Chalcedon Position Paper No. 111, July 1989
One of the long popular hymns of the church is, “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts.” It is attributed by many to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, but an eleventh-century manuscript attributes it to a Benedictine abbess. Most hymnals now use only five stanzas of the hymn; it was writ- ten with fifty-four stanzas. Many older hymns had many more stanzas than hymnals carry now.
Similarly, many popular novels of the past century had long descriptive passages at the beginning and throughout. Very recently, I reread a boy’s book written in 1889 and once very popular. It began with a foreword, and then almost seven pages of description and stage setting before a single instance of conversation; it ended with a Latin quotation. Dickens, Scott, and other popular writers are now edited to eliminate the long descriptive sections.
Another illustration: about forty years ago, shortly after the war, I heard an Episcopal bishop from India preach: his sermons lasted two hours and forty minutes, routine in India at the time. In Scotland, in the 1800s, preachers spoke two hours and more routinely, with forty to fifty points in their sermons. During the week, parishioners could routinely recite every point in order as they discussed the sermon.
Modern man’s attention span is shorter! I myself do not favor a return to long sermons, or long anything! I am interested, however, in what has happened.
People now are less attuned to words, to reading and listening, and more attuned to action and sound. It is important to understand why.
The legitimate theater was for centuries a narrow realm, limited mostly to major cities and to a limited audience. The stage requires overstatement; the actors speak to be heard in the last row: this means an element of overacting without appearing to do so. The slow pace of life must be stepped up to tell a story in a short time. This means also a heightened emotionalism to sustain interest.
The film industry began without sound — silent films. Overacting and action were increased to carry the meaning and story. With sound, the overacting was simply enhanced, and new technologies made more dramatic action possible.
All of this has led to an interesting result. Films have affected life. People, shaped because they lack a strong faith, became more emotional and more prone to dramatize themselves. Both children and adults are given to emotional outbursts. What fifty and sixty years ago would have embarrassed old and young is now routine with both. The decline in reading skills because of the growing failure of statist education has also aggravated the problem.
One of the marks of maturity is self-control. A child cries when hungry; this is natural enough in a baby, but maturity begins when the child learns to conform his appetites to the family’s hours; the child is also taught to control his bladder and bowels; his temper tantrums are rebuked and are gradually replaced with intelligent behavior, and so on.
What we see now with adults is all too often a continuation of infantile behavior patterns. Maturity is less and less an ideal, and more and more evaded by all too many people. In the 1970s, I wrote, in a Chalcedon Report article, about the absurd and painful appearance of a woman well into her eighties in a bikini bathing suit, imitating a teenage girl. The response was amazing. Some were highly emotional as they insisted on the “right” of a woman to act as a teenager, whatever her age. Of course, I never denied her freedom to do such a thing; I did question her lack of common sense and maturity! A few years later, I referred to this incident again in the Chalcedon Report, and I received another angry letter!
I find such things amazing. Is no one interested in the joys of maturity any more? Is it any wonder, with the lust for perpetual youth (or, continuing infantilism, take your choice), that the attention span of old and young is shorter?
Life at every stage is wonderful. St. Peter (1 Pet. 3:7) speaks of “the grace of life.” Life can only be a grace when it is lived under God with a readiness to grow in Him. We can then enjoy each stage of life with the knowledge that each has its problems and challenges, and the goal is eternal life in Him. Romans 8:28 tells us that, in Christ, all things are made by God to work together for our eternal good. The immediate event or burden may not be felt to be good, but we know it is used by our Lord for remarkable and blessed goals.
Paul in Romans 5:1–5 tells us that our troubles or tribulations produce patience. Patience gives us a mature experience, and experience increases our hope, because our faith has matured. The Berkeley Version (Verkuyl) of Hebrews 11:1 tells us that then “faith forms a solid ground for what is hoped for, a conviction of unseen reality.” Then, too, we are no longer children, tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and so childish that we are the pawns of men (Eph. 4:14). Maturity is something which does not come from a television set, nor from emotional outbursts. Our growth in sanctification produces maturity, something to work for and enjoy.