The Clinton scandals have taught us much more about ourselves than about William Jefferson Clinton. It is as though America woke up one morning and saw a different face in the mirror—like Dorian Gray looking at his portrait—and suddenly realized its own character had drastically altered.
No matter what your view of the impeachment trial, one thing is clear: This is not the America we once thought it to be. The values that historically shaped our country's moral consciousness have been shattered. Two-thirds say the nation's chief law-enforcement officer committed perjury—but so what? It was only covering up a sexual relationship.
The boomers grew up during the sexual revolution, which taught "that sex is at the core of our identity and that sexual self-expression is critical to personal authenticity," writes Katherine Kersten of the Center of the American Experiment. "To suggest that sex has a moral component—to make value judgments—is to impede life's central task of unfettered 'self-actualization.' "
This is not a mere "loosening" of sexual morality, it is a sea change, the embrace of an entirely new moral philosophy—and one exceedingly resistant to rational critique. In the past one might have challenged a moral point through reasoned argument, appealing to commonly accepted standards of right and wrong. But today, as I have discovered lecturing on campuses, young people have never been exposed to moral philosophy, but are indoctrinated instead into a perspective that treats morality as one of many strategies for self-development.
The upshot is that rational arguments no longer work. So how do we make a difference? How do we affect moral sensibilities? A few years ago over lunch, my friend Bill Bennett suggested that people today are all but impervious to moral philosophy and are more likely to be moved by moral literature. His point was proved when The Book of Virtues, a collection of classic moral stories, became a mega-hit.
Now there are two new books with a similar purpose: Vigan Guroian's Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Imagination, and for adults Os Guiness and Louise Cowan have edited Invitation to the Classics, essays by 50 Christian scholars on classic literature.
These authors are on to something, pointing perhaps to an important way for Christians to engage the culture—by appealing to the moral imagination through classic literature. Stories change us because they reach the whole person, not just the cognitive faculty. As we read, we identify with characters who demonstrate courage and self-sacrifice, vicariously making choices along with them—and in the process, our own character is shaped. As C. S. Lewis writes, "I become a thousand men, yet remaining myself."
Many classics were composed by great Christian writers and can even help draw people to faith. Louise Cowan tells how she lost her childhood faith while in university religion courses—only to regain it later in literature courses! Tracing the Christian themes in Shakespeare spoke to her heart in a way that discursive theological treatises failed to do. I myself have gained from Dostoevsky's novels many of my deepest convictions about ethics, crime, sin, and grace.
So if we don't like the image of America we're seeing in the mirror, a good place to start is by changing ourselves: Read the classics and stimulate our own moral imagination. Then read them to our children, and pass them on to our friends.
Maybe we should rethink our strategy in the culture war as well. Instead of hurling rhetorical grenades, we should support programs for reading the classics in schools, getting people to think about enduring moral and spiritual themes. For too long many Christians have tried to have an impact through political activism alone. The lesson of the current scandals is that the nation's wound runs much deeper than politics. Politics is an expression of a culture, and throwing out a President (or censuring him) will change little if he is merely a reflection of America's own values.
We must find ways to change those values, and Christians are uniquely equipped for the task. Our model should be the church after the fall of the Roman Empire: The monks carefully guarded every book they could get their hands on, whether Christian theology or Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, and then taught them to the barbarians. It was the monasteries that preserved the best of the past, and then gradually recivilized Europe.
More important than the outcome of the next election is the preservation of the riches of our literary and intellectual heritage so we can recivilize the modern barbarians living around us. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, "any man who is cut off from the past … is a man most unjustly disinherited."
Moreover, when a culture's history is neglected, says Donald Drew in Human Events, "its sign-posts and landmarks disappear," and it loses its sense of direction. As the country wrestles now with its moral identity, Christians have an opportunity to help it regain its moral direction, and literature may be one of the best landmarks we can offer.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more