in all times and places. To imagine a virtue that never existed is to be blind to the reality of my life

But there are differences.  The lyrics of those old songs do paint a picture of a world where personal virtue was important, something to which we would aspire. In the simple stories recounted in the songs, we fight against the need for virtue, we pay the price for failure or it is simply the unmentioned presence that shapes the story. In any case personal virtue mattered. It was a standard that existed and had consequence in our lives. We defined who we were as young men and women by our performance against that standard. To the modern ear listening to those old songs today, the presence of a long ago personal virtue in the songs is alienating. The person of today sees personal virtue through the lens of diversity and empowerment. Today, that virtue seems hopelessly old fashioned, a bit like knightly chivalry, a quaint and old-fashioned concept hopelessly out of date and hostile to the personal freedom that defines us today.

Even as I mourn its passing, I know that time was not without its disturbing biases, which are embarrassing to us today. We are more comfortable with a dinner companion breaking a loud gust of odiferous wind than anyone actually expressing such an opinion today. It was a time when girls were expected to wait for “True Love”, while their boyfriends experienced the world. As some songs make clear, being slapped around by your boyfriend just proved that he really loved you. Sixteen-year-old girls were fair game for older and more experienced guys. There was a divide in town called the “tracks”, and you had best stay on your side. Else there would be consequences. Actually listening to the lyrics on those old songs can be a jarring experience at times. Not all that has passed was good.

Listening to those old songs is a clear look into how we were, how the United States was. That is not to say that the old songs accurately portrayed the way life was actually lived, but rather how the people of the time wanted it to be lived, or expected it to be lived, or thought it was lived. The songs and their lyrics were pictures of the expectations of our lives. We had little experience of life, but were eager to begin the adventure. Instinctively pushing back against our hopelessly old-fashioned parents, we were looking for guideposts. Popular music gave us a guide on how to be with one another, away from the confines of our parents, just as it does for the teenagers of today.

To those of my generation, the ideas and mores behind the lyrics of today’s songs are troubling. As an example, I offer a few lines from a Top Ten Hit of today, Talk Dirty:

Uno, met a friend in Rio

Dos, she was all on me-o

Tres, we could manage a three-o

Anyway, every day I’m trying to get to it

Got her saved in my phone under “Big Booty”

Troubling? Are you kidding me? Those were the “PG” lyrics of that song. Most of Talk Dirty’s lyrics were so explicit they embarrassed me. Our children are learning that kinky sex is just the latest dance to be learned. We have come a long way since Debby Reynolds “Tammy”.

My heart beats so joyfully

You’d think that he could hear

Wish I knew if he knew

What I’m dreamin’ of

Tammy’s in love

It is hard for my generation not to close our eyes in horror and see the barbarian hordes at the gates. But perhaps we forget who we, as human beings, are. In some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The dysfunction of Jacob’s family in the Book of Genesis is a story repeated endlessly in all human cultures. Just to make his point, God gave us an intimate glimpse in that same book of Adam’s family, of Abraham’s family, of Noah’s family, of Lot’s family, etc. And they were the righteous people in that Book. Let us not forget who is really staring back at us in the mirror every morning.

One of the defining marks of American culture today is that we have choice.  We choose those whom we wish to live with, to recreate with, to mate with, to be friends with. As a result, our friends and acquaintances look and think a lot like us. Thus it is no surprise that I listen to 50’s on 5 rather than today’s pop hits, know a lot of folks around retirement age, Republican in their politics and Evangelical in their churchgoing. We are a big part of the vanishing middle class.

That word, vanishing, is one that describes us. Of course, in a literal sense, vanishing is exactly what is happening to us. The funeral of someone we know is no longer the tragic rarity it once was. In the marches of the night, we hear the footsteps and know they grow ever closer. But giving weight to our unease is our helplessness as our culture and the values we grew up with vanish.

We see it everywhere we look. Drugs are legal; with drug dealers starring on popular television shows as sympathetic characters. Homosexuality is no longer in the closet, but in certain circles, cool. In fact, discrimination in any form against what was once shameful sexual deviancy is both illegal and profoundly impolite to notice. Abortion is no longer the burning topic it once was, because that train left the station too long ago to matter much any more. There are fresher outrages to stoke the fires of our emotion.

My generation first heard about the culture war fifty years ago. There has indeed been a war and a clear look at the battlefield is strong evidence that my friends and I lost. Perhaps there was too much fraternization with the enemy over the years, but despite the hollow victories of ten years ago, our tide is clearly receding. The culture war is over. We lost.

To continue the military metaphor of war and battle, we have been outflanked and are now surrounded. That is the defining characteristic of my generation. We have been great at fighting battles, but hopeless failures at winning wars. From battlefields to television shows, the trend is the same. From TET to the latest dustup in Kandahar Province, our military forces win the battle, but lose the war. The progression from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Two and a Half Men marks the course of the culture war.

But why did we lose? Why do we keep on losing? As a generation and a culture, we are educated beyond any that came before. We are practiced professionals and experienced craftsmen. We make good life choices. We have learned to eat organic and exercise regularly. We are smart about making choices in our lives, when we go shopping, when we vote for our leaders. There is just no other way to say it. We are smart, so why do we continue to lose? We are very smart, but as it happens, have never done well with wisdom.

Maybe our smartness works against us and as I said before, we are very smart. We win all of our battles, whether shopping for the best deal or with the Taliban. It takes smart shoppers, or perhaps a better word might be sharp, to ferret out the right sale or navigate the web for that special deal. Our fighting men are smart, well trained and well supplied, just like our corporate managers are. That’s just a measure of how smart we are.

But smart is not necessarily wise. Smart is confident and sure of itself. Smart knows what to do. Wisdom is different. Wisdom grows best in the shadow of doubt, of a very real appreciation that it might be wrong. It is hard to be humble when you are smart, but wisdom is found in the soil of humility. Perhaps soil and the plants that grow there is an apt metaphor for the difference between smart and wise. Being smart is a bit like the grass springing to life in April. It is the ability to choose the correct multiple-choice answer on a test, quickly. Wisdom is depth, the tree roots that understand many answers are possible.

But our culture does not reward uncertainty. Employees that do not know the answer soon find themselves looking for a job. Students that do not know the answer, well, they graduate, but don’t get the job in the first place. Leaders, politicians, that don’t have an answer don’t get elected. We are uneasy with uncertainty, uncomfortable in its presence.

But we are smart and know that there are things in life that can’t be tallied on a spreadsheet. We are not fools. There are things in life that puzzle our smartness, things that don’t lend themselves to black and white answers. We are smart and understand the need for faith. In fact, we embrace faith. We choose faith because it takes away uncertainty. It provides a big box into which we can put all those uncomfortably vague choices, all those things in our lives that don’t easily add up.

Our leaders are a reflection of ourselves. In a democracy, we pick leaders who are like us, who reflect our ideal of ourselves. In this light, it is enlightening to think about our last two Presidents. George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They are both very similar in that they are both men of faith, different faiths to be sure, but men of faith. They are both smart men as well, but by no stretch would either of them be seen as men of depth or of wisdom. An astute observer of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, said, “people get the government they deserve.” But I like the way the King James Version’s of Scripture says it, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap”.

It is not that faith is wrong, for without faith we cannot accept the sacrifice of Christ or know God. Much in our world, in God’s Creation, is unknowable. In an eternity of time, we cannot fathom either eternity or infinity. They, and much else, are forever beyond us. We have only faith upon which to stand. But a great part of wisdom is the understanding of the limits of faith. For it is undeniable that faith can be a trickster, a guide into the weeds of fanaticism or delusion . The distinction between faith and its deluded cousin, fanaticism, is a shadowy one and has led many to tragic ends.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that fanaticism among my generation is seen as a virtue. If our faith is strong, we will be militant in its expression. We will be Holy Warriors in its service, wherever and whenever the least outpost of that faith’s expression is shown the slightest challenge. But all too often, the dispassionate eye of the history shows fanaticism to be the expression of a weak faith, a faith that is no longer able to be rational, a dying faith.

Still within the grip of those misty canyons in my “Time Passages”, my mind leaps to the time of the Crusades. Trust me, the rabbit trails of my mind cause me to be a dull dinner companion. The faith of the Crusades echoes our own. The time of the Crusades saw a Western Civilization strong and prosperous. But that very prosperity was bringing great changes as well. The Church was losing its way in struggles over secular threats to its political power and the continuing erosion of its beliefs. To compensate and regain relevance, the Church, in a very human way, called on its members to prove the purity of their belief through greater and greater acts of faith.

As a result, the stalwart men of that culture, the ones who cared, the ones who were true to their faith took up the call. Again and again, they followed their leaders in the faith. Europe sacrificed and bled over a period of two hundred years, sending men and money to retake and defend the Holy Land from the frightening dark force that was the Moslems.

To begin with they were successful, Holy Warriors who conquered all that opposed them. They retook “Israel” and held it in the name of Christ. But over the decades they found themselves retreating into isolated fortresses, more and more an alien presence in the land. They were still fearsome warriors, terrible in battle. But it seemed that they had lost the people, and as they lost the people, they lost the war. To begin with they lost the people in the Holy Land and then they lost their own people back at home. One day, they were no more. Their own people, their own faith, had moved on without them.

There is much for us to remember with pride about those men of long ago. They were men of honor and courage, true to their beliefs. Traveling thousands of miles through hostile country, they gave up their lives and fortunes for their faith. They gave up lives of relative comfort and privilege to serve their faith and bring light to what they believed a dark place.  They were of a generation and social class so much like our own. Their best, the knightly orders such as the Templars, would find easy brotherhood with our own Green Berets or SEALS.

The Crusaders were all about faith. Faith was their guide and faith was their driving force. They had the answers. Unholy infidels, the Moslems, had captured the Holy Land and must be stopped. Israel in Christian hands was necessary to protect Europe and usher in the Millennium. In their eyes, they carried the Cross of Christ into a world of devilish belief and fought to establish it there. They failed. Totally. All that remains of the Crusaders and their beliefs are the stark ruins of the castles they built.

But seen in another way, perhaps through the eyes of a wisdom they did not possess, there was another reality, a reality to which they were blind. They finally lost because they had no friends or allies. They stood alone on their faith, no element of which could be compromised. They cried to God in vain for succor, for His help in the task their faith had entrusted to them. But they  did not see that the villages they rode through, the cities they conquered, the peasants they depended on for food, the foot soldiers and increasingly the elite soldiers of the armies they fought against were Christian. Did they even know, or care, that the most pervasive religion of the area they conquered was Christian not Moslem? Not their own faith of course, but other variant Christianity’s, surely degenerate and heretical. The Crusaders’ were proud Catholics, not Coptic’s or Byzantine’s or who knows what. The Crusaders’ served the true faith. It had the answers, all of the answers.

Perhaps the most powerful ally they could have had was Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire once known as the eastern half of the Roman Empire. St. Paul or the other Apostles had founded churches among many of the cities that the Crusader’s conquered and often brutalized. But as it happened, one of the Crusader armies became quarrelsome and attacked Constantinople, sacking it and fatally weakening it ever after. It could be that if the Crusader’s had been willing to accept their fellow brothers’ under the Cross rather than fighting and exploiting them, Istanbul might still be called Constantinople, its Christian name. What might the situation in the Middle East today if Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were Christian nations?

As it happened, the Crusader’s own faith, the faith they fought and died for, disappeared in the fire of the Reformation. The faith of the Catholic Church emerging from the Counter Reformation, as well as that new faith known as Protestantism, was different than the faith they died for. The Crusaders were men of faith, Christian faith, believing in Christ but lacking in wisdom. Faith can be an inconstant guide without the mediation of wisdom.

To be sure, faith and wisdom are unlikely fellow travelers. Faith is confident and sure, while wisdom is doubtful and questioning. They are difficult companions and do not rest easily in us. But where else can we go? The verdicts of history, and if we are truthful, our own experience teach us to question faith as a guide.

My culture, my generation of believers is smart and we know the Bible. We know how to read Scripture and interpret it. We know the answers. When we read our well-worn Bibles, we know what it says. But we are losing the war. The world our parents gave us was the world of Debby Reynolds singing Tammy. We are leaving our children the world of Jason DeRulo and Talk Dirty. Something is wrong with what we are doing.

As we stare out from our shrinking conservative enclaves, we might do well to read again the Gospels in the New Testament, the record of Jesus life on this earth, and reflect on the political and moral choices we, as conservative Christians, have made. Over my lifetime, we have wedded ourselves to the Republican Party. In a moment of unaccustomed soul searching, we might attempt to put ourselves in another’s shoes and look at ourselves as others see us. Some of Jesus most stirring words to us in the Sermon on the Mount are:

“You are the light of the world. … let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Our culture, our country, needs light very badly. Debby Reynolds and Tammy may be a saccharine charade, but is there any doubt that Jason DeRulo and Talk Dirty is a black abyss in which is only a demon-haunted darkness?

The marriage of Christianity and conservative politics has closed off that light from those who need it most. Wisdom understands the devil’s bargain that is faith and politics. We can do nothing but return to God’s Word and seek to again find wisdom there. And perhaps ponder where we find ourselves. If we put aside our search for deeper and more complex understandings of the Bible for a simple reading, I, for one, find myself in uncomfortable places.












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