“If you eat ketchup-smeared French fries with your fingers day after day, you are well on your way to the Cyclops.”
John Senior – The Restoration of Christian Culture
John Senior, the curmudgeonly but brilliant author of The Restoration of Christian Culture, did not like French Fries. Food is to be eaten with forks, not fingers, he reasoned, and therefore they were to him an emblem of cultural debasement. Then again, he didn’t like a lot of things. Jogging, for instance (“absurd and unhealthy exhibitionism”), air-conditioning (one of the chapters is titled, rather subtly I think, “The Air-Conditioned Holocaust”), and television (“intrinsically evil”). And don’t get him started on professional sports (“the armchair quarterback puffing his gut on insipid American beer and potato chips…gap[ing] like Nero at the gladiators hacking each other up, while his neglected children take up punk rock”), or modern architecture, or electronic devices in general…or Florida.
For this reason I sometimes hesitate to recommend Senior’s book – even though it has changed my life, and should you dare to read it, will very likely to change yours too in ways that are lastingly for the better. The problem is that we live in an excessively skeptical (or, is it an excessively credulous?) age: We have no patience for anyone who questions the unspoken orthodoxies of our age, above all that technological “progress” is inherently good, and must be welcomed and embraced in all of its forms as inevitable.
John Senior was a philosopher, and like all good philosophers since Socrates, he asks uncomfortable questions. Many will scoff at Senior’s embarrassing anachronisms and frequent rhetorical excesses: to dismiss electronic devices, in general, as Senior does, is simply too much. And perhaps that’s true. At times, I will grant you, he swings the hammer when the chisel would have sufficed. His arguments against digital recordings are, for instance, shaky. But there are other cases where only a hammer – and indeed, preferably a sledgehammer – would do: such as when Senior encourages his readers to, quite literally, “smash the television set.” When Senior wrote those words, in the early ’80s, TVs were not the thin, waif-like things of today: it would have taken some real muscle to get the job done.
One of the questions Senior asks, and forces us to ask is: if technology is progress, then what, precisely, is it progressing towards? In many cases, he finds, the answer is nowhere in particular, and, even worse, in the wrong direction altogether.
Thus, while we have access to unlimited recordings of the greatest music, much of what we choose to listen to is rubbish, and we no longer create our own music, gathering about the piano after dinner and singing the great old songs as a family; and while air-conditioning has gifted us with unprecedented protection from the harshness of the elements, our neighborhoods on a summer’s night are ghost towns, for we are all locked inside, comfortable, and bathed in the glow of the television set; and while billions are spent on professional sports, our children rarely grab a bat and a ball and go play a game of pick-up with the neighborhood kids in the field across the way; and while we have central heating, we no longer gather around the flickering fire of the hearth to read poetry, and to tell stories of the past, or simply to be together, in silence. And while Senior’s casual critique of jogging gets under my skin too, his point withstands scrutiny: many of us have to jog to burn off those excess calories only because we have given up once-ubiquitous hobbies that involve healthy manual labor, above all gardening.
True, a critique of technology is only one theme of The Restoration of Christian Culture, but it is a useful one for understanding the overall thesis, which can perhaps be summed up in this way: that there is an urgent need for Christians to eschew the fake, the fabricated, the shallow, the illusory, and the base, in favor of a passionate embrace of The Real.
And what, precisely, is “The Real”?
Well, God, of course. Senior is a diehard Catholic, of the old-school kind – Latin, bells and smells, scholastic philosophy, and all the rest. Non-Catholic readers must consider themselves duly warned that the book is suffused with a Catholic ethos and specifically Catholic ideas. Senior is insistent on the urgent need for a return to the intimacy and the beauty of the Church’s traditional sacramental and devotional life: the traditional Mass, the Divine Office, sacred music, Gregorian chant, monasticism, Marian devotions, the feasts and the fasts, indeed, the whole rhythm of Christian living that served as the throbbing heart of Europe for well over 1000 years. Ultimately, he argues, Christian Culture is, in its essence, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – a controversial claim, perhaps, for our protestant brothers and sisters who are also eager to restore “Christian Culture,” but a mere truism to the vast majority of Christians who lived through the millennia of Christendom before the great smashup.
But Senior isn’t merely Catholic, or merely pietistic. Religion matters to him, a great deal. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters. But the usefulness of his book, what makes it so deeply inspiring and invigorating, is his argument that even religion cannot be properly exercised if our ordinary ways of living have gone too far awry. Are we even prepared to understand Christ and his message, he asks, if we have never stopped and looked at the stars, if our families are broken, our homes empty and loveless, our brains stuffed full of the worst of pop culture, our daily lives devoid of the common beauty of music, poetry, literature, and nature, our work meaningless or even worse, our attention spans shattered by our enslavement to technology and wholly inimical to contemplation and silence?
For this reason Senior, somewhat controversially, questioned efforts to resurrect scholastic philosophy, particularly the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The neo-Thomistic revival of the early 20th century, while well-intentioned, was a fools errand, doomed to failure. And this, not because it was in itself foolish, but rather because the students to whom this revival was proposed were wholly unprepared to take up the task: not only were there few, if any, students with the necessary academic prerequisites – consider for a moment that fluency in Greek and Latin was once taken for granted for incoming university students! – but so are there few, if any, with the emotional and spiritual prerequisites, which are derived through ordinary, every-day, healthy living – above all within the family and the home.
And what does Senior look for in the home? Much of his vision is summed up in this beautiful, but challenging passage:
We can measure the excellence of our houses by how much of the family they have in them. If you measure the hi-fi set against a piano, for example, you can see that families don’t gather around the stereo and sing. Families don’t draw their chairs up closer to the central heating duct. No one sings while attending to the automatic dishwasher. But husbands and wives washing and drying dishes together have actually conversed and sung; and washing clothes, as we remember from the Odyssey, is a recreation for princesses. All these labor-saving devices have destroyed labors of love. The home, the chaumiere, is the living building block of civilization, and it consists materially of walls, a roof and smoke rising from the chimney…
Build a fireplace according to the specifications of Count Rumford, or his mechanical rival Ben Franklin, and forget efficiency. As Thoreau said, we are fools to box up one of the most beautiful sights in the world – a living fire – and keep it in the cellar. Smash the television set, turn out the lights, build a fire in the fireplace, move the family into the living room, put a pot on to boil some tea and toddy and have an experiment in merriment, a sudden, unexpected hearth, the heart and first step in the restoration of a home … and see how love will quicken in a single winter’s night!
Senior didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. His former students from the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) at the University of Kansas recall fondly how Senior wove atypical elements into the study of the humanities: like stargazing and astronomy, calligraphy, and frequent campfires around which they sang the great folk songs. As one former student explains: “The goal was to reeducate the senses in order that these city-dwelling students might have the chance to encounter the real.” Senior did not actively proselytize as a teacher, but his wildly popular program was eventually shut down by university officials who were spooked by the huge number of Catholic converts coming out of it. Some of these students went on to found Clearcreek Benedictine Monastery – a booming traditional monastery in Oklahoma that just recently announced plans to found a second monastery in New Mexico.
Some would argue that some of Senior’s advice is impossible to put into action in this day and age. Few who live in the big cities, for instance, even have the option of installing a fireplace, let alone sourcing wood for it. And that is true enough. And smashing the TV might accomplish nothing, in the age of ubiquitous computers and Netflix. But we would be fools to ignore the prophetic spirit with which he spoke. We are far too comfortable with the status quo; we have far too little understanding of history and how men have lived before us; and consequently we have no idea of what we have lost in the name of “progress” these past two hundred years of breakneck technological advancement.
Senior is no head-in-the-clouds idealist, worshipping a golden age in the past that never existed. He freely admits that before the advent of modern hygiene, modern medicine and modern economics, life was, as he put it “harsh, sordid, dangerous, dirty, disease-ridden and cruel.” And yet, he says, in the towns and villages of Europe, and yes, America too, “life was substantially human, rich, beautiful and free” – not because life was easier or more comfortable, but because values were not topsy-turvy. People’s lives may have been shorter, more painful, but by and large they were also more meaningful, and infused with a common beauty and dignity that Senior compellingly argues we have lost.
Perhaps after reading his book we will not smash our television sets (although, it might not be amiss if we did). Perhaps we will not give up jogging, or listening to the radio, or eating French Fries. None of these are essential to Senior’s argument anyway. But we may allow our hearts and homes to be opened to the “the restoration of love” for which Senior yearned. Perhaps we may find small ways to put “the touches of sweet harmony” back into our homes, whether it be through the reading to our children of the “1000 good books” that Senior recommends, by reducing the time spent in front of screens and replacing it with efforts, however feeble, to learn an instrument and to sing together, or by cultivating a little of our back yards into gardens, thereby cultivating our own hearts and minds for the experience of prayer – which is silence. And if we make these little efforts then perhaps, indeed, our own children “will grow up better than we did, with songs in their hearts; so that, singing the old songs all their lives, they may one day hear Him sing the Song of Songs.”