(Part of an ongoing project about the stealthy replacement of Christian meanings with worldly counterfeits.) One of the things I love about Pride & Prejudice
, and all "period" pieces, is the peek into what it was like when social class was a dominant fact in the lives of Europeans. (If you are the type of person who feels an irresistable knee-jerk desire to remind me that our society is not yet egalitarian, please stop reading and surf away, because you won't like this blog.)
Back in the day, you were born into a class, and it defined your life in several important ways. It was sometimes resented, but mostly it was accepted as a part of the natural order of things. Aristocracy and peasantry seemed to mirror on earth the hierarchies of the heavenly spheres.
What was useful about class, for the valid mission of the true (i.e., invisible) Church, was that it gave us a structure for thinking/talking about the low status of man vis-a-vis the high status of God. Our experiences with lords helped us to understand what it means to address God as Lord. Interesting bit of trivia: in Pidgin (as used in Papua New Guinea), the word for "Lord" is Bikpela ("Big Fella").
The ills of such rigid social stratification are a thing of the past, and good riddance. I would not call them back. I do not complain about the drabness of our egalitarianism, just the tendency for it to normalize coarseness and dumb-down nobility as an anachronistic ideal. But that is not my real beef here.
What bothers me is that where we still use the vocabulary of class comparisons, the content of those words has been replaced. What once meant status, now means feelings. For example, the confession of sin we use in our liturgy says this:
I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee.Poor meant I have no money. Miserable meant I have no status in Your eyes--I am a peasant. I have reason to believe that modern participants use this time-honored confession with very different content. Today, poor means either "I'm a victim (poor me!)" or else "I'm not very good at being good." Miserable, of course, now means "I feel just awful about it." Words that once described the objective, outward fact of one's social standing before God, have come to describe the subjective, psychological "fact" of how I feel.
I know this because a visitor (an ex-Lutheran) wrote me a note during the service, objecting to being asked to describe himself as miserable. "I do not feel miserable, and I don't see why I should," he said, "since the blood of Jesus washed away my sins. I am joyful, not miserable!"
Church lingo, like all lingo, suffers from institutional ossification, but what bothers me is the way subjective feelings have quietly replaced objective truth on every level. The church down the street has on its sign, HUMBLE YOURSELF TO BE EXALTED. I wonder how many passers-by know that "humble" is not an attitude of self-deprecation, but a statement of objective value? Or that "exalted" isn't an ecstatic feeling, but a matter of social status and honor?
In a "classless" society, how do we teach people to abase themselves as they approach God in His awesome majesty? In a society where everyone is equally "important," how do we teach real humility? We despise our bosses, we dishonor our judges, we heap You Da Man!s on the goofiest and lowest among us.