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Living in a Lower Case World

Gregory E. Reynolds

Lower case letters are emblematic of the rise of informality. However, in the history of printing lower case letters were somewhere between the formal Roman capitals and the informal hand script italic letters. This refinement of the metaphor suits my purposes in this essay perfectly. My contention is that because we are human, formed after God's image in body and soul, we can never entirely give up form. We can never become completely informal. But the damage we can do in trying diminishes our humanity. The evidence is everywhere we turn in our post-everything world.

When we ask why vows and promises are taken so lightly in our culture, we should consider the culture of informality. It is both a cause and an effect of such infidelity. I prefer to call it the cult of informality because if one—even graciously—refuses to participate, one is likely to be shunned. Comfort is king—which is to say individual feelings are paramount. Thinking about human dignity and the feelings of others is almost entirely ignored. Attention to good form in attire, manners, speech, and formalities of all kinds is abandoned. Vows are a central feature of a healthy—more formal—culture. So it should not be a surprise that most people, even church officers, do not take vows very seriously any more. We should be loving exceptions to that trend.

Identifying the Cult of Informality

Blind loyalty characterizes the cult of informality. This attitude—in its quest for the familiar, the relaxed, the casual—has nearly abandoned forms of all kinds, on the assumption that this reflects a healthy, authentic instinct. No one asks if the very abandonment of the forms is itself deleterious to human health. The instinct of the cult mentality is to resist careful thinking about the reasons for various institutions and forms. The dangers of this failure can be seen in the example of basic manners.

Receiving Christmas cards this year has been an eye-opener. Fewer and fewer people are addressing their cards properly. Almost no one gets it right. Only those over fifty-five are even aware of the proper forms of address. I am thankful to even receive hand addressed cards of any kind—the number of those, too, is diminishing. The very act of hand addressing a card is a form of love. Note how I put that: "form of love." The disappearance of the proper ways in which to express that love signals the diminishment of human relations. Informality, rather than enhancing intimacy, distances people from meaningful relationships. In every area, from basic social awkwardness—when people do not know the proper or agreed upon forms for social interaction—to the breaking of various commitments and covenants, the rejection and consequent ignorance of forms damages our humanity and our society. The problem is compounded since most of those who do not practice the old ways of relating to others do so, not out of conscious rejection, but out of simple ignorance. Thus, to correct or offer a better way comes across as a slight, or as an expression of superiority.

Now, perhaps you are thinking, "Who does Reynolds think he is?" I, too, used to subscribe to Spurgeon's little dig about Dr. Tweedle, D.D. And I agree that we all properly reject the arrogance that sometimes goes with titles and manners in general. Today formalities of almost all sorts are labeled elitist. But have you ever asked why these forms were invented? Are they really meant to assert superiority? Must we assess all formalities after the deconstructionist instinct of literary criticism? That is, are all manners and traditional formalities reducible to assertions of power?

In answering these questions I contend that manners and traditional formalities are an essential expression of our humanity, however some may distort or corrupt them. To ignore forms is a denial of all that's created. The lower case "we're just folks" phenomenon is usually a political or commercial ploy, used by the new elite to trick the rest of us into thinking they are just like us. Instead they set stealth boundaries, which are indeed meant to assert and protect a sense of superiority. But the boundaries set by publicly recognized good forms and manners protect everyone. While I am not an advocate of the "courtship movement" per se, I think the older tradition in many ways protected women from the abuse and exploitation to which they are subjected in our culture.

Witness the new hunger for Jane Austen—formality in relationships makes her characters more human; and also reveals bad characters rather starkly. Good manners and social forms preserve and cultivate the best of our humanity, especially in a fallen world where sin needs to be kept in bounds. The crude revelations of Oprah Winfrey and her ilk make us long for a world of manners, of social boundaries that take all human relations with the utmost seriousness. These are the manners that foster the keeping of vows.

Egalitarianism and the Internet: Tracking the Cult of Informality

Our inventions incarnate ideas or narratives that interpret reality. The technological narrative especially advances the idea of freedom and control. Our technologies form us often in unintended ways, but we also form our technologies—they grow out of our pursuit of various purposes and ideals. The Baconian ideal of controlling nature combined with the Romantic ideal of absolute freedom joined in the twentieth century to marshal a massive cultural assault on all traditions. Now each of us is, ostensibly, utterly free to control our own lives according to our own vision of the good life. Perhaps the unintended consequences are simply an unrecognized aspect of the vision. Each day the Internet, with its Gnostic tendencies, chips away at the forms that have continuity with the past. Space-time realities play second fiddle. Digital perceptions trump all else. The technological society we have created is forming our idea of freedom in ways that undermine all traditional forms, from liturgy to attire. Nothing is immune to reinvention.

Hence the mantra of "change." Where does this come from? Discontent has become a commodity. Modern culture cultivates commodities instead of passing on a heritage. The modern world has made us discontent with things that remain the same, whether it is marriage or manners. People are generally impatient with fixed forms of every kind. Why? Because novelty is adored as the only road to progress. Electronic, especially visual, media foster novelty, because they are essentially new in every moment. The pace of electronic media demands novelty and continuous changes of form. Fixed forms like liturgy are out. Instead of enjoying the blessings of the permanent things in the midst of the changing world, we are becoming naturally impatient with them.

Recently a woman from a charismatic, contemporary worship church visited our congregation. She had lost her mother and was grieving deeply. The reason she came to our church—a congregation in which she knew no one—is because she said she needed "stained glass and structure." She craved something serious and permanent.

Enter Emily Post: An Elitist?

In 1972, having been mercifully extricated from that caldron of post modernity, known as the counter culture, I began to muse on manners. My generation had mounted an assault on formality. During my year at a small Bible institute in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a group of us who had come out of the hippy movement dined together each evening in the little cafeteria that had once housed a fish hatchery. We began discussing table manners. As new Christians, we had an idea that we might have abandoned something worthwhile. We rediscovered what Emily Post had been saying a half century before.

Emily Post wrote her first book of social etiquette in 1922. It was titled Etiquette, The Blue Book of Social Usage. Raised in the exclusive upper crust community of Tuxedo Park, New York, she was cultivated in the ways of the "Best Society." All of these externals exude elitism to the modern sensibility. But beneath the surface is a surprise.

Richard Duffy, the editor of Post's publisher Funk and Wagnalls, wrote a winsome introduction titled "Manners and Morals," that functioned like an apologia for manners, connecting moral absolutes with the forms of social courtesy.

The kinship between conduct that keeps us within the law and conduct that makes civilized life worthy to be called such, deserves to be noted with emphasis.... Conventions were established from the first to regulate the rights of the individual and the tribe.[1]

Duffy relates the story of French soldiers during World War II who were asked (sarcastically) by Allied soldiers why they were eating their battlefield "grub" with "such a fuss." The French soldiers responded, "Well, we are making war for civilization, are we not? Very well, we are. Therefore, we eat in a civilized way."[2] Duffy acknowledges that "Good taste may not make men or women really virtuous, but it will often save them from what theologians call 'occasions for sin.' "[3] However, he concludes: "Such was the 'beauty' of the old manners, which consisted in 'acting upon Christian principle, and if in any case it became soulless, as apart from Christianity, the beautiful form was there, into which the real life might re-enter.' "[4]

Duffy concludes his defense of good manners with Emily Post's classic definition:

Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentlefolk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.[5]

One of the human instincts corrupted by original sin is "consideration for the feelings of others." This instinct is the essence of good manners and at the heart of the most important commitments represented by vows. By nature we are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. As Christians we have an elevated calling to love others as Christ has loved us.

Next time you lament the ease with which vows are broken in the modern world, remember the cult of informality, and think about Emily Post, who was neither stodgy nor an elitist, but considered good manners an expression of care for one's neighbor. Sound familiar?

Endnotes

[1] Richard Duffy, "Introduction: Manners and Morals," in Emily Post, Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1927), xi-xii.

[2] Ibid., xiii.

[3] Ibid., xv.

[4] Ibid., xvi.

[5] Ibid., xvii.

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