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Vulgar Christianity

June 21, 2016 — 7 Comments

vulgarityIf I were to say “vulgar Christianity is a good thing,” what would you think?

It depends, doesn’t it, on the meaning you ascribe to the word “vulgar.” For, even though it is most often used in a derogatory sense today, vulgar also means common or genuine.

Here, in modified order, are some definitions gleaned from an internet dictionary. The first three represent the most vulgar use of the word.

Vulgar, 1350-1400; Middle English < Latin vulgāris, equivalent to vulg (us) the general public + -āris -ar

  1. characterized by ignorance of or lack of good breeding or taste: vulgar ostentation.
  2. indecent; obscene; lewd: a vulgar work; a vulgar gesture.
  3. crude; coarse; unrefined: a vulgar peasant.

The next two definitions relate to the more historic, rather less crass application of the word.

  1. of, relating to, or constituting the ordinary people in a society: the vulgar masses.
  2. lacking in distinction, aesthetic value, or charm; banal; ordinary: a vulgar painting.
  3. current; popular; common: a vulgar success; vulgar beliefs.

The final definition of vulgar relates to language: “spoken by, or being in the language spoken by, the people generally; vernacular: vulgar tongue.”

The most visible adaptation of the root word likely comes in the title of the Latin translation of the Holy Scriptures completed by the ascetic saint, Jerome (347-420). The Vulgate, came to be called in Latin versio vulgata or vulgata editio, which meant the commonly used or read version.

Vulgarity in C.S. Lewis

Naturally, Lewis did not communicate in a vulgar (objectionable) way. He did, however, strive to reach the common men and women of the day, doing so more effectively than many clergy appear(ed) capable.

There are ample examples of the wide use of the word in Lewis’ works. In “Christianity and Culture,” he distinguishes between objective and subjective assessments of the value of literature.

A bad book is to be deemed a real evil in so far as it can be shown to prompt to sensuality, or pride, or murder, or to conflict with the doctrine of Divine Providence, or the like. The other dyslogistic terms dear to critics (vulgar, derivative, cheap, precious, academic, affected, bourgeois, Victorian, Georgian, “literary,” etc.) had better be kept strictly on the taste side of the account.

In discovering what attitudes are present you can be as subtle as you like. But in your theological and ethical condemnation (as distinct from your dislike of the taste) you had better be very un-subtle. You had better reserve it for plain mortal sins, and plain atheism and heresy.

For our passions are always urging us in the opposite direction, and if we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgements.

In Studies in Words, we gain an interesting insight into Lewis’ understanding of himself. He discusses how the concept of “bourgeois,” which simply means middle-class or conventional, is twisted by elitists to mean something offensive.

All my life the epithet bourgeois has been, in many contexts, a term of contempt, but not for the same reason. When I was a boy—a bourgeois boy—it was applied to my social class by the class above it; bourgeois meant “not aristocratic, therefore vulgar.”

When I was in my twenties this changed. My class was now vilified by the class below it; bourgeois began to mean “not proletarian, therefore parasitic, reactionary.” Thus it has always been a reproach to assign a man to that class which has provided the world with nearly all its divines, poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians, painters, doctors, architects, and administrators.

I am so happy, and blessed, that C.S. Lewis was a vulgar man . . . just like me.

For those who have read this far, I offer now one of Lewis’ poem with a related theme. Enjoy.

On a Vulgar Error

No. It’s an impudent falsehood. Men did not

Invariably think the newer way

Prosaic mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot

Upon the church? Did anybody say

How modern and how ugly? They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot

With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,

Were these at first a horror? They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food

All set us hankering after yesterday,

Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood

By sharpers, when he finds all drained away

Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor’s breezy ineptitude

Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway

All that I can’t do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry

The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

_____

The image above is taken from Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Pierce Egan (1823). Caution, even though this slang is centuries old, some of it is vulgar in every sense of the word; it may even cause one to blush.

I had a disturbing conversation today. He was from Texas, a state my family resided in during my first Air Force tour. What troubled me was a recent experience he had that revealed even “down south,” where courtesies long forgotten by most on the west coast still prevail, rudeness is on the rise.

The man I was talking to is a crippled veteran, a Marine in fact. We were discussing the number of people who don’t think twice about “stealing” clearly marked disabled parking spaces from those who genuinely need them.

He related that as he returned to his car recently, there was a young man just getting out of his own vehicle in the adjacent, reserved space. There was no indication on the vehicle that it was authorized to use the space, and neither the man nor his passenger evidenced any disability.

The veteran said, “maybe you didn’t realize it, but that’s a handicapped space you just parked in.”

His words elicited an emotional backlash as the driver (in his twenties) unleashed a barrage of vulgarity and curses at this stranger who had dared to point out his discourteous act.

After his rant, the trash-talker’s father interjected, “hey, it’s none of your business where my son parks, anyway, what do you expect us to do?”

The Marine stood his ground and said, “someone who needs that spot won’t be able to use it if you’re there. If you don’t want to move it now, perhaps the police can persuade you to do it when they arrive.”

As he pulled his phone out of his pocket, the grumbling older man persuaded his fuming son to move the car before the call could go through.

As disgusting as this scene was, I’m sure it’s reenacted across the globe in hundreds of locales every day.

I shared with my new friend the first thought that entered my mind when I heard the question: “what do you expect us to do?”

I told him I would have been tempted to shout: “What I expect is for you, as a father, to feel some modicum of shame for the disgusting way your son is acting.”

What used to be universally regarded as inappropriate conduct now appears to have become the norm. This decline has been in progress for some time. C.S. Lewis referred to the slide in public mores in a 1945 essay.

“We have lost the invaluable faculty of being shocked—a faculty which has hitherto almost distinguished the Man or Woman from the beast or child.” (“After Priggery—What?”)

If I had been there to voice the words that leapt to my mind—and if the foul-mouthed individual didn’t beat me into deaf unconsciousness—I would be curious to see if my statement elicited the slightest glimmer of shame in either father or the son.

There is an irony interwoven into this tale, as is true in so much of life. Although I don’t hijack disabled parking spaces . . . there is much in my life for which I should be—and am—ashamed. As I consider my own selfishness and sin, I am reminded that I am no more deserving of God’s grace than either of the men I am so quick to condemn.

Here too C.S. Lewis offers wise insight. In The Problem of Pain he describes how it is only in sincere, naked self-examination and confession that we can see ourselves as we truly are. “Unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one.”

Shame is part of the life of the Christian. And, I would suggest, in the life of every healthy person. I’m not talking about debilitating shame that leads to despair or self-loathing. I’m referring to that shame that is itself a divine gift. The shame that reminds me I should strive to be a better person today than the man I was yesterday.

A shame that drives me to my knees in prayer and moves me to echo the prayers of millions of believers before me and this very day alongside me . . . “forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”