My mother and I saw the band Pink Martini at the local theater, and when the musicians played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” it brought the audience together in a collective embrace in which every imagination wandered back to a long ago and faraway Christmas.
This got me thinking about all the other Christmas songs we know like the backs of our own hands: “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells” … the list goes on and on. Then it occurred to me how slender is the thread that ties one generation to another in a shared culture, whether it be American or German or Icelandic. Skip a single 10-year period of singing the culture’s songs to toddlers, and the thread is snapped at the loom. This is because it is childhood that is crucial for the imprinting of memories that will feel warm in adulthood. You may get a new immigrant to take a liking to “The Little Drummer Boy,” but he will never ever hear it like the one who learned it on his mother’s knee.
If the loss of a merely secular cultural matrix is a sad thing, imagine the loss of a spiritual culture. And yet the principle is the same: It takes a mere generation to render it foreign to the whole populace. This has come to my painful realization on a number of occasions—such as when a young man who dined with us at Easter asked me what a lamb has to do with the holiday.
Beginning the book of Judges, the reader has turned a mere handful of pages past the glorious story of the Exodus and the exploits of Caleb and Phinehas. But we encounter a new generation of Israelites for whom this is old and forgotten lore. And with the loss of fresh memory comes a loss of verve for the things of God:
“And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. And Joshua … died. … And they buried him. … And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD …” (Judges 2:7-11).
Let us teach our children well.