Important Note: Dear Friends, this is not like most of my posts on this blog — what I here present is not a work of theology. This is just my very fallible opinion on certain aspects of secular culture. Catholics must be ready to voice such opinions, lest we restrict all of our input on society to merely those direct dictates of the Divine law that we know with infallible certainty to be true, for such restriction is not our calling. Further, what I present is absolutely not a condemnation of all culture since the 1920s, nor an endorsement of all pre-1920s culture (footnote 1); what I present is just some food for thought suggesting that, despite the great good in the 40s and 50s, perhaps we should look a bit further back than that for cultural ideals (more often than we now do, at least.) Above all let this not be a cause of discord between me and any of my brethren in Christ; again, this is just my two cents; close friends and people far holier than I disagree with me on these points.
I have recently become more aware of just how immensely important culture is in bringing about the Kingdom of God on Earth: both in my observations of the world around me and in my studies of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
The Church highly exalts culture, teaching that it is “…that through which man, as man, becomes more man, ‘is’ more, has more access to ‘being’.” The Church also teaches that the diversity of cultures is not only permissible, but very good, and that culture deserves a certain degree of freedom in its development.
But this same Church teaches that culture must respect the universal natural law, and that cultures can and must be judged based on to what extent they are formed by the Gospel and effectively give man the channels through which he may pursue the three transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty. Culture itself therefore must lead us, as a people, toward the good, the true, and the beautiful, instead of merely being a hobby for after we’ve finished pursuing these through prayer in Church. Of essential importance in these tasks is discerning where lies the divide between the merely enjoyable and the good, the merely profound and the true, and the merely impressive and the beautiful. My concern is that Catholics, instead of using true discernment, are readily swept up by certain aspects of culture just because they appear good in contrast to certain other aspects of modern culture which are obviously evil. But that is no way to pursue the good, true, and beautiful.
Being that almost every devout person I meet is well aware that modern culture is largely corrupt, but that there once were better days, it is very important to have in mind as a general point of reference, (not as an oversimplified black-and-white litmus test) just when it was that much of this transition occurred; that is to say, the transition from culture developing man to culture degenerating man. Most will insist it was the sexual revolution and the 1960s. While I agree that much evil degeneration occurred then, I insist that it was the decadence of the roaring twenties that saw the real beginning of the death of culture – not that the specific practices of the 20s were worse than those of the 60s (quite the contrary!) – but simply that what happened in the 20s was also a type of cultural death, and since it preceded the 60s, it would be foolish to look to the 30s, 40s, or 50s for the pinnacle of good culture, as many today do.
I therefore present to you just how and why it is that culture died in the 1920s, and my illustration will be dance, dress, and music.
The 1920s saw the flourishing of the swing movement: the music, and the corresponding dancing. Many Catholics today advocate for swing dancing in a commendable intention to revive older forms of dancing to combat the truly degraded dance forms more popular today, but unfortunately they are just choosing a dance form that, in its own day, stood in stark contrast to the style of dancing preceded it (and had dominated Christian culture for centuries since the Christianization of the pagan cultures) as a stepping stone toward the sexualized, showy, inebriated, and chaotic form of music and dance we see today undisguised everywhere in mainstream culture. I lack the schooling in music theory to present a detailed analysis to prove this, but I would like to leave you with two things: these YouTube videos that I chose as objectively as possible to give the most honest depiction of the prevailing sense of 1920s swing versus the prevailing sense of the type of cultural dance that preceded it, and a testimony from my wife.
Now those were both social dances, and it is somewhat difficult to really ascertain what is going on due to the numbers involved. Let me now present a swing performance so you can more clearly see the moves involved; how full it is of extremely suggestive swivels, sways, shimmys, and all sorts of very impure gyrations. I would like to focus on the Lindy Hop, as that is probably the most popular form of swing dancing. There are worse forms that are far easier to condemn, and likewise there are more benign forms. Simply do a YouTube search if you would like to look more into this; I only even watched a few brief moments of this video here, because quite honestly, it depresses me too much to watch women treat themselves like this, even though I can tell that this video presents swing dancing that is more benign than much else that is prevalent:
Worth noting as well is that I have only included videos with purely instrumental swing music. As soon as you enter into the realm of sung swing music, you constantly come across songs full of sexual innuendos and all sorts of the problems (albeit in their infancy) that we now see with pop music.
I hope you are struck by how pure, beautiful, genuine, and joyful the older music and dance was, and how all of this is completely lacking in the swing videos.
We must not be afraid to listen to our hearts! Dear single people: which of these dances would you be more comfortable with your future spouse participating in right now? Which of these dances do you think the Holy Family would feel more at home in (though I doubt they themselves danced)? Which of them helps foster the 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit in your heart – the sure sign of God’s approval – as opposed to encouraging the arousal of the more base passions? (The 12 fruits are charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity). We absolutely must ask questions like these, for that is precisely how we go about ensuring that culture is informed by the Gospel and leads us toward the good, the true, and the beautiful.
You may accuse me of singling out only that which proves my own viewpoint with these videos, but I challenge you to search far and wide for videos of accurate renditions of traditional cultural dance (or “folk dance”) from before the 20th century. You will get the same feel from every single one: purity, joy, fun, beauty, order, real socialization, and the like. Search far and wide for swing dance videos (or just about any mainstream dance from the 1920s on – tango (footnote 2), salsa, blues, etc.) and you will recognize in your heart a glaring lack of these, for they have been replaced with tendencies of showiness, sexualized beats (and even sometimes lyrics), undue intimacy between dancing partners, and the like.
I would also like to present to you this testimony of my wife’s. She was once a regular swing dancer, a swing dance instructor, and even a competitive swing dancer, so her words are far more powerful than mine:
Here is an excerpt:
I still remember teaching my first swing dance class…I recall these days with anything but enthusiasm and joy. On the contrary, a weight feels as if it is pressing on my heart as I think of this part of my past. I recall even early on having a sense of discomfort with the moves or styling techniques that I would often see being done, but I also remember justifying so much of my former way of thinking about dance… I thought, in pride, that my soul could not be damaged in any way by participating in the “traditional” dance of the swing era… I danced with countless guys in one night of dancing, I prided myself in often being able to find a really excellent connection with my dance partner, and I began to perform more experienced moves which entailed more hip movement, more rotation of the lower body, and more shameless boldness than ever before. And life was good. Or so I thought…
This brings us to the dress of the 1920s (for a more thorough treatment of the matter, just google “flapper.”). Please know first that I am most definitely not some angry traditionalist who thinks that women who wear pants are sinners. We cannot simply wish and pretend that modernization has not happened, and try to live in the past. On the other hand, we cannot simply bow down uncritically to and accept all of the tenets of modernism with our only filter being “is it clearly seriously sinful based on the infallible teachings of the Church?” And so, I wish simply to present these questions to your discernment: Did the changes in dress (especially women’s) that largely began in the 1920s and continued to develop over the following decades really help culture be more conformed to the Gospel? Did they more exalt the glory of femininity, the complementarity of the sexes, and the beauty and mystery of the woman, the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or did they do precisely the opposite?
If we ask ourselves honestly, we must recognize it is the latter.
Precisely what was so good and liberating about the revealing of more skin and the wearing of form-fitting clothing, which quite inarguably saw its primary impetus in the 1920s? All Catholics today are aware of the tragedy of the objectification of women, and how large a role immodest dress plays in that. But few do anything other than grasp at arbitrary boundaries in attempting to define when modest dress ends and immodest dress starts. We should rather turn to the nearly unanimous testimony of millennia of Christian civilization on modesty — a unanimity that only really started to fall apart in the 1920s.
Remember, I am by no means imputing any vice upon those Catholics who choose to dress in the culturally prevailing ways within reasonable limits (which is actually probably the spiritually safer route to a degree and in some cases -not that we always have to take the safest route-, for doing so guards against the pride of the holier-than-thou Pharisee). I am just here trying to lay down the principle; the ideal. When and how to implement an ideal, in the concrete, is always a matter of discernment and prudence.
The 1920s-1940s saw the flourishing of the swing, jazz, and blues that gave birth to the (similar in nature) rock and roll of the 1950s. While what I have to say about rock would also apply well to these former three, I will restrict my commentary for now on the latter, as it is by far the bigger problem today.
Rock music in general, including the “oldies,” presents serious problems with respect not merely to its lyrics, but to its beat — the music itself (footnote 3). Since rock music became popular in the 1950s, many Catholics today are comfortable with it; so long as it is not explicit in its lyrics or incredibly demonic in its beat. But that is no way to choose what to immerse yourself in (listening to music is a true immersion!) Even thousands of years ago, Plato and Aristotle insisted upon listening only to music that is beautiful, harmonious, and ordered; pointing out that one’s soul is always being formed (in all cases, but especially in the case of youth) by music, either helping the listener to choose the good, or reducing the listener to his animal instincts. The beat (and not just the lyrics, which are only a secondary consideration: fully sufficient to deem a song bad, but insufficient to deem a song good) of rock music is of a sort that never before prevailed in mainstream Christian culture (although it is indeed seen in tribal culture and in pagan pre-Christian culture) for good reason: it is intrinsically sexual, animalistic, passion-inflaming, and grungy. It is not healthy for the soul. .
I myself was blessed with interior light and honesty when I began courting my wife. Until that point I would generally permit myself some listening to pop music and so-called “Christian rock” on the radio, so long as it was not the especially “bad stuff,” and I had already finished the Rosary on my car ride. But when I was courting Regina I had to ask myself “Do I really like the thought of her reveling in this same music I am now rocking out to? Or does something seem not right about that?” As soon as I asked that, the answer was clearly the latter. In that recognition I found the grace to quit listening to that music for good, to the enormous benefit of my spiritual health.
I am so thankful to God for giving me these insights before I was married, because weddings are among the clearest examples of culture, and among the most powerful ways of influencing it. If you are planning a wedding (or know anyone who is), I implore you and your fiance to have the courage to break out of modern expectations, disregard respect of persons, and insist upon only having music at your reception that is wholesome and pure. I also encourage you to consider including modesty guidelines in your invitations, and to choose a modest and beautiful wedding dress and bridesmaid dresses. Regina and my choice to do all of these things did not go over well with a few, but in the vast majority of cases it garnered for us extremely enthusiastic thanks. Almost all of our guests were so incredibly overjoyed at the opportunity to attend a wedding and wedding reception “done right,” as they said, which many of them had never been to before. Here is just a small clip to give you a sense of our reception.
Though I hesitate to include this filth on my blog (and please, skip over 1:55-2:05 if you must watch this), I think it is necessary to help prove my case to those who would still look fondly on the 1920s. It is a trailer for the recent movie “The Great Gatsby,” and although we know that Hollywood is not exactly the most reliable source for historical information, they did – I believe – do a decent job depicting the type of shift that culture saw in that decade (By the way, I have not watched and will not watch this movie).
Furthermore, while this is not an article on the genesis of the far weightier moral issues (that is written about often enough), I would just like to point out that it was the 1920s that saw the mainstream-ization of contraception – which as Paul VI pointed out was the seed of destruction to come in the complete breakdown of the family -, and it was throughout the 1920s that saw the real development of the diabolical breakdown of our culture’s understanding of marriage, sexuality, children, etc.; just research the history of the activism and tragic successes of Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, Dora Russell, and Stella Browne. This viewpoint is validated by prophecy as well, for it was in 1917, not the 1960s, that saw the Dragon really entering the world scene in a new and unprecedented way (Red October — see Revelation 12/Fatima), and it was likely around then that we entered the 100 year reign of Satan seen by Pope Leo XIII.
So what should we do?
- Turn off the pop, rock, rap, hip hop, and other similar stations; even if you are just listening to “oldies.” Also, even “country” music today is really much more properly categorized as rock. Develop a love of silence, and when you feel the need for music, turn on some holy hymns, classical music (especially Bach and Mozart), good folk music (Celtic music seems to enjoy the broadest appeal – and for good reason), film scores (Hans Zimmer has many incredible ones), or something similar.
- Don’t be afraid to dress differently from the culture, from friends, and even from family. In fear is no way to live out your days. That is all I shall say on this point, and I will leave the specifics to you.
- If you would like to dance (if done properly it is indeed a good and wholesome endeavor, but also one which you should never let yourself feel like you have to do), then look up local contra or square dances in your area; these are actually quite common and provide the easiest way to get involved in traditional, joyful, pure, beautiful dancing.
- Support modern artists who strive to bring us new beautiful compositions. Eric Genuis comes to mind immediately, as well as Celtic Spring.
And what should we not do?
- Feel the need to tell people they are wrong. While I determine my own behavior in accordance with these cultural views of mine, I am silent 99% of the time when it comes to being with people who are even speaking their opinions of things in this realm that I disagree with. Preaching with deeds instead of words becomes doubly important when it comes to culture, and things that we cannot know with certainty to be correct on.
- Develop a disdainful attitude toward all aspects of modern culture. Like it or not, you are a member of this culture, and if you let yourself thoroughly despise it, then you will not be able to help but despise the people of it, and what a horrible fate that would be. As you know from reading this article, I am a great advocate for transforming culture, but on the other hand we cannot wait for that to happen before we use what culture we do have to bring souls to Christ. Far more important even than transforming culture is getting out to the peripheries, reaching the lost where they are, showing them Christ’s love – even if that must be done through whatever cultural tools we currently have at our disposal, and not being afraid of getting dirty in the process. Remember this paragraph if you remember nothing else from this article.
In sum, while we must be very careful not to approach cultural questions with the same fiery zeal and certainty with which we approach questions of Faith and Morals, we must also be convicted of their importance. It could perhaps be, after all, that the Culture of Death is the eventual and inevitable result of the Death of Culture.
- I am well aware that I have simplified things with my narrow focus on the 1920s; I have done so not out of ignorance but out of the need for brevity. I know there were certain cultural elements existing before the 20s that were reminiscent of it (e.g. the “ragtime” movement), as well as cultural elements introduced after the 20s that were reminiscent of the 19th century and before, and a million other complexities as well (including great variation within certain movements – the very most tame versions of swing, for example, might just eek by as acceptable), but the 1920s (and certain movements within it) is the clearest decade in which a large amount of the changes I describe took place, or were initiated.
- Some will respond to this by saying “but Pope Francis likes tango, or this or that song, or this or that movie.” I love our Holy Father, I think he is a saint, and you will not find a bigger fan than I of Evangelii Gaudium.But I do think he is wrong on certain cultural issues; dance being one of them. I also find his cultural preferences in art to be not beyond reproach, as his favorite picture is this one entitled “White Crucifixion,” shown here, in which I cannot say I find much worth admiring other than good intentions. I continue with great joy and gratitude to be submissive to and formed by his amazing documents, homilies, etc. But no, I feel no need to be formed by his cultural preferences. I am especially saddened by his approval of tango (although I do not know of him doing this as Pope, nor do I know the details of precisely what dances he has approved of), which often practically verges on pornography for those who watch it, and fornication/adultery for those who participate in it.
- There are exceptions. I cannot completely categorically condemn any one genre (except perhaps death metal). An acoustic version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” come to mind as rock songs that might be acceptable. Whether these examples and others like them (and there seems to be a somewhat steady, albeit only trickling, stream of similar examples even into today’s mainstream pop and rock) constitute true exceptions, or are simply instances of miscategorization, or if I am wrong about them being exceptions, I do not know. I do not foray into that debate because what I know now is sufficient to dictate the proper approach to which I feel called: there are only two radio stations I turn on in the car; EWTN and the classical music station (there unfortunately is no film score, folk music, or celtic station where I live!).