Nineteen ninety-two, if not quite an annus mirabilis, was a year “crowded with incident,” as Lady Bracknell would say. The repercussions of Gorbachev’s fall, the hot war in Bosnia that took the self-congratulatory edge out of the end of the Cold War, and the rise to power of Flem Snopes’ grandson illuminated American television sets during the dinner news hour.
For most of us, these incidents touched our lives, if at all, for only a few moments a day. They took place somewhere in the fairyland of images where heroes and antediluvian monsters still do battle for the principle of one man/one vote. Most Americans seemed more interested in the goings-on of the white-trash British royalty that get paid handsomely for misbehaving. In America, where we used to be, according to Fisher Ames, “too poor and too proud to acknowledge a king,” our own version of royalty was making even better money, posing for naughty pictures. People who had never been to a bookstore before were standing in line to buy their own copy of Madonna’s Sex. Some could not wait to get out of the store with their treasure and began tearing off the plastic wrap that sealed the contents against dampness, dirt, and free riders who wanted to look without buying.
America may be taking its time about coming out of a recession, but we still have more money than sense. Some felt cheated of the 50 dollars they paid. Pornography connoisseurs expressed disappointment with the all-too-predictable permutations of body parts, accessories, and animal acts. It is hard to shock us any more, and Sex represented a breakthrough only in the sense that the Clarence Thomas hearings were a breakthrough. The filth that used to be confined to the wrong side of town or the Playboy Channel can now appear on CNN and on the CBS Evening News, in Waldenbooks and in libraries started with grants from Andrew Carnegie.
Even Christian Americans are jaded, and the sale of a book portraying group sex and bestiality stirred little controversy. Libraries, however, are civic institutions that are generally thought to reflect the values of the community. I do not know how many public libraries decided to purchase Sex. Here in Rockford, the director of the public library stirred up the predictable controversy by making the predictable decision to buy the book. The library received about 20 requests, offset by 400 letters in opposition. By the rules of American democracy, the ayes have it, even when they are outvoted 20 to one, so long as the ayes represent fashionable opinion.
There was a public hearing at which various people pointed out that the book was pornographic, offended local standards, and possessed no redeeming social value. No one, in fact, defended the book on its merits, but the head of the library (and his supporters) insisted it was a free speech/free press issue, even though what was at stake was not the right to publish or distribute or look at (somehow “read” is not the right verb) the book. The only significant question concerned the proper use of taxpayers’ funds. Some sort of compromise was reached—they bought the book but promised to restrict access—but the controversy illustrates certain features of the cultural battle that is being waged at the end of the millennium.
Put aside any consideration of the First Amendment, which was never meant to apply to local matters, and bracket, for the moment, the question of the book’s merits or demerits, because the same tired arguments are used everywhere in the battle of the books that is being waged in libraries across the country as concerned citizens debate the appropriateness of teenage sex manuals or the use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn. Both sides in these debates see the library as a powerful instrument that can be used for public enlightenment or abused for moral corruption. The outcome of these battles, so it is believed, determines which side will stamp its image on the community. Will this nation be a Christian America, whose reading is limited to Heidi, Pollyanna, and the confessions of Pat Boone, or will it be the open society that reads Justine, Tropic of Cancer, and Last Exit to Brooklyn? That public libraries were established as educational institutions meant to elevate public taste above both Henry Miller and Pat Boone is almost never mentioned.
I had several discussions with Christians who did not want Sex in the library. (It is hard not to repeat Tiny Tim’s retort to Johnny Carson, that he wanted to get sex out of the movies and put it back where it belonged—in the home.) When I asked each of them about their other attempts to influence library policy, they told me of previous controversies over questionable books. Had any of them actually asked the library to buy a book? Did their churches request books? Rockford is a heavily Lutheran and Catholic town. Were the works of Luther and Melanchthon available in German (and Latin) or even in translation? What about standard editions of the Church Fathers? St. Thomas? Did the library own a complete set of the Loeb classics (bilingual editions of Greek and Latin authors) or Trollope’s novels or the recently published complete edition of Robinson Jeffers? Could one find standard editions of Hume and Locke? Could a freshman at a decent college do a credible term paper on any topic by using the library’s resources?
The answer to all of the above is no. American Christians in this age of the world do not care for such things, neither the laity nor the preachers. They are too busy with stewardship, financial planning, and bingo. So long as the library does not positively offend them, they are content to let their taxes be squandered on best-selling novels and books, on rose gardening or travel. Libraries have long since ceased to fulfill their original function of providing good books. They are now media resource centers that are used to facilitate lifestyles. One day a librarian caught my ten-year-old daughter reading a book. The kind lady took her by the arm, led her over to a computer terminal, and taught her to play a video game.
I do not begrudge anyone her rose garden or erotic fantasies. What I do not understand is why libraries should receive tax funds to assist people with their foibles and hobbies. We do not subsidize movie theaters, bowling allies, or exotic dancers. If one were to make a moral distinction between the modern library and “Girls! Girls! Girls!” it would be in favor of the strip joint, where vice is not packaged as culture or civic duty but as a commodity bought on the open market. If people want to read Danielle Steel, they can bin’ her “books” for a few bucks at the checkout line in the supermarket, and if they have enough money to fly to Paris, they can spend 15 or 20 dollars on a guidebook.
I agree with the limited objectives of the book-burning fundamentalists who want to purge the libraries of selected filth, but these campaigns are based on the false assumption that there really is a “moral majority” in the United States. There is not. On the contrary, we have only minorities as defined by race, sex, religion, and lifestyle, and each of these minorities has a claim on our cultural institutions. Books in the library, the school curriculum, music on the radio are viewed as so many weapons in a civil war, and in the fighting, whatever sense of common culture we once had is torn to tatters by leftists, racists, decency activists, and civil libertarians. Shakespeare and Sophocles? Both racists, sexists, and classists. Hemingway and Fitzgerald? Anti-Semitic pagan pornographers. Faulkner is a bigot, but James Baldwin is homosexual. Who is left, in the end: Phyllis Wheatley? She is black, female. Christian, and moral. Too bad my ten-year-old daughter writes better.
No good can come of a political struggle over who can read what and where. If each church congregation in Rockford were to request the library to order great literary classics, two things would be accomplished; a large selection of important books would be available for the first time in the city’s history, and the library would be unable to waste the people’s money on the trivia and filth that are purchased automatically from wholesalers who make decisions for the illiterate acquisition librarians who order but do not read books. If the library refused 100 requests for Goethe or Bishop Berkeley, then it would be time to accuse the library of censorship. But the churches will not do anything like this, because they are not part of any culture that binds them either to the past or to the other minority groups within this society. Instead of working to improve the common culture, they are content to rail against the immorality of the “secular humanists.” After decades of efforts to ban nasty books, rate movies, and put warning labels on records, the Tipper Gores of America have contributed nothing, literally nothing positive to our culture. If only we could take all the money wasted on “decency” (including the money sent to TV evangelists) and spend it on good books by living authors. We could dominate the bestseller lists and enable decent writers to earn an honest living outside universities. We would have the beginnings of a cultural counterrevolution that could bypass the corrupt political process and go straight to the hearts and minds of the American natives.
On the left, it was Antonio Gramsei and, to a lesser extent, Trotsky who understood the importance of culture and won the undying affection of New York intellectuals who think that writing book reviews constitutes a serious political act. In the case of Trotsky, at least, concern with culture was on a plane only slightly higher than for the vulgar Marxists (e.g., Mike Gold) who judged literature and art according to simple ideological rules. Fiction, according to this interpretation, was propaganda with a story line. The so-called conservatives who have taken to railing against the culture have followed the Trotskyist line, cannot conceive of a good film directed by a Communist, and page rapidly through popular novels, looking for the “family values” that are conspicuously absent in their lives.
This word “culture,” as potent a talisman as it is in politics, derives some of its power from the multiple senses in which it is used. We speak of the “Hopi culture,” of people who have or have not got culture, and even of bacteria culture. Is there a thread that runs through all these usages or is culture simply one of those words with several unrelated meanings, like “gimlet” (a cobbler’s tool, a drink with gin and lime) or “leaves”(departs, more than one leaf)?
The first thing an English speaker thinks of when he hears the world culture is the sense in which Matthew Arnold used the word to mean something like the liberal arts, “the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world.” In popular usage, Goethe and Bellini represent culture or, at least, “high culture” as sometimes distinguished from “pop culture.”
Anthropologists, however, have appropriated the term to mean nothing less than the object of their inquiry. If sociology could be defined as the study of “society,” then anthropologists, in marking the boundaries of their discipline, devised culture by way of analogy. There are dozens of anthropological definitions, beginning with that of E. B. Tylor, who introduced the word from German. Reaching not quite at random, one might use Paul Bohannan’s lucid and elegant formula to illustrate this usage. Bohannan calls culture “a summary of behavioral phenomena” and later elaborates on this theme: “Culture, as it is acquired with the growth of the personality, becomes the medium of that personality. You cannot swim without water, and water is the medium of swimming; you cannot paint a picture without paint, and paint becomes the medium for expressing the message of the picture. The difference between culture and personality is the same as the difference between the medium and content of a picture.”
There is a wide gap between culture as medium and culture as art, but fundamentally Tylor and Arnold were attempting to describe, if not the same set, then at least overlapping sets of phenomena. Both were influenced by German usage, and in German Kultur is seen in its educational aspect. To understand the root sense, however, one has to know Latin (as both Arnold and Tylor did) as well as German.
Latin cultura derives from the verb colere, which means to till or take care of a field or garden plot. Cultura is, therefore, tillage, and in an extended sense it can refer to the care and nurture of various things: fields (agriculture), grapes (viticulture), and bees (apiculture). In English we still speak of culturing pearls or bacteria, but the more relevant and lively derivative word is “cultivate.” One can cultivate a field or a taste for good wine and good music. If the root meaning of culture means something like the fostering or nurturing of growth, what is it that is being grown in the medium of culture, either in the high art sense or in the anthropological sense? Bohannan supplies the answer:
Into every culture and every civilization, year after year, hordes of uncultured “barbarians” descend in the form of newborn babies. In every society a major—indeed, an overwhelming—amount of social energy must be spent in making cultured creatures out of this human plasm. . . . The habits that are acquired by youngsters are part of the culture in accordance with which they are brought up. In one sense, the habits are the culture: if all the habits of all the people were changed, the culture would have changed.
The object of culture, its product, are human beings who have acquired the habits that are necessary for life in their society. More specifically, it is their character or (to use a more technical-sounding word) their personality that is formed by the culture.
Some aspects of human culture are, more or less, universal. However, family, law, religion, and art are abstract and generic categories, and the reality of human life is in the gritty details: the bickering among a man’s two wives, the judge’s wig and the archaic language of the common law, the life-and-death struggles over communion in two kinds or whether one crosses oneself from left to right or right to left. In the case of character, too, there are quasi-universals: the intemperance that leads to murder, theft, and incest, variously defined, is frowned upon, while bravery in war and care for children are generally esteemed. But a brave man of Bohemia or Bali might be regarded as a coward in Montenegro or Texas, and a faithful Irish father who spends most evenings in the pub might not receive high marks among English Methodists or American Lutherans.
Of the catalogue of virtues that occupies so much of Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea, some of them have a familiar ring in English. Courage, truthfulness, and justice can fairly represent what the Greek philosopher was trying to discuss, but it is harder in the case of megalopsychia, often translated as “pride” but without any of the negative connotations. This virtue is a greatness of soul, whose opposites are humility and undue vanity. A modern Christian or post-Christian can conceive of a kind of pride that steers a course between Poo Bah and Uriah Heep, but it is hard even to grapple with the classic Greek virtue, sophrosyne (temperance, self-control), for which we lack not only the specific word but even the general language and context for a discussion.
Culture, in general, produces character, in general, as well as those universal traits of human nature, but it is specific cultures that form the habits (whose plural is character) of men and women in real societies and give rise to concrete and historically bound conceptions of right and wrong. Change the habits, says the anthropologist, and you have changed the culture; but, says the political reformer, change the culture and you change the habits and character of the people.
Of the various institutions of culture, none is more powerful than religion. By its rituals and according to its rules, the primary stages of life are marked: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. It is through religion that human beings are joined with their ancestors and their unborn descendants in a communion that is the largest community, and it is through the rites and practices of religion that the dreadful powers of the universe can be pleased, appeased, propitiated. To the pious, a sentence of excommunication or a religious curse, because it reaches beyond the grave, holds terrors more fearful than death. The law can take away property and liberty, even life, but churches (or the priests or the gods themselves) have the power of binding and loosing souls.
Christian churches still play an important role in forming the character not just of “Christian America” but also of pagan Europe, where a great many practicing nonbelievers grow up hearing the stories and taking part in the major festivals. DeChristianized Europe is still a province, although much dilapidated, of Christendom. The French film Cousin, Cousine pays a cynical, backhanded compliment to the power of Catholic culture by portraying a Parisian family that spends Christmas Eve watching midnight Mass on television, while the cousins are betraying their spouses in the back bedroom.
I do not wish to minimize the importance of formal indoctrination, but catechism classes provide nothing more than a shorthand summary of what the child is imbibing from other sources: from sermons, from conversations with parents and other church members, and from learning and internalizing the magic words of creed and prayer. In most Christian societies, the arts of painting, music, and poetry were enlisted into the service of the church. Frescoes and stained glass windows tell the great stories for those who do not read, and sacred hymns use verse and music to convey a message more powerfully than any sermon or list of questions. The history of the church can be traced in the hymns of Venantius Fortunatus, Martin Luther, and the Wesleys, and the first serious music written in what became the United States were the hymns composed by Moravian musicians for their religious communities.
But the most powerful tool of Christian indoctrination, from the very beginning, has been the collection of texts we still call, in English, the Bible. One of the earliest Christian conversion stories is the account of the Ethiopian eunuch who had gone to Jerusalem to worship. On his way back, the Ethiopian, reading the prophecies of Isaiah, was overheard by the apostle Philip, who explained that “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter” was a reference to Jesus.
The Christian character is formed by reading, hearing, and interpreting stories. Jesus himself couched his messages in the form of scriptural quotations and striking parables. Some Christians, from the very beginning, have wanted to purify their faith of the taint of Jewish history, traditions, and “superstition,” and one of the most important early heretics, Marcion, based his sect exclusively on Luke and Paul. A Christianity purified of Jewish stories and superstitions was the desire of Thomas Jefferson and many other Enlightenment philosophes, who regarded the moral teachings of Jesus as statements of universal benevolence and justice.
The Christian ideal, divorced from Jewish tribalism, was Locke and Kant in the form of beatitudes and parables, and that is, more or less, the Christianity of the mainline churches in Europe and the United States. “Great God I’d rather be a pagan suckled on a creed outworn.” Half of the worst damage done to the peoples of the world in recent centuries has been inflicted under the banner of a Christian sentimentalism that rips Christ’s provocative and paradoxical pronouncements out of context and treats them like a guidebook for everyday life.
It is necessary, always, to keep in mind that Jesus was addressing himself to an ancient tribal people, as parochial, narrow-minded, and bigoted as a Greek polls or a Calabrian village. But, quite apart from the context it provides, the Old Testament gives us a portrait of a “primitive” society, rooted in worship of God and organized according to principles of kinship and elan.
It really should not matter much to a Christian whether the portrait of social life contained in the early books of the Old Testament is historically accurate or a later idealized conception. By accepting these stories as Holy Scripture and in committing them to memory, we are slowly molded according to a patriarchal pattern of life that emphasizes familial integrity.
The “higher” morality of Christianity turns to poison when it is ripped from its solid roots in kinship and nationality. “He that loveth father or mother better than me is not worthy of me ” makes sense only in a family-centered culture. Repeated out of context, it is an invitation to break the commandment “honor thy father and thy mother.”
The Gospel’s injunctions on forgiveness and compassion, uprooted from the solid earth of Judaic law, become an ethic of suicidal defeatism. While it is possible to construct a pacifist/ nonviolent ethic out of selected passages of the New Testament, the Old Testament throws a bucket of cold water on such fantasies: Rabbi Jacob Neusner observed last December in Chronicles that in the Torah “justice overrides sentimentality” and added that this justice allows room for execution, war, and self-defense.
The real culture of Christendom is international, in preaching “tire unity of faith and the bonds of love,” but also national, tribal, and clannish in its stories of warring Jewish kindreds who were only unified in their hatred of the Gentiles. A Christian who is not metaphorically a Jew is only a reciter of creeds whose heart and mind have not been nourished on the living record of one nation’s love-hate relationship with its God.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, we are all people of the book, and not only because we trace our spiritual ancestry from the Old Testament. To a great extent, our culture is the books we read, mere secular works of history, philosophy, and literature as much as the sacred Scriptures we hear read on holy dins. Ultimately, the censorship controversies in America form a skirmish line that marks the boundaries between warring ethical visions. For Christians and Jews, it must be a losing battle, because it is always fought according to the enemy’s rules: openness, majority rule, impartiality, notions that arc poison to any vital religious tradition claiming to represent the truth.
Unfortunately—and this is cause for more dismal reflections—few Christians today are part of Christendom, that civilization of knives and forks, Dante and Bach. At best, they read C.S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer. My son once won a gift certificate to a Logos bookstore, and try as we might, we could not find one real book, apart from the Bible, in the whole place.
If Christians want to do something about the moral state of the nation, they might begin by setting their own houses in order. If they feel they really must deal with public institutions, then let them swamp the libraries with so many orders for good books that there will be no time or money for Madonna. But on the whole, they ought to concentrate on setting up their own libraries and filling them with the classics of Christendom. They might proceed to straighten out their wretched seminaries, which, at best, are turning out well-intentioned illiterates. Instead of throwing their money away on expensive video scries for teenagers (who uniformly make fun of them), let them establish solid Bible study classes in which the learning of scriptural languages (Hebrew and Greek) is encouraged.
Ultimately, as the existentialists used to insist, each human being, by behaving as he does, is setting an example to the world. If decent and moral human beings care about the culture of the United States, they had better start spending their money on the good books that are being written by living authors who arc forced to spend most of their time teaching, instead of writing, in order to feed and clothe their families.
Brighten the Corner Where You Are is the title of a recent book by Fred Chappell. It is good advice, and the best thing my readers could do is to go out and buy ole Fred’s books, as well as the books of fiction, verse, history, and philosophy written by our other contributors. I am often told by Chronicles‘ readers that they have read my book in the library. Thanks for nothing. A man spends five years on a project and sells less than a thousand copies, because his friends and well-wishers go to the library. If a serious novel sells 5,000 copies, it is a triumph, and a book of verse is a sensation if it sells more than 500. The crazies not only control most of the grant money in America, they also buy most of the serious books. So long as “conservatives” who profess their faith in the free market are content to get their culture from Masterpiece Theatre and public libraries, the future will not belong to us.