This past weekend our congregation had the privilege of listening to some world class music. A guest musician, known for his mastery in music, accepted our invitation to come, and what we heard from the keyboards of both piano and organ was absolutely stunning.
But I noticed something, something that I am observing more and more. We have lost a certain appropriateness. I’m not sure if this is the right word. Propriety? Politeness? Decorum? Correctness? I’m finding myself asking with increasing frequency this question–Have we as a culture become so casual we have lost a certain correctness? Lost sight of social norms?
Back to the service. While we listened to some beautiful pieces prior to the service, there were a number of ongoing conversations that also contributed to the sounds in the sanctuary. A work of art to behold was being treated by some as background music. It might not have bothered me so much if it were not for an experience I had days earlier in the same setting. It was a memorial service, and as the mourners filed in on this summer evening, I could not help but notice that thy came in a mix of suits, casual dress, shorts and flip-flops.
Something is amiss here—at least to me. Maybe I am beginning to become a stuffed shirt. A fuddy-duddy. Is this something generational? A modernist struggling with postmodernity? I am fine with casual. I have little patience with people who look only on the outward; who carry a legalistic tone; who measure one’s spirituality by whether one adheres or does not adhere to no coffee in the sanctuary. But I wonder at times if we no longer know how to be proper? Does it matter? So much of contemporary style seems to be about appearing disheveled. But is this casualness really a cover for sloppy? Cool a cover for lazy? Have we succumbed to a messiness both in dress and how we socially function that is “stylish”, when in reality it is a reflection of a life that has become disordered? Have we used “authentic” to rationalize our behavior, when it is really a lack of respect, a lack of awareness, and a failure to be sensitive to the moment?
Now that I have gotten some of you angry, let me try to underscore that this is not some rant as much as it is a pursuit of sorts to figure out if we have truly lost something. I am simply asking—is there an appropriate respect for someone’s labor or someone’s memory that is no longer taught? Do we know how to be silent? Have we not pondered what it means to be reverent? Does it matter on certain occasions to be neat, smart, elegant, or natty? Is there a code of conduct for how and when to use a cell phone? We seem to have become tone deaf, no longer able to pick up the clues of what is suitable for the moment.
David Brooks, the New York columnist, noted that part of George Washington’s greatness was his commitment to a dignity code. He composed a list of 110 “rules of civility and decent behavior” (e.g. lean not upon another, read no letter, books, or papers in company, etc). For him, these were not merely a list of manners or etiquette tips. It was deeper. They were about character, inner morals. Like the list in Kostenberger’s Excellence, they are virtues we must recover, for scholarship, vocation, and life.
Some time ago, I invited Robert Smith, Professor of Preaching at Beeson, to teach a doctoral course. This older, African American gentleman came and taught, and taught well. But what I remember was the day he preached in chapel. In walked this man in a suit, handkerchief folded just right in his coat pocket, shoes polished. But it was far more. There was an eloquence to match his dress. He did not come to be eye-catching, flashy, or ostentatious. He carried a certain presence, a reverence, a dignity that said—I serve a holy God who deserves nothing less than excellence. One could sense how he carried himself that he too has developed a dignity code. I was reminded again of something we might be losing sight of, something that, as David Brooks puts it, has been completely obliterated.