The walls of the playground
“Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”
– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 9
Every culture, if it is a real culture, has a stable center of gravity – a core of permissible ideas and behaviors that do not change, or if they do, they change very slowly. For centuries the West had for its “core” the doctrine and discipline of the Christian religion. As Chesterton reminds, that discipline can be thought of as the walls of a playground.
In the “engage the culture” conversation I have taken the position that the walls have crumbled and need rebuilding. There is a time for play, and there is a time for work, and now is the time for work, the time for pushing back the enemy and rebuilding the walls, so that the world – or at least our corner of the world – can be made safe for the playground again. I’ve been harping on “the walls, the walls, the walls!”, and have even been accused of not believing in the playground anymore.
But I believe fiercely in the playground. If you knew me better, you might even think that I believe wickedly and mischievously in the playground, as a parasite believes in its host. Let me explain. It is impossible to be irreverent when the world no longer believes in reverence. It is impossible to tell an “edgy” joke when the edge has moved before you finish telling it. It is impossible push the envelope when there are no boundaries that envelop. Our entertainment and humor is degenerating fast because there is no stable context for it. In fact, today’s humor is often forced to establish a context – usually a caricature consisting of a “repressed”, conservative, religious milieu that most people have never experienced – for some protagonist to violate. Increasingly, however, Political Correctness has taken the place of Christianity, and some of the new comedians apply their irreverence to PC dogma, although it changes so fast it’s hard to keep up with, forcing the violators to anticipate the next move and push the envelope still further. An obvious problem with this is that PC is itself a caricature of its host, Christian morality, and it is not uncommon for the two to overlap in places. What offends against PC, often enough, offends even more egregiously against its predecessor.
I’ve been fortunate to have a little window into what the Christian playground really looks like. This is due to my exposure to a few “old world” ethnic communities, not so well-assimilated, and to what I call “the last generation of the Old Republic”, Americans now in their eighties and nineties. They understood the playground, they knew where the walls were, and they knew how to climb the walls properly – and dangerously – without falling over the edge. The mischievous ones delighted in skirting the edges and almost scandalizing onlookers, but they still respected the boundaries. Think of the humor of Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Steve Allen, Bob Newhart, or even Bill Cosby in his earlier days. When the center of gravity holds, there is a generous place for eccentricity and a certain degree of non-conformity. When Christian culture is strong and confident, there is a place for the heretic and even the village atheist.
I’ve attended religious festivals of various unassimilated immigrant communities over the years. The general atmosphere on such occasions is traditional, family oriented, and wholesome. There is a delightful intermingling of the generations: men and boys horsing around, young mothers with two or three little ones clinging to them, pretty girls walking arm-in-arm with their grandfathers, etc.. That said, it isn’t uncommon for some of the men to tell slightly off-color stories among themselves, or to drink and smoke a little more than they should; or for some of the women to gossip among themselves, or to display more bosom than they ought; or for some of the performances to be a little too flirtatious and suggestive, teasing the borders of propriety and scandalizing the pious church ladies (who are loved rather than mocked). These festivals are wonderful to behold. Everyone knows the rules. Sometimes the rules are broken, to be sure, but a good time is had by all – and the following Sunday there is a long line at the confessional before Mass.
It’s no use pretending. This kind of thing just isn’t possible in the post-modern secular West – by which I mean to include most quarters of the Catholic Church – apart from a few obscure little enclaves here and there. The playground that was once Christendom no longer exists: the walls have crumbled, the barbarians are pouring in, it is impossible to know what the rules are, and no one, it seems, has anything to confess.