Every American should read Bill Bennett’s book, “The Death of Outrage.” Bennett, an American hero in my eyes, wrote some years ago with clarity and conviction about the lack of public outrage surrounding Bill Clinton’s sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky. In case you haven’t read the book, let me assure you, it is not outdated. Bennett tackled critical subjects:
“A president’s personal life does not bear on his personal duties.”
“If the American people are prosperous, the president must be doing a good job.”
“Christians should be tolerant and forgiving of Clinton’s frailty and less judgmental.”
As you are reading this post today maybe you are asking yourself why I am bringing up the past. Yes, “The Death of Outrage” is about the scandal that swelled around Bill Clinton years ago, but the message that Bennett draws from its aftermath is timeless. With the upcoming elections, Bennett’s book would be in order as good review.
Today I am not writing about morality or failure or sin, rather another shift in American culture that is painful: the death of ceremony. I feel it is rotting the fabric of our society just as our shift away from morality. Its end result may not be as devastating, but I have to ask myself where is our lack of ceremony taking us?
Over a decade ago on Thanksgiving Day, we hosted about 15 Americans. Before the meal, we circled up to offer thanks to our Creator and Father for our country, family and friends, and the wonderful food before us. I started to say about two sentences about our courageous Puritan and Pilgrim forefathers; and one woman interrupted me, “I am going to burst out laughing if you say something sentimental about the history of our country. Spare all of us!”
She was a guest in our home, and the comment was rude. But I kowtowed to the wish, shut my mouth, and went on to the prayer of thanksgiving. But the atmosphere was dampened. Aside from her rudeness, I wondered why she thought the idea of recalling our roots for a moment was laughable or a waste of time.
I wouldn’t even call my wanting to remember the first Americans at Thanksgiving extreme ceremony. But this woman’s beef was against the ceremony of remembering. My goodness! Aren’t we free to remember at least on Thanksgiving Day?
Honestly, as Americans we have so little ceremony still–caps and gowns at graduation, wedding dresses, Thankgiving meal–it is frightening to conceive of it all being stripped away someday. Our morality is declining, our ceremony is fading… what is holding us together?
The ceremony of dressing up to go to church has become old-fashioned in many circles. The argument is that God looks on the heart and doesn’t care what we wear. Another argument is that “dressing up” does not attract the youth, so we must be “seeker friendly” and dress down. More youth will show up.
I am a huge fan of Dennis Prager, conservative Jewish writer and talk-show host. Not dressing up for “church” is one of Prager’s big beefs. He doesn’t even go to church; he attends synagogue. But he is outraged at the way some Christians dress to go to church. He says that in the synagogue they don’t have this problem. Generally everyone dresses up, even the youth. It is understood that God deserves respect.
Prager also talks about how the American culture will dress up to attend the academy awards. That whole evening is about dressing up. It would be a sham and shame to show up as a star and for the stars, the heroes of our nation, in jeans and T-shirts. The media would never stop talking about it if President Bush came to the academy awards in jeans and a cowboy hat. His disrespect would be an outrage!
Hopefully, Americans still will dress up to meet the president of the United States (hopefully), to show respect to the office and the person sitting in office. So Prager’s question is, “Why will we not show God respect by dressing up when we are in His house?”
This sounds extremely outdated to many Christians, to many Americans.
I agree with Prager. Our lack of ceremony is taking us down the road of disrespect. And I believe it is weakening the fabric of our society that holds us together.
It has been the ceremony of remembering and observing that has kept the Jewish nation together for thousands of years. They remember and observe the Sabbath and all the biblical feasts. Some of the ceremonies are quite elaborate and take time to prepare and to execute. It would be devastating, even threatening to the Jewish religion and people group, to abandon ceremony.
Even if most of the ceremony is “dead” to those walking through the ritual, something wonderful happens in the repetition of ceremony. It knits you to those with whom you partake of ritual, and it knits you to the values that underscore the rituals. It says by action that some things stand out from the rest and are important enough to repeat or change our manner, dress, or behavior.
Lauren F. Winner in her book “Mudhouse Sabbath” talks about ritual in the Jewish faith. She considers herself a “Christian” not a Messianic Jew. She made her leap into Christianity from Judaism because she became convinced about Jesus. But in her transition, Winner discovered to her dismay that the beauty of ceremony and ritual of Judaism is sorely lacking in Christianity.
I like what Winner writes about the ceremony of prayer to the Jew
“Jewish prayer is essentially prayer book prayer. Jews say the same set prayers, at the same set hours, over and over everyday…. Liturgy can be dull and its dullness distracting… But if roteness is a danger, it is also how liturgy works. When you don’t have to think all the time about the words you are going to say next, you are fully free to enter into the act of praying… I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find out at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism.”
There is something in youthfulness or the younger generation’s worldview that resists “ceremony.”
In conclusion, I guess I feel like Lauren Winner does when she gets away from the ceremony of her liturgical prayer life, she lapses into narcissism.
Maybe I am a middle-aged woman who still dresses up for church, remembers the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving Day, and thinks that ceremony transcends post-modern culture. I am a middle-aged woman who believes that the death of ceremony in our culture has led us into narcissism, and I don’t know the end destination of it.
But I do remember a once-glorious angel falling from heaven when his narcissistic lapse manifested.
I imagine heaven to be filled with ceremony–all the ceremony due a King. And the largest part of that ceremony will be when we cast our crowns before Him, remembering His blood that soaked the ground for our narcissism.