The Snobbery of Chronology

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The Snobbery of Chronology

As we crawl out from underneath the havoc wrought by Irene and as we stare at the newspaper headlines each day, I am reminded of the anxiety and angst that accompanied the new millennium in December of 1999.

Aside from the fact that Hebrews viewed January 1, 2000 as the date 5760 AD, Buddhists viewed it as 2544 and Muslims – the year 1420, the Western conceit that the year 2000 held grave significance for the rest of the world was both amusing and terrifying.

Y2K doomsayers and Armageddonists portended the end of civilization.  During this time of great angst, a book authored by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger was unceremoniously published in England and simply titled, The Year 1000.  The author, a medieval scholar, sought to offer the English public some perspective on the daily life of an Anglo Saxon peasant in the year 1000 and to consider the significance of one thousand years of “progress” in Anglican society.

The ability to piece together the daily thoughts, events and travails of those who labored over ten centuries ago would have been an impossible task had it not been for a diligent eleventh century monastic clerk who created a series of pictures and Latin narratives describing daily life known as the Julius Work Calendar.  The calendar unlike many other narratives of medieval learning had a near death experience in the mid sixteenth century  during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Roman Catholic church and its monasteries. An obscure English historian discovered the documents risked death to preserve the strangely illustrated chronology documenting the lives of common as well as landed individuals.

The calendar became a distant mirror through which modern society could see its own reflections and those of our ancestors. The monk that painstakingly maintained the record of daily living in the year 1000,  painted a picture of kings, lords, ploughman, women and children – – their triumphs and tragedies in a time when death, discomfort and disease were constant companions.  It is believed to be the most accurate record of its kind in the first millennium.

Prior to 1066, Anglo Saxon England was a kingdom characterized by contradictions. It was an age of faith and fear. People lived in profound uncertainty.  There was universal recognition that society could not survive without a profound faith in God.  People were heavily burdened in this agrarian society.  Devils and saints fought for the souls of each citizen of the realm.  People took Satan seriously and often attributed unexplained phenomena and bad luck to the unholy evils that sought to inhabit the twilight shadows and the dark corners of men’s hearts.  Elves, fairies, demons, trolls and goblins inhabited the uncharted lands and the superstitious recesses of people’s minds.  The church fought to diffuse these influences with their own army of saints who offered their lives as an example of sacrifice and faith.  Saints were thought to inhabit holy places and powerful spirits were believed to be embodied in relics that were stored at these sites.

Medieval Anglo Saxon England was characterized by strong individuals, fed on beef from lean, free range animals whose fat content was a fraction of today’s processed food.  Life expectancy was short, only mid-forty; a fifty year old considered an elder.  Boys, as young as 12, were expected to swear allegiance to King Ethelred and to be prepared to go to battle for the kingdom.  Girls married in their early teens to men often two to three times their age.  It was routine to lose more than one child to plague, famine or accident.

Villages functioned as tightly knit communities and were the central threads in a tenuous tapestry held together by hard work and a cunning to survive.  People went by Christian names, not surnames.  One’s vocation often became as significant as their Christian name.  Surnames evolved out of the recognition of one’s parents,  Michael, son of John – – Michael Johnson. Alfred, son of the Shepherd – – Alfred Shepherd.

The English arrival in ancient Celtic England coincided with the departure of the Romans after 400 years of rule.  The swords of the Saxons, Angles and other Germanic tribes clashed and cast a new direction for England.  In bringing some semblance of order, they brought their churches and the role that the church played as the chief interpreter of all that happened in the past, present and future.  Village churches were the economic, social and spiritual hubs of these small societies.  “God was King in Heaven and Ethelred was King on Earth,” remarked one scholar.

Living an honorable life among the various hardships was the ultimate measure of a man.  As with today’s society, there were disparities between those with wealth and the poor but it was much less pronounced and it did not compensate to extend one’s life expectancy.  Rich and poor were separated by the basic necessities of living – – stone and brick versus wood and mud.  Lords offered protection to serfs in exchange for fealty and servitude.  Virtually everyone was aligned with a powerful person and with this allegiance often followed a modest stipend or improvement to one’s quality of life.  Society was more egalitarian than one might think.  The fates were recognized and constantly acknowledged as life’s great equalizer.

CS Lewis was quoted as referring to the “snobbery of chronology”.  Lewis’ premise was that as a modern society we tend to view anyone who lived before us with a degree of patronizing nostalgia.  By studying our ancestors, reading about them and studying their lives we feel superior to them and in doing so, believe we must know more.  We certainly have facts, science and fiber optic technology that have all shined a bright light deep into the recesses of our imaginations and fears and in doing so, dispelled myths and swept away archaic views.  However, it also crowded out that critical need to believe in something greater than oneself to cope with the vagaries of an uncertain world.

We have extended our chronological lives and increased our material wealth but have we proven that we have more integrity, wisdom and humility than those that lived a millennium before?  CS Lewis wondered that in times of great moral and personal strife, does modern day society’s sophistication enable us to face hardships and challenges with the same determination, grit, humor and fortitude as those who lived before us?  Perhaps, 1000 years ago, people did not live longer or as well, but perhaps if we explored more deeply how they lived, we might develop a greater understanding of what it means to live more nobly.

Screwtape 2009

“Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home on Earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.” The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

In 1942, CS Lewis penned the Screwtape Letters – a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape and his nephew, an apprentice tempter named Wormwood. The letters chronicle the advice and counsel that the elder demon provides to his willing associate to help him corrupt a mortal Englishman known only as ” the Patient”.  In the correspondence between the two demons, God is simply referred to as “The Enemy” and Satan as “Our Father Below.” Character is a sin and sin is character. Wormwood’s task is straightforward:  Lead the Patient, by whatever means necessary, away from The Enemy and to eternal damnation. Lewis’ creative narrative is timeless and gives clever context to the temptations that erode our morality and the strong temporal winds that conspire to blow us off the straight and narrow path.  While Lewis was a Christian, his allegory transcends any denomination in focusing humorously on our common fragility as human souls.  His demons have spent centuries examining man – attempting to exploit our weaknesses, especially our propensity to not learn from the past.

While Wormwood seeks to trick and trap the Patient into great sins and spectacular moral missteps, Screwtape is constantly counseling endurance and vigilence. A demon’s job, not unlike a lion resting near a herd of gazelles, is to be patient, hanging back in the shade, waiting for an opportunity to confuse, distract or separate his prey from the rest of the herd. Damnation, it seems, is best achieved through separating one’s prey from The Enemy and from others within his community who might seek to protect him.  Hell, after all, at its’ most fundamental level, is separation from The Enemy. Spiritual decline starts imperceptibly through self pity and self indulgence.  We are, in Screwtape’s view, toads that can be cooked to death by merely bringing the water of self interest to a gradual boil.  If you make things too hot, too quickly, he cautions Wormwood, the patient will leap from the cauldron and escape.

In 1942, Anglican England was  less concerned about politically correctness around issues such as the separation of church and state.  Britain was infinitely more preoccupied with physical survival against the Nazi war machine. Mid-twentieth century  society still enforced tighter guardrails around morality, religion and social conformity. As war raged in deserts, mountains and at sea, there was a battle for the soul of man that flashed every moment of a person’s life.  Lewis’ Great Deceiver sought to exploit the fear that permeated the corners of every community. He dispatched his minions to cultivate new values – a morality of selfish pleasure, self seeking and self interest. As one reviewer opined, “Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as good and neither demon is capable of acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it.”

What advice might Screwtape proffer to a more seasoned Wormwood in 2009? Would he be pleased with the state of our society? What kind of exchange might we intercept between the experienced corrupter of men send via his blackberry to his brash novitiate tempter?

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Greetings from Venezuela, dear Wormwood.  I regret not bearing witness to your coming of age across the great green Atlantic. While I am nostalgic for the mist and slow moral decay of England, I do enjoy the turbulence of Central and South America. With such poverty, despotism and half the population under 20 years old, this is fertile ground for multinational corporations to exploit the poor, political fundamentalism and a great cup of inexpensive coffee. The closer you get to the Equator, it seems the hotter it gets – literally and figuratively. This is where all the action is. How goes your new assignment, nephew?

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I was delighted to get your card and photographs.  How did you get Hugo Chavez to pose in women’s clothing? I am off to a very good start since being reassigned to America from England last September.  The October financial meltdown was perfect brimstone from Our Father Below. Everyone is afraid and as you have so often lectured, fear and faith cannot occupy the same space.  As people get more paranoid over their material circumstances, they become myopic to the needs of others.  Self centered fear is tinder dry hope and I spend most of my day as a spiritual arsonist setting little fires – destroying peace of mind – releasing carcinogenic defects of character to sicken and weaken Patients.  People become selfish, irritable and discontent.  They blame others. They fight, hoard, hate and best of all, worry only about themselves.  It’s a beautiful thing, really. Yours, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: What a plum assignment! You even have cable TV and an economic crisis. Is it true what they say that 90% of Americans believe in the Enemy but they gratefully think it is politically incorrect to mention him or talk of him? I have trouble in some of these more religious Latin American countries as the churches are constantly sending mixed messages to my target audience. I try to convince those less fortunate that The Enemy has abandoned them and that religion is an opiate designed to medicate them in their dire circumstances – but the power of hope and faith is strong. I suggest working through reality television, the internet, violent video games, fashion magazines and the music industry.  Keep casting shadows, Screwtape.

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I am doing my best to create unrest playing politics. I learned from you the art of hedging and playing both sides. I have started a non profit group called America First which I use as a shell to promote scandalous anti-liberal propaganda.  I also fund another group called Government for The People where I try to discredit conservatives and moderates who might interfere with the massive expansion of social programs.  Fortunately, most Americans have short attention spans and can only handle 144 words at a time.  Thus, the creation of Twitter and decline of print media. It’s much easier to undermine a nation with an entrenched two party system.  I particularly like to discredit Blue Dogs and non-profit groups who preach being of service.

Everyone thinks the freshman President is an agent of Our Father Below but the fact is, he won’t even take our suggestions.  Even we are uncertain where he stands. It’s amusing and exciting  to not be able to find anyone who will admit voting for him.  I am constantly whispering in potential Patients’ ears about how the President is going to ruin the country. I haven’t seen this kind of angst and animosity since Neville Chamberlain gave his “Peace in our time” speech. Warmly, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org:  My brave and noble acolyte, remember the key to social decomposition is a multiplicity of factions and fundamentalism. You must create suspicion, self centered fear and doubt.  Focus your Patients on what they do not have and what may be denied to them. If someone looks they might do the right thing, cast doubts about their own circumstances.  Use the media to promote the notion that the world is a hopelessly screwed up cat’s cradle of self interest and we have to get whatever we can out of it.  Make everyone think they are on their own. It’s a cold world out there – well, except down here in Sweatville.  Have you read Sarah Palin’s new book? Our Father Below was clearly the first angel to “go rogue”. Perhaps we should recruit her? Would she recognize you if you joined her husband’s snowmobiling team?  Respectfully, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org: Uncle, I have not read her musings.  I have already signed her ex-son-in-law to a kiss and tell book deal. It will actually be written in comic book format as he has a low IQ and nothing to say – a perfect recruit! I may leave a few copies of her book on Barney Frank’s doorsteps for giggles – although I think Barney would rather read Levi’s book.  I listen to rap, hip-hop and have force my posse to watch MSNBC and Fox each night to grasp the polar extremes.  I preprogrammed one patient’s TV to an infomercial channel that promises him $ 10,000 a week from buying and selling houses using sub-prime loans and government money.  I have corrupted Patients through infomercials – urging them to clean their colons, quit their jobs,  become day traders and on-line poker players.  (I usually let them win a few hands at PokerStars.com and suddenly they have mortgaged the house thinking they are Phil Ivey). I am a huge fan of transfats, high fructose corn syrup and sugar. What better way to displease The Enemy than helping hawk junk food to kids and obese adults.  Have you ever seen a morbidly obese person try to tie their shoes? – G2G, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: LOL. I am off to tour the Amazon this weekend and drop in on President Lula in Brazillia. He is hosting Ahmadinejad from Iran. We have done such a good job in Sao Paolo, it is too dangerous even for a demon.  I had two pitchforks stolen from the valet’s closet last trip.  The Enemy still lurks in the shadows of the slums and in despicable do-gooder groups. However, they can only do so much   Antipathy toward and from the US is creating new enemies and shutting down critical channels of communication and financing. Your admiring uncle, Screwtape

USWorm@Diablo.org:  Uncle, I do worry about the Christmas season.  There’s a lot of regression in America this time of year.  People become aware of one another’s circumstances.  There’s less self pity.  The Enemy seems to go on the offensive every December.  It seems like every January First, we regress back to square one. Worried, Worm

Screwtape12@Diablo.org: Don’t forget the tried and true New Year’s recipe for creating distance between the Enemy and his Patients.  For women, the “3 Ms”: men, muffins and Mastercard.  If you can get them into bad relationships, eating to medicate feelings and mindlessly shopping, it will surely lead to a negative loop of behavior that will drive greater self loathing.  Our Father Below loves self loathing.  For men, the “3 Ws”:  women, wealth and worth.  Once men start to feel sorry for themselves or believe that they are their masters of their own destinies, they self destruct. It is beautiful to watch.  They have affairs, indulge, posture, and wallow in self pity.  They have less time to parent, lead in their communities or carry the Enemy’s message to others.

Christmas is a tricky time but like rich fudge, its sugar high eventually wears off. G2G. Hugo is about to nationalize the food industry and then we are off to Kabul for a two week vacation in the Pashtun.  Can’t wait. Your loving uncle, Screwtape.