In 1969 the world of television hit one of its finest moments when the British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, produced a documentary called “Civilization.” He traced the development of western civilization over the last 1500 years, traveling with his camera crew to the places he was discussing and to the museums that house the artifacts of yesteryear. It was an excellent format, copied by many others, such as Francis Schaeffer and Ken Burns.
Clark expanded his message and presented it in book form (Civilization, Harper and Row, 1969). Here are the book’s closing paragraphs:
“I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs. Fifty years ago W. B. Years, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous prophetic poem.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.
“Well, that was certainly true between the wars, and it damn nearly destroyed us. Is is true today? Not quite, because good people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no centre. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.”
Clark was writing nearly half a century ago and quoting a poet from half a century before that. He could just as well found a similar idea from even earlier. In1610, John Donne wrote as if speaking of our own day.
“‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone; / All just supply, and all relation:/ Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot, / For every man alone thinks he hath got / To be a phoenix, and that there can be / None of that kind, of which he is, but he.”
Or Clark could have found the idea in Yeat’s younger contemporary, T. S. Eliot, writing in 1925:
“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”
What do things look like now? I will speak first only for myself. I was hollow, empty inside but Jesus Christ filled me and became my center. Having faced both cancer and a severe kidney failure this past year, I can testify that the center has held. Jesus Christ has been faithful and has created coherence where the doctors saw only chaos. I have happily affirmed each day that “This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it. . .whatever comes.”
For me the great sadness is not just that we have lost our cultural coherence but that the Evangelical Church, of which I am a part, has had so little of value to say to our culture. We have not listened to our poets or to anyone else. We have not understood the cultural shifts in terms that help anyone else. And we have not spoken words of faith and justice, creativity and coherence to anyone else.
It is not too late for us to listen with patience and speak with love, not too late for us to gain knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We can be the bearers of hope. . .by the grace of God.