Contours of Culture
Image & Reality
by Ken Myers
"The dearest freshness deep down things . . ."
In 2003, I talked with journalist Mark Oppenheimer about his book, Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. That volume examined the changes to American religious life initiated by the cultural shifts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. "If someone were beamed forward in a time capsule from 1950 to today," Oppenheimer observed, "the most noticeable thing would just be that everyone dresses as if they just rolled out of bed."
In the late 1960s, America unbuttoned. The advent of an attitude of suspicion or outright hostility toward formality was, Oppenheimer argues, the must substantial cultural legacy of the 1960s. This shift away from concern for standards of formality or propriety has widely been assumed to be content-neutral. As pragmatic, rational heirs of the Enlightenment, Americans tend to scoff at the idea that the form our experience takes powerfully shapes ("in-forms") our thoughts.
But this was not merely a superficial or cosmetic adjustment. Content follows form; "the aesthetic counterculture," writes Oppenheimer, "the counterculture of style, which might seem like window dressing, could be the most radical counterculture of all. . . . And it could insinuate itself, cunningly." The now-established insouciance toward formality has nourished the modern confidence that self-expression is the highest good.
It has also reinforced the complementary assumption that there is no transcendent order in the nature of things, the honoring of which can and should be expressed in the cultural forms we communally employ and in those we prohibit. Standards of propriety, of good manners, are now widely seen—in churches and in secular culture—as engines of oppression rather than practices that orient us toward recognition of the order of Creation.
Images & Connectedness
I know of no better extended reflection on the meaningfulness of forms than a book written in 1969, when the American unbuttoning (both literally and figuratively) was just getting under way. The author is Thomas Howard, and the original title was An Antique Drum: The World as Image. The title was an allusion to T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" (and to appreciate its significance, meditation on the poem is necessary), while the more direct subtitle signals Howard's central interest: the world we live in is ordered, not random. It is a meaningful Creation, and its order must be perceived by the imagination.
Although Howard doesn't use theological language, it would be fitting to characterize the viewpoint he playfully represents in the book (are Howard's books ever without playfulness?) as sacramental. Consider this passage from the final chapter, "Bravo the Humdrum":
By "image," Howard means more than picture or symbol. Images are "exhibitions in their own way of the way things are." Creation is filled with correspondences and likenesses and connections.
In the very first chapter, Howard contrasts this view of reality with the modern, "enlightened" view that has displaced it, according to which all alleged connections (e.g., between God and Fatherhood, or between lions and kingship or authority) are merely subjective projections. So in the modern view, the faculty of imagination is one that enables us to suggest likenesses between one thing and another in order to explain discrete and separate things. But the likeness is arbitrary and contrived. In the older view—the one that Howard thinks is correct—the likenesses are there because an order is there, and imagination is the faculty that enables us to perceive given likenesses and order.
The presence of these likenesses—the fact that the world is full of images—is the justification for ritual, for manners, and for poetry. "For it is in poetry that human speech makes the supreme effort to approximate what our imagination leads us to suspect is, in fact, the way things are." And the way things are is ordered, significant, and teleological. The title given to An Antique Drum when it was reprinted by Ignatius Press is Chance or the Dance? That's a nice summary of Howard's argument: the connectedness between things in Creation is beautifully choreographic for those with eyes to see. The new subtitle is accurate but less imaginative: A Critique of Modern Secularism. Howard's book is that, but by way of being a delightful celebration of both the stuff of this world and of the permanent things they exhibit.
Not long ago, I discovered an essay by George MacDonald that may have shaped in some way Howard's own reflections. In "The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture" (that is, its proper cultivation), MacDonald provocatively insists that
The text of this essay is available on-line in several forms, and should be required reading for all teachers at Christian schools. •
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“Image & Reality” first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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