The Narrative of Decline

12 September 2011 One Comment

In the 18th century there was an ongoing debate referred to as “The Ancients-Moderns controversy,” in which one side argued that the present was clearly inferior to the past, especially in terms of art, virtue, and the state of civilization in general. The other side trumpeted the superiority of the present and future over the relatively ignorant past. That debate is still going on.

My instinct is to favor the “ancients” is this debate, but I am increasingly prone to say, with Theobald (Romeo and Juliet), “a plague on both your houses.” It has always been, in my estimation, “the best of times and the worst of times” (Dickens)—and always will be.

That said, I am increasing tired of the “narrative of decline” among conservatives and evangelicals. We are inundated with moaning about how bad things are in light of how good things supposedly once were. I think perhaps R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet I have cited previously in these posts, is on to something when he writes in his poem “Postscript”:

As life improved, their poems
Grew sadder and sadder.

Thomas does not say in the poem who “their” refers to, but the poem seems a subtle indictment of the emptiness of modern, consumerist society. The poem also includes the lines:

Among the forests
Of metal the one human
Sound was the lament of
The poets for deciduous language.

I would like to use Thomas’ poem for another purpose. Why, given the hope we Christians claim in God, grace, creation and love, are we so consistently mournful and pissed-off about the contemporary world–writing sadder and sadder poems, so to speak?

Daniel Taylor



One Comment »

  • redhead in rapid said:

    Related is the narrative of America’s decline. Our nation is supposedly ever on the precipice of great disaster. Right now we are economically in decline (as if the rest of world has no problems), culturally (this has been going on since at least the invention of the radio), morally (no matter your side in that debate), militarily, etc…

    The facts marshaled in support of this decline are weak myopic. For example, we are told that we are in economic decline because as a nation we make up a smaller portion of GDP (roughly 20%). To that, I say, “AMEN!” This means that the world is getting richer. Less people are dying and more people are living better. This decline has gone on since the end of WWII when the we had something like 50% of world output. Of course, half the world was a burned out shell. But let’s forget that and only consider America’s decline.

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