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Friday, 3 January 2014

The Tyranny of a Now-Driven Culture

   Those who market goods have been pairing these words for some time--“new and improved” and “latest and greatest”.  Whatever is the most modern expression of technology, entertainment, literature or medicine is automatically held up as desirable.  In the realm of ideas, humans are quick to scoff at so-called backward and primitive ways people thought and acted in the past, even a few decades ago.
   There is a human tendency to assume that where we are now is superior to anything that preceded it, and that tendency includes a kind of arrogance.  I’ve noticed it for years because I tend to be cautious regarding cultural “advances.”  I’m not the first to embrace a new technology until I have observed real benefits and discerned pitfalls.  I’m glad to have finally discovered a name for what I object to: “chronological snobbery.”  

   British author and professor C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) spoke out against it in his day.  In a recent biography of Lewis, it states: “We must, Lewis argues, break free from the shallow complacency of ‘chronological snobbery,’ and realize that we can learn from the past precisely because it liberates us from the tyranny of the contemporaneous.” [1] At his inaugural lecture at Cambridge University in 1954 he put forth the thesis that it was faulty to characterize the Middle Ages as a “drab and degenerate period between the glories of classical culture and their rebirth and renewal during the Renaissance.”[2]  This way of interpreting English literature was driven by an agenda to make certain works part of a fabricated “golden age.”  Each age thinks its contribution to culture is more excellent than the last, but whether it truly endures remains to be seen.
   When we allow the weekly best sellers list, the latest news tweets and the newest apps to dominate our choices and opinions about what really matters, we may find important things lacerated by the cutting edge of culture.  My seeing value in the past may label me as a conservative, but without looking back I do not have a healthy perspective on where I am.

[1] Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis—A Life, Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale, 2013, page 184.
[2] McGrath, page 317.

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent, Harriette! I love reading your writing; it's concise and precise and I "get" it and appreciate it. This piece resonates with me.
    I grew up in a frugal household that pitied the dependence of "city people" on shopping malls and prepackaged foods. They teased us "bumpkins" from time to time, but we knew that we had all the advantages-- ten different homegrown blanched veggies in the freezer, potatoes in the root cellar, half a cow and a whole pig, free milk from uncle's farm--we had it all! My dad built our house, fireplace and cupboards, fixed our cars, created gardens and refinished a sailboat and a canoe someone had thrown away. He and his brother dammed up a creek on my uncle's farm; we had our own lake even! My stepmom sewed our bedding and dresses; we had piebaking weekends and pickled everything we couldn't freeze. We borrowed from the toy and book libraries and swapped childcare and cookies with the neighbours. It was a lot of work to live like this; but it was a good kind of busy, productive and community-dependent. It was sort of like the Middle Ages really were for a lot of people, I bet.
    I miss those things. Today my nuclear family does not function much in a larger community; we are on our own for the most part. It makes me feel sad sometimes; I don't know how to deal with the fact that while I am part of a school community (work) and church community (worship), the people in my neighbourhood (every day living) are mostly strangers. It reminds me of the Renaissance following the Middle Ages, because that's when education, religion, commerce and daily life got separated from each other into their own "spheres."
    My point is coming up.
    My point is this: I don't think anyone has the right or authority to declare any one culture superior or more "advanced" than another, either longitudinally on the calendar, or from one location to another. The concept of "cultural ratcheting" has merit in terms of technology because the next culture can use what the previous one learned/gained, to improve itself. While we have yesterday's technological "improvements" on which to graft "new and improved" features and methods, we still have to deal with the ethical consequences of how we use this power and knowledge.
    That negative Middle Ages theory always bothered me. In the 1990's I spent a lot of time poring over old tea recipes, studying and memorizing healing plant properties of local "weeds," and gained a deep respect for the (mostly) women of the Middle Ages for discovering and using natural resources for disease prevention. Like the culture from my childhood, the Middle Ages had fewer classes of people with blurred lines dividing the classes; a banker and a peasant and a self-employed sheep farmer could turn up at the same tavern and jump into the hottub ("public soups" they called them; people really did bathe in the Middle Ages!) together for a chat and a beer. The Renaissance that followed, thanks in part to the Church, sorted people out more according to class; thus began rich/poor disparity (and banking, and stockpiling, etc.)
    The Middle Ages were not the dark ages; another example: the Black Death occurred on and off throughout Europe well into the late 1600's but we always associate it with the 13-1400's.
    I'm thinking that perhaps culture can claim superiority to another one, because its present members are all provided for and treated respectfully and lovingly, because God's love is truly there. This can't be sustained in a sinful and selfish world; so maybe there is no such thing as a superior culture.
    Shirley H.