“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools . . . ”
Man, by nature, is limited by time, space, and biology. I can only be where I am, live for my appointed time, and accomplish what I am physically capable of accomplishing—which, according to the natural order, means, chiefly, having a wife and children and providing for them. I am my father’s son, a product of my family, of the place of my birth, of the contours of the land of my birth. Proper cultivation, culture, inculcates the habit of living in harmony with nature, with the world as God made it. That world is small, and, though marred by the Curse, it remains beautiful.
The Scriptures reflect the natural order and man’s place within it. “All flesh is as grass,” writes Isaiah, and “the grass withereth, and the flower fadeth.” God’s will, on a very basic level, and apart from the greater issue of sin and redemption, is for man to conform to his place. The Decalogue warns us not to imagine ourselves outside of our place—whether by making false gods to worship, or by murdering, or by coveting our neighbor’s wife.
But this is precisely where our Enlightened Age went off the rails. The philosophes wished to be gods, knowing good from evil. They said, together with their master, “I will be like the Most High.” And so they began to disrupt that “harmony,” as Wendell Berry says, “of the inescapable dialogue between culture and nature.” Their concepts of man-in-the-state-of-nature, or man-in-the-state, was, as Saint Paul put it in Romans 1, idolatry.
In the face of all of the evil unleashed throughout our “enlightened” age, we often hear conservatives warn that God’s judgment must not be far off. “If we don’t repent of [abortion, “gay marriage,” human cloning], God’s gonna judge this nation!” The assumption behind this fear is that what we are witnessing in Western society is man at his worst. The sad reality is that, in preparation for that Great Day, God is already judging the American people, by withdrawing a portion of His restraint. For at least a century, God has been pouring out bowl after bowl of judgment on our society, giving Western man over to his “vile affections,” allowing him to enslave himself further through advanced “knowledge” of the workings of nature which, taken apart from the created order, produce only mutation, sickness, and death. This is the “sorcery, murder, theft, and fornication” of which Saint John speaks in the Apocalypse.
For the last century, our rulers have been on a quest to destroy our natural relationship to the created order—time, space, and biology—through technology. In his essay “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis provides three examples of this sorcery: the airplane, the radio, and the contraceptive. These attempts at conquering nature are, in fact, instruments of human control, even slavery. “As regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane and the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda.” Concerning contraceptives, Lewis continues, “there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients and subjects of a power wielded by those already alive.”
The airplane gives us the illusion of “mobility,” causing us to believe that we have eliminated, to some extent, the constraints of space and time. When your son or daughter achieves success, he is said to be “going places.” But unmasked, “upward mobility” means hating the soil on which I was born and leaving it behind as quickly as possible. It means throwing off the “shackles” of living in close proximity to our parents, grandparents, and children; yet we remain “free” to visit them, as one does monkeys at a zoo, whenever we wish—perhaps on one of the many three-day weekends our government graciously grants us. It means that rootless man is taught from an early age that love for his native people and place is something to be despised and that “provincialism” is a relic of an unenlightened past.
In 1930, Andrew Lytle knew that the automobile and the highway system had already accomplished this. “The good-road programs drive like a flying wedge and split the heart of this provincialism—which prefers religion to science, handcrafts to technology, the inertia of the fields to the acceleration of industry, and leisure to nervous prostration.”
The appeal to the loss of leisure seems strange in today’s culture. After all, aren’t we a people of leisure “amusing ourselves to death”? Not really, because outside a harmonious relationship to nature, our pretended leisure can only lead to “nervous prostration.” But thanks to electricity and satellites blasting through the ether above us, we now have hour upon hour of nervous prostration awaiting us in our cars, living rooms, and offices. Lewis feared the “wireless,” and Mr. Lytle, the “radio salesman” who makes use of the good-roads system and “descends to take away the farmer’s money.” Could they have imagined the horrors of today’s enslaving technology?
From a God’s-eye view above the towns of America, every evening at eight, seven Central and Mountain, millions of people are sitting on their couches and easy chairs, staring at the wall in silence. Stroll down the streets of any subdivision in any neighborhood, North or South, East or West, after dark- ness falls, and what do you see? Green lights flash through the curtains of the picture windows in every living room and, increasingly, out of the bedroom windows of children. Televisions, turned on as families walk through their front doors every day, stay on throughout the evening, with thousands of images flowing into the minds of fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. The noise is a constant drone in the background, stealing away precious hours of the fleeting time granted to each man in his lifetime and lulling him to sleep at night. Liberty—the liberty of choice—is measured in terms of the question, Digital cable or satellite dish?
The content of these images and sounds is often the subject of fierce debate and passionate polemics among the state’s conservative and liberal factions. Faxes flow through machines in think tanks and congresspersons’ offices: “Christian Morality Center Condemns Blatant Attack on Family Values: Tonight’s episode of The Sodomy Girls contains three sexually suggestive scenes, as well as two hells and one damn.”
So we devise our V-Chips, or read our favorite conservative reviewer’s Meese-Commission-style analysis of the program, or turn over to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, in hopes of securing Quality Entertainment with High Production Values. What we fail to do is to question the thing itself—that droning machine of plastic and metal that relays images from centralized and anarcho-tyrannical networks located far away in New York or Los Angeles or anywhere that is somewhere else. Those networks give us our news, tell us what we ought to believe about the world, who “we” are as a “nation,” which of “our stories” are important, what CDs and DVDs and computers and automobiles and vacations we should buy, and generally occupy our thoughts during our “leisure time.”
When our thoughts are not occupied by the flashing picture tube or plasma screen and surround-sound speakers, they are being pummeled by the sounds of electronically recorded music. After I turn off the TV in the morning, I can hop into my car and listen to the radio or CDs while I commute to work. If I am conservative, I thank God that I am not like the publican in the car next to me, with his subwoofer pounding away at the local noise ordinance; no, I have burned a special CD of my own favorite music, reflecting my taste. Perhaps my music is Thought-Provoking Pop, the Wisdom of Bono—intellectual stuff, very serious. Or perhaps I am above all popular music, with only Bach cantatas and Palestrina Masses in my machine. But have I ever stopped to consider this medium of recorded music that interrupts my otherwise silent moments? Is music—the melody, harmony, and rhythm of the scale of nature, organized by skilled human hands and voices—meant to be enjoyed in this manner, which is to say, consumed? Is this freedom, to have so much at my fingertips and so little in my heart to love? Furthermore, is it freedom to rely on others, from distant lands, who were capable of successfully selling themselves to record-company executives, who answer to CEOs, who answer to shareholders—is it freedom to be dependent on them for the music that fills my thoughts and imagination?
The already dehumanized modern workplace is another place where men and women sit and stare at screens. Extensive bookkeeping, which is what so much time spent on the computer amounts to, is itself, as Mr. Lytle taught us, the product of modernization, of placing a crude monetary or numeric value on things that used to have intrinsic worth. Today, we cannot operate without computers, which must be upgraded constantly, at great expense, in order to free them of man-made viruses and man-made obsolescence. We cannot communicate without electronic mail, because our everyday communications are not face-to-face, because we imagine that we have conquered space. Letters can be lost, burned up in house fires, or discarded; yet letters, because they are by their very nature more difficult to produce, more permanent in construction, are saved, cherished, reread, preserved. E-mail “goes down” in one fell swoop; hard drives fail, and messages are lost forever; CD backups are scratched and become instantly useless.
The internet and the World Wide Web are the ultimate pretended elimination of space. As broadband makes its way across the world like the TVA made its way through Tennessee, like the railroads and the Interstate Highway System made their way across the United States, there is seemingly no limit to the transfer of “information.” Travelers on the “information superhighway” can remain as anonymous as they wish and go wherever they like, ostensibly undetected. And the number-one use of this space-eliminating technology is the production and consumption of pornography. God gave us over to “vile affections” and now, to the tune of $54 billion per year, username: anonymous is free to dishonor his body in a dark room, in the glow of his LCD screen.
I can also join an “online community,” in which I can pretend to fellowship with those I will never see, never hear, and never know. By presenting an electronic impression of myself in a chat room, or on a message board, I can live in an illusory global village, in which all judgments on me and my character are limited to the version of myself that I have chosen to portray—and can eliminate, by unsubscribing, if someone should make me uncomfortable. These relationships happen not of necessity, in a community in which I must foster harmony in order to live, but as a form of entertainment.
There are conservative solutions, of course. I can set up Google so that it only performs “safe searches.” I can program my e-mail so that most of the “male enlrgmant” and “hot underrage girrl” messages go into my junk box. But what guarantees that Google’s “safe search” yields for me that which is true, lovely, honorable, and of good report? Furthermore, this “virtual reality” is capable of consuming all of my thoughts, making every question and whim something that I can satisfy “on demand,” with one click of the mouse. Without memory, without soil, without kin and community, all of this information has no context, amounting to nothing, a chasing after the ether. In this virtual reality, there is the illusion of freedom. We call this realm “cyberspace,” which derives from the not-very-ancient word cybernetics, which, according to Webster’s, is “the science of communications and automatic control in both machines and living things.”
The hallmark of our servile society is rootlessness, fickleness, and the incapability of sustained thinking, deep feeling, and imagination. The authority that once characterized churches in the Western tradition, Protestant and Catholic, must now yield to the consumer whose every thought is captive to the eCulture. Clergy of all stripes must wrestle with the question, How do we penetrate this barrier? And far too many have attempted to join the ranks of what C.S. Lewis called “the Conditioners”—those who mass-produce the thought-products for modern Western man to consume. It is easy to identify the larger-than-life, hideous culprits: Bill Hybels and his Willow Creek model of the contemporary, feel-good church; Rick Warren with his Tony Robbins-style “purpose-driven” life; and Joel Osteen grinning and guaranteeing “your best life, now!” But beyond these empty smiles are thousands of small, traditional parishes that are toying with subtle changes to the “way things have always been done.” Modern man does not want to be stuck in his parish church; he does not want to be hammered with God’s Law and offered a crucified, bleeding Savior for his sins. And, after all, did God really say that a little modern music in church is wrong? Can’t I “connect” better with each and every seeker, if he sees me on a large television screen hoisted up on the wall? Aren’t we sup- posed to “be all things to all men” that we might “win some”?
This is the Babylon that our Enlightened masters have built, the latest incarnation of the “Great Whore . . . with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication.” She hates nature and the simplicity and smallness of life, because she hates nature’s God, and she is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” She sits on an expansive global community, for, as Saint John records, “the waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.” Her grip on the minds of men and women is strong; however, when this culture begins to fall, which is inevitable, her slavery will fall with her. “And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and . . . chariots, and slaves . . . the souls of men.”
“How may the Southerner take hold of his Tradition?” asks Allen Tate. “The answer is, by violence.” This is still true, especially in a spiritual sense. Ridding oneself and one’s family of the chains of modern life often requires violent amputations. It is difficult for many to live without the soothing flashes of the picture tube, or to force yourself to remain rooted in your family’s soil, or to turn aside from ether relationships to the honesty of life among kin. And, in some ways, it is dangerous to go on a fundamentalist rampage, destroying televisions and computers, exorcising the present demons. Without replacing these creatures, we leave the house swept and ready for each spirit to return with seven others and take up permanent residence.
Wendell Berry writes, “If we want our forests to last, then we must make wood products that last, for our forests are more threatened by shoddy workmanship than by clear-cutting or by fire.” Similarly, families and households are in greater danger from “shoddy fathers” than they are from the fires of MTV or of instant messaging. It is one thing to kick in the television set, but what happens afterward, in the silence that follows? Love for that which naturally surrounds us, in the smallest of spaces, is what is missing, and its absence creates the vacuum that eSlavery is so eager to fill.
Lewis mentions contraception as one of the wicked modern attempts at “conquering nature.” But this desire to conquer one’s own fecundity and human legacy arises from a (perhaps unwitting) hatred of babies—and hatred for one’s place in the natural order, which is hatred for God. Berry says it this way: “Perhaps the greatest immediate danger lies in our dislike of ourselves as a species. . . . We must come to terms with the fact that it is not natural to be disloyal to one’s own kind.”
Hatred of one’s own kind—of wife, children, parents, kin, friends, colleagues, masters, servants—is the heart of eSlavery. In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the master tempter Uncle Screwtape advises the young devil, Wormwood, that love for the immediate is disastrous for their infernal cause.
The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence, largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of the Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train.
Conversely, Thomas Fleming writes, “Charity, so it is said, begins at home. It then radiates outward in ever broader and weaker concentric rings until it encompasses the widest human horizons a person is willing to acknowledge.”
God, with His still, small voice, is still found in the little things, in the space that surrounds us, in the Creation and in procreation. Telling our stories to our own people, our own children, helps to break the hold of network and satellite television—the Devil’s stories, from far away. “Taking down the fiddle,” as Mr. Lytle said, and making our own “small” music drops the shackles that bind us to recordings made by unbelievers and strangers for the shareholder’s profit. Loving reality, not virtual reality, breaks the shackles of eSlavery, the modern culture that wars against God and multiplies sin, sickness, and death. Until the end, that culture will continue to receive judgment from the hands of God, as He withdraws His restraint on evil, allowing man to discover new sorceries and enslave himself all the more. And, if we do consider the greater reality of sin and redemption, the truth of the Incarnation is the ultimate witness to the beauty of smallness, demonstrating that, under the veil of darkness, God is found lying in Bethlehem’s manger, among the lowly, the least of His Creation.