Footloose in Manhattan on a sunny Saturday, the beloved Susan and I headed vaguely southeast from the Empire State Building. We encountered, providentially, structures or performances exemplifying three different worldviews: one from the 1880s, a second from the 1930s, and a third that is timeless.
F irst, we ran across a granite Temperance Fountain, one of 50 created across the United States about 120 years ago with a common design: four columns supporting a canopy with the words Faith, Hope, Charity, and Temperance chiseled on the sides-and below the canopy, a drinking fountain from which ice water once flowed.
Henry D. Cogswell (1820-1900) paid for all the fountains. He had gone west in the California gold rush and realized that miners often lose their claims, but dentistry is forever. He fixed miners' teeth, becoming the first in California to use chloroform during a dental operation, and invested in real estate and mining stocks. Soon a millionaire, he came to believe that if people could drink cool, fresh water, they wouldn't chug alcohol and get drunk.
What he didn't realize was what the Bible teaches: Sin comes from within. Some people want to get drunk so they can more readily do ungodly things, and water doesn't suffice. The Temperance Fountains became laughingstocks: San Franciscans tore down one, and residents of Rockville, Conn., threw theirs in a lake. Today, the New York CitySearch guide instructs late-night drunkards, "Be sure to pay your respects at the Temperance Fountain."
Second, we encountered a city-funded presentation of a new play titled Buckle My Shoe, or Terror Firma. It appeared in 13 different venues during August and September, and it's similar to Marxist agitprop plays of the 1930s, with their over-the-top depictions of a great right-wing conspiracy made up of politicians, capitalists, and journalists.
The plot goes like this: A writer dreams of two innocent men on the run from (I'll quote the "Theater for the New City" summary) "the CIA, the FBI, the Oil Corporations, the Armament Makers, the Forest Destroyers, the Empire Builders." The innocents say, "Write about us!!" The two innocent men, beaten and in need of medical help, get none because they have no health insurance.
Other proletarians, including immigrants "followed by Spies and Immigration Officials," also have problems, and they scream, "Write about us!" Their enemy is a man dressed in a duck costume with "Texas" on his chest, but he is merely a "Lame Duck" president under the control of "The Car Makers, The Oil Barons, The Armament Makers, the Army Generals, the Forest Destroyers, The Land Grabbers, The Media Moguls." Together, they use governmental power to keep writers from writing freely.
The irony of a government-funded, retro-Marxist play bemoaning the repression of the left would be striking, except that government-funded leftist academics moan and groan similarly. The play ends just like many 70 years ago did, with the writer realizing his calling: "There is a standoff between Life and Death. . . . I will Write about it. We all must!" The audience wildly applauded. (Ever wonder why New York is a blue state?)
The intemperate worldview of the play differed radically from the one represented by the Temperance Fountain, but they did have in common the faith that a change in our external environment would make everything better. They both had veered far from the biblical truth that sin comes from within all of us. So it was great to be surprised by three dozen young Koreans, a block away from Macy's, singing hymns and passing out tracts published by a local church.
They weren't contending that salvation comes by a revolution in our drinking or political habits. They sang about how heaven came to earth when Jesus came to earth. Their singing reminded me that many conservative programs and political leaders these days advocate the equivalent of temperance. That's not bad: Because of a conservative crackdown on crime, New York City is a much safer place now than it was 20 years ago. But the Koreans got to the heart of the matter when they closed their program with "Amazing Grace," a hymn reminding us that we are blind until God opens our eyes.