Jan 10, 2016 8
Solomon, who seldom got things wrong, wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun,” in Ecclesiastes. The French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The subject of such aphorisms, and much of the world’s wise sayings, is not, say, the weather, or taste in fashion. It is human nature.
We humans, most of us, have shinier toys, and live in somewhat more comfortable homes, than of generations ago; and eat more food, or in more variety, than did our ancestors.
Yet we still bash each other’s heads in at every opportunity: the last century was the bloodiest in world history. We still get sick and die, and in general terms plagues and poxes merely have been replaced by heart conditions and cancers. And stress, and psychological disorders, and addictions – the demons of the 21st century.
We complain about the same things that the ancients did. I am reminded that Mark Twain said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” It is probably true that the early Egyptians and Chinese and Athenians and Romans and Persians and Mayans complained about their bosses, spouses, landlords, scheduled events, children, shoddy footwear, and mothers-in-law.
And when human nature got more serious about things… well, there always has been cheating and jealousy and theft and lying and murder. Pride and arrogance. And, more constant than any of these things, brokenness, hurt, the need for forgiveness. The need for a Savior.
God provided that Savior, and He inspired love and forgiveness, sacrifice and charity; all in precious scant supply now as forever, thanks, once again, to the fact of human nature.
Recently it occurred to me that we have scarcely progressed from the essential afflictions of our distant ancestors in another important manner. I love these revelations, because I maintain that the human race requires periodic lessons in humility. In important things, and in the many trivial things that are the mortar of the important things. These wake-up calls can even be amusing, but are wake-up calls nonetheless.
Many of us consider the “cult of celebrity” a normative cancer. You know: movie stars, singers, and sport stars vs heroes. Skewed standards. Truly this is a contemporary phenomenon, because protean antecedents of our times’ celebrities – painters, composers, poets, artists – often dedicated their work to God and were fulfilled by serving Him. “Less of me; more of Him.” In researching my biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, I continually was struck by how utterly humble he was about his work, his accomplishments, his “celebrity,” in contradistinction to his God.
When we think we in America have been liberated from the trappings of royalty, repressive social and economic systems, and checks against free thought, is when we swindle ourselves most extravagantly, however. A very common denominator illustrates this the best.
We frequently hear complaints from, say, sports fans about ticket prices and athletes’ salaries. In the proverbial next breath the same fans often admire those salaries (“hey, if the owners didn’t have the money, they couldn’t pay it, right?”). Of course, owners – just like shop or factory bosses faced with higher labor costs – pass it along to the consumers. In sports, fans themselves pay those obscene players’ salaries by accepting higher prices for cars and candy bars and shaving creams that sponsor the games. Ticket prices for cold, hard seats. And stratospheric fees, parking costs, merchandise, and absurd prices for hot dogs, popcorn, and drinks.
The same with concert tickets, apparel festooned with logos, and advertised items hawked by celebrities paid millions to sell them to us gullible consumers. Little different than “tributes” paid to robber barons in the Middle Ages. Except that we willingly put these exalted peoples’ feet on our heads. We have thrown off royalty – oh, yeah? look at the faces on supermarket tabloids. We do them honor; we practically worship them. Plus ça change…
Compounding our foolishness, we are supremely inconsistent. Half of the people in America grouse about oil company profits – usually citing income, not profits – and ignoring research, development, costs of operation and such. In contrast, I have heard nobody offer anything other than admiring whistles over George Lucas’s $4-billion sale of the Star Wars franchise. Who do we think is funding that crazy purchase?
Neither any resentment, ever, of the rapid and mammoth wealth accumulated by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. “Oh, but they made things that people need.” Yes. Like… oil products and gasoline?
Why do people hate – yes, hate – the CEOs whom Michael Moore tells us to hate – “oh! those big houses!” – but have no problems with actors being paid $20-million and more per film? Most of the money paid at the gas pump goes to government taxes, not the gasoline or research or development or executives’ salaries. And a portion of every movie ticket is obeisance to the glamorous stars. In effect, a celebrity tax. Few complaints.
These are only a few reality-checks about our value systems. And, as I said, some reminders that human nature has not changed that much.
Returning to the spiritual aspect of our lives, more important than any of this. We think we have graduated from a society where highwaymen once lurked behind trees, whereas a multitude of internet pirates lurk behind our computer screens today. Wall-street cheats. Our jails more crowded than ever. Nothing new under the sun.
No, in God’s world we need to remember the old days, good or bad, by better or worse standards.
But there were times in human history when the vast majority of artists and writers and scientists acknowledged God as behind everything, the Maker and Redeemer. And they sought to honor Him in all they did. Common people toiled and sometimes suffered, but always consoled themselves in the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. Communities were built around churches, and the Word was central to everyone’s lives. Prayers were lifted daily – often continually throughout the day – and church attendance was weekly, or sometimes daily. Jesus was at the center of peoples’ lives, in all classes, in villages, towns, and cities.
But we know better in the 21st century. We are smarter – smart enough to dismiss God from our lives. We are happier – at least we pay more for things that promise to make us happy. We live more comfortable lives – if we would slow down for a moment to enjoy them once in a while. Our religion, as a society, is something we are so comfortable with that we don’t feel the need to “force” it on others… even our children.
Maybe the French got it wrong. The more things change, it might be that the worse they become. Is there anything new under the sun? Well… we still need a Savior.
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Some people think that the greatest creation of Franz Josef Haydn was not one of his 104 symphonies; or a string quartet, the genre he molded; or the mighty oratorio The Creation. Here is his Mass For Troubled Times, an astonishing, stirring, church piece, one of 14 masses he wrote. We live in troubled times, no less than his 1800 Vienna. Let it minister to you – traditional Latin words, in Kyrie; Gloria; Qui Tollis; Credo; Quoniam; Sanctus; Et Incantus Est; Et Resurrexit; Sanctus; Benedictus; Agnus Dei; Dona Nobis Pacem. Conducted by Grete Pedersen in a magnificent Oslo church.
Click: Mass for Troubled Times