Civilizing moments


It's easy to find in modern America cultural practices that lead to self-destruction. Some are so obvious that one needs a Ph.D. to ignore them: out-of-wedlock births, divorce, atheism, educational curricula devoid of rigor or truth seeking. Others are destructive insofar as they are not ennobling, for civilization only is ever strengthening its roots or decaying at its core. This latter category is pernicious because it is seemingly innocuous. What's so wrong, really, with kids spending a couple dozen hours a week watching TV and playing video games? What does it matter if few Americans are serious readers of literature anymore? Why raise a fuss because adults dress more and more like their uncouth middle-schoolers? This is the stuff of uptight curmudgeons, after all, and any serious connoisseur of modern movies can tell you that the cultural curmudgeon is always the bad guy.

Our culture feels like a diet of sugary cereal, and so it's with an odd relief that I, in recent weeks, have stumbled upon life-affirming moments that remind me that we haven't all forgotten that community means more than contiguity. The first was a gathering at a friend's church, a celebration in advance of their Lenten observation. Their church has a large immigrant population, and so there was Middle Eastern music, and food, and dancing. Some of them got up and sang songs from the places they've left behind. Old and young mingled with ease, and you could see the children absorbing the traditions of their families. It's a congregation where education is valued, where faith is valued, where there is a sense of community history.

The second moment was a wedding shower for a young man and woman. Dozens of couples came together for food, and afterward we gathered in a large room where the couple told us about their first weeks of dating, exactly what he did when he proposed, what they see in each other. You could tell, in their answers, that their parents raised them with purpose. They live as if they have the sense that there is a greater story in which they have a part. In this they are not afflicted with the terrible smallness that seems to infect so many. Afterward we gathered around them and prayed. I was overwhelmed by the sense of being in the midst of what community is supposed to be, but which I have only known in the later years of my life.

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The third moment was hearing my wife describe a baby shower she attended. It was post-birth, so all the women could meet the new arrival, the mother's first. There were the things we associate with every baby shower: presents, snacks, tea. But there was also this: the experienced women in attendance sharing from their hearts about what they have learned as mothers. Half the women in that room had seen their children grow up together, and now found themselves attending the baby showers of their grandchildren. Once again I had this picture of a community drawing together with purpose, and acting with purpose, and taking their words deeper than the superficial, deeper than weather and politics and fashion.

Many of us experience such moments, and I wonder if anyone else feels afterward as I do, that he has briefly drunk sweet water, or eaten healthy food, or heard a lovely song. Such moments make me at once hopeful and slightly mournful---hopeful because there is community all around, mournful because it is no longer a commonality but a relative rarity. And this makes me think we Christians have two tasks in front of us when it comes to civilization: the preservation of what matters and the drawing in of those who have only known what passes for popular culture, which is to say mindless busyness and entertainment. My wife and I came late to genuine community. We are thankful people pulled us in.


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