Color Me Audacious

Recently, during a Bible class at my church, the teacher, a man in his early 30s, said something to this effect: I wish we could return to our 1950s morality.

I immediately thought: Which 1950s morality are you talking about? The black and white, warm and fuzzy, cut and dry predictability of Ozzie and Harriet or the black and white Jim Crow laws and state-supported racism which consigned a significant portion of our Southern population to second-class citizenship, public lynchings and other various and sundry travesties of justice?

And what year were you born in? 1975? What could you possibly know about “1950s morality?”

I started to raise my hand and say something, but one good swift elbow in the ribs from Eyegal took care of that.

Be careful what you wish for, I say. I understand the angst behind the comment (to wit, this summer’s #1 pop song), but as my dear friend, The Preacher in Ecclesiastes, said:

“Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

–Ecclesiastes 7:10

Politicians, preachers and pundits often traffic in fear, whipping up (or exaggerating) a crisis in order to solidify their power, fire up the troops and open up their wallets.

You know what I’m talking about:

The country is going to hell-in-a-handbasket!

Traditional morality is going down the tubes. Man your battle stations!

The church is going astray–it’s up to us to keep it on “the old paths.”

This election is the scariest one in a long time. We must cover it in prayer to make sure that, you know, that guy doesn’t get elected…

Yeah, the scariest one since what, 1960? As if one president is going to make or break this country…please.

Frankly, I’m sick of it.

So, I decided to counter a little of that ever-pervasive gloom and doom with some fond–and optimistic–recollections and stories from my recent trip to Washington, D.C. in my next community column. Read all about it in this Sunday’s Huntsville Times.

I know what the cynics will say: That’s awfully hopeful of you.

Well, you know, just color me audacious.

  1. Mike the Eyeguy

    Everyone, be sure to read the Ken Collins article found under the first link.

    He, and Edward Fudge, although “virtual,” have been about the only real pastors that I’ve had since I moved to Huntsville.

  2. JRB

    Yes, you can!

  3. JRB

    Last summer, our church was doing a series of community events on our front lawn, inviting the surrounding neighborhoods and such. Each small group was given a week to run the show, and each week had a theme, Mayberry, Football, etc.

    Ours? The 50s! Yeah! Poodle Skirts, bobbie socks, Elvis!

    In the organizational meeting while people were discussion decorations, I said, “Are we gonna have colored restrooms?” Only a couple of people laughed, awkwardly. My wife’s elbow wasn’t fast enough.

    Somehow, after that I managed to secure the main preaching/devo role for the evening. I preached under a big tent in the Alabama night about the great virtues of the Christians in Montgomery in in the mid-1950s who initiated and sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott and referenced a young preacher from Montgomery at the time, on Dexter Avenue, who organized it.

    I never mentioned that, of course, none of our people were there, but everyone was happy that I emphasized the Christian nexus of the Civil Rights movement without being too “racial.”

    I was born in 1975.

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    I just found it ironic that a guy in his early 30s was pining for the 1950s as if he had actually been there and knew what they had really been like.

    Of course, I really don’t think he was. He was just saying what he thought everybody there would like to hear.

    Oh yeah, I forgot about the Gospel According to Mayberry! I bet you don’t know where that particular idea originated, do you? (click here)

    For the record, I enjoyed that class very much. I just didn’t care for all the hype (not the fault of the teachers, BTW) which got just a wee bit out of control.

  5. wisdom

    Great thoughts, Eyeguy!.

    I’ve often wondered about the way people draw a line when it comes to their perception of sin. Is a supposed increase in sexual promiscuity and “deviancy” worse than not sharing a water fountain with someone because of their skin color?

    Now, as a deacon in a Memphis church that is at least 50% black, the whole idea that state-imposed racism ever existed seems especially atrocious.

  6. Hal

    History. There are too many people who don’t know history well and are bound to make ignorant comments like you mentioned. Kudos to Eyegal for her quick elbow, but I wish I could have heard the exchange that may have ensued had her elbow not reached the intended target in time. I’m guessing, though, that your teacher meant the Ozzie and Harriet kind of morality and it didn’t even occur to him the other kinds of evils and sins that were in the world during the 50s.

    I recently read “Truman” by David McCoulough, and excellent biography. He rallied for civil rights in 1948, an election year. Everyone told him it was political suicide, but he didn’t care. He told his advisors that he was going to do what was right for the nation and the people of the nation over what may be what was best for his political career. If only we had more elected officials who shared that ideal.

    One of the incidents that spurred Harry Truman to make civil rights reforms was when a busload of black soldiers returned from serving our country in WWII. They got off their bus in Mississippi and were beaten and murdered. They had survived the most brutal war in the history of the world and the thanks they received from their countrymen was to be slaughtered in their own backyard.

  7. Mike the Eyeguy

    Thanks Matt, and welcome.

    Psychologist Richard Beck over at Abilene, whom I’m sure you’ve heard of, has done some rather amazing analyses of similar questions over at his blog. It’s thick reading at times, but worth it (and not for the faint of heart).

    It does seem atrocious–40-50 years later. But I always try to temper my judgment of history with the question: What would I have done under similar circumstances? Would I have supported it or would I have marched? Even if I had objected, would I have spoken up or remained quiet out of concern for the safety of my family?

    Indeed, what do I do today when similar events occur?

    Someday, some future generation will judge my generation’s morality. What will be the verdict?

    I have some dim memories of the mid-60s and my father for whom reconciliation among black and white CoC congregations in SW Virginia was a particular cause and passion. I’ll have to do a blog post about that someday.

    I’m envious of your church situation. My rather large “white bread” congregation could do with a little more color.

    But then again, what am I doing about it?

  8. Mike the Eyeguy

    Hal, I bet A. has a sharp elbow too. 🙂

    Yeah, I think he meant just that. He was young, nervous (I think teaching for the first time) and sure didn’t deserve to be jumped by me! And he would have probably conceded the point even if I had brought it up.

    Thanks for the history refresher on Truman. I’ve always wanted to read that biography. It’s interesting how those who “sow the seed” rarely get to see the crop. Amen, to more “The Buck Stops Here” politicians and leaders in general.

    Truman shot straight–just like my wife. Of course, they’re both Missouri “Show Mes.”

  9. -bill

    Great thoughts, brother! I once heard something similar to this re: returning to the “glory days of the church.” That was actually to published title of a presentation at a preachers’ gathering. Imagine my shock when I learned that from this speaker’s point-of-view the glory days of the church were in the 1950’s. Well, I left the gathering early that day. ‘nuf said.

  10. Mike the Eyeguy

    Thanks, Bill. There are several churches in our area that remain firmly committed to the so-called “glory days” of the ’50s. Some of them are about to close their doors. Others look poised for another generation, mainly through their children and grandchildren who have remained and will carry on the older generation’s conservative legacy.

    My church is about 50-50. There is plenty of ’50s boilerplate thrown out every Sunday to satisfy the nostalgic older folks, and enough innovations (Powerpoint, praise songs, and even miked praise teams on Wed night–but not on Sunday, heaven forbid) to convince the young families with kids that they are attending a more “progressive” congregation.

    They would call it “blended,” but really most of the time it just looks and sounds jumbled up and confused. It will be interesting to see what they look like–and how many people are still coming–in about 20 years once the older folks are gone.

  11. jduckbaker

    I hope it looks different in 20 years, but I’m afraid it won’t. I don’t believe it is the younger generation that will change our church. I have had too many experiences now with people who are in my peer group (30s) and younger who have been brought up in such a way that they are just going to go along with what they have known (even the confused stuff you are talking about- Wed vs. Sun services, etc). They aren’t about to make a radical change or bold step.

    I think it will be individuals, young and old- and individual families, who will make changes. I do wonder if it would all be too hard for individual families to take, and will just be easier to leave and find another body to worship with, or just easier to go along with status quo.

    I pray often that God will instill in me a spirit of boldness in the areas that He wants me to be bold. And to help me not to become tired and complacent and apathetic. I don’t want our girls to learn that. It’s a struggle.

  12. Mike the Eyeguy

    You’re probably right.

    I knew a man about 10 yrs ago who was in his late 40s at the time. Life long CoC, he and his wife had raised their kids “in the church,” (they were leaving home and going off to college at the time) were very active, served in all areas, had done everything there was to do “without complaining.”

    So when the preaching became stale and tepid and the decision-making of leadership became more based on what was best for the corporate bottom line as opposed to what was best for making disciples, he began very gently to “complain.”

    They told him to stop “complaining” and get with the program. He and his wife are now very happy worshiping and serving with a small, rural United Methodist congregation.

    Come to think of it, that guy sounds a lot like me!

  13. Bill Gnade

    Dear Mike,

    I thank you for the very interesting link regarding Ms. Katy Hudson/Perry’s latest hit. Of course, you no doubt know that Christian artists are often dismissed as derivative, vendors of mere pastiche. Ms. Perry’s song, “I Kissed A Girl,” is certainly provocative, but it can’t be anymore provocative than the 1995 song, “I Kissed A Girl,” by Jill Sobule. Well, maybe it can. But it cannot be any more original. It seems that Ms. Perry’s reinvention of herself has not freed her from the stigma of being nothing but a mediocre copycat.

    (I must say that Sobule’s lyrics seem to confirm the claims made by some that homosexuality is actually narcissism: “I kissed a girl/kissing her was like kissing me.” Nice.)

    As for the 1950s nostalgia, I think it has merit. We can berate ourselves for the legacy of racism wherein hate and abuse were hurled at less than 10 percent of the population. It was shockingly immoral. Now we’ve cleaned ourselves up a bit; now we just abuse upwards of 1/2 of a certain tiny population. Actually, in a very real sense, we abuse all of that population.

    In 1955, it is doubtful that a professor like Peter Singer would hold a chair at a major university; I doubt he’d be as popular as he is. I don’t think in 1954 we’d watch thousands of men marry each other; I doubt the WSJ would have run an article noting that recession-proof businesses in the 2000’s would revolve around such manufacturing high-points as the production of groom & groom wedding cake ornaments. That some churches are now given to redefining the sacraments may have been pre-figured in the 1950s — somewhere — but I don’t think so.

    Of course, every age probably slips closer to the abyss while flattering itself that it has expunged some inherited vice.

    I am not naïve. I know the sins of my father … and mother. But there was indeed something lovelier about that post-traumatic (read WWII) decade. And I recently read a book wherein it was asserted that the decadence of the 1960s was merely a delayed reaction to and fulfillment of the 1920s: had the country not been so wracked by two world wars, the 1960s would have happened in the 1930s. (Confusingly, that means the 1980s were the real 1950s. What this would have meant for The Beatles eludes me.)


    Bill Gnade

  14. Mike the Eyeguy

    Duly noted, Bill.

    All the same, I think I’m sticking with The Preacher on this one.

    Just curious, did you even read the first link in this post? Did you even read my column?

    Or were the words “optimistic” and “diverse” nothing more than Pavolvian cues for you to bring up abortion just as they apparently were for Hal (see following post) to bring up gay marriage?

    And another thing: When you lie awake in the still of the night, do you ever blink? You know, wonder–and doubt–whether or not, with the things that you’ve written over the past few months, you’ll end up being on the wrong side of history on this one?

    Like I said, just curious.

  15. Bill Gnade

    Dear Michael,

    I pray all is well with you.

    It has taken me 11 days to respond to your comment. I’ve been trying to think how I might best respond without revealing my hurt. I decided that there is no reason to hide it.

    When I posted the comment I did, I thought two things. First, I thought I was expressing myself in a safe place. Second, I thought I was being funny, witty, ironic and playful. Nothing I wrote was meant to harm or hurt or upbraid. At the very least, I was merely trying to be interesting.

    My opinions are just that. There is nothing new under the sun, really, about who I am or what I try to do. Too often I strain towards an originality I can never find. But I try. And what I was trying to do in my comment in this thread was to talk about plain things, about obvious things. My choosing to mention homosexuality and abortion in the context of a discussion on morality was perfectly apt, as I was merely choosing two emblematic, well-known and relatively easy to understand moral issues. I am sorry if I disappointed you for not choosing esoterica, though my reference to Peter Singer was definitely not meant to highlight the predictable. And I am also sorry you believe I’ve acted Pavlovian, or, more accurately, like a conditioned dog in a psych lab. I just didn’t find it necessary to strain for new ground, partly because discussing Jim Crow and racism in the 1950s did not strike me as anything other than old-ground predictability.

    You may be right to heed the Preacher’s words, but I find the Preacher to be often rather incomplete. His “everything is meaningless” trope is generally too nihilistic for me. But regarding his warning about looking over our shoulder, well, perhaps he is right. Surely Lot would agree. But I note that the writers of the New Testament, and the teachings of our Lord, do seem rather clear that things are to worsen in the “end times.” Of course, I have no idea what is meant by that locution, but perhaps we can agree to this: that things have gotten worse since Eden. It would seem to me that the biblical narrative — or its meta-narrative, if I must — consists entirely of things going from good to bad.

    But I don’t know. What seems at least possible is that civilizations and cultures travel this downhill slope: they begin in glory and disappear in infamy, tragedy or some hidden ignominy. But they do begin, or mature, in something akin to innocence, and they do pass away, often in something very much like corruption. My own life is a bit like that: I often find myself longing for the past — though C. S. Lewis might say such longing is really for the future — you know, I long for when I was younger, purer, less injured. Maybe it is wrong for me to feel this way; and maybe it is wrong for me to anthropomorphize history, believing that juvenescence is less damaged than senescence; that an earlier age is less impure than a later age.

    While it may be the case that the 1950s were a dreadful time, with cars without seat belts; with bomb shelters and Sputnik and the Red Scare and McCarthyism, I hear today about increased obesity, climbing rates of depression, or that since Roe v. Wade, unwanted pregnancies have actually sky-rocketed. I think of today’s sex slave trade, or just the sexual addictions formed via the internet, and I wonder. I read studies showing that motorists actually drive closer to bicyclists who wear helmets and move away from cyclists who don’t, and I wonder if our technology is really an improvement, that it gives us a false sense of ourselves, blinding us to the fragility of life, padding us against “the bad.” I hear of studies showing us that technology fragments rather than unites communities; that people are making less meaningful connections today than they did before the advent of the motorcar, the TV, the telephone, the iPod.

    You ask whether I ever lie awake at night; whether I ever blink. What do you think, Mike? Do you think I am a man of certainties? No, Mike. I am a man of fears, countless soul-shaking fears. Doubts assail me from every side. I’ve lost friends, family, in the tide of time; in the debate over truth, the real, the good. I’ve known what it means to be ostracized, mocked. I have been sleepless more than you can know. And if I do not blink, it’s because I can’t. Things hurt too much.

    As for whether I at all fear being on the wrong side of history, I can assure you I do not. History’s judgments mostly mean nothing to me, as I see history as nothing more than the approval or disapproval of men. Rather, I fear that I am on the wrong side of God. I fear delusion, deception. I fear manipulation. I fear blindness. I fear damnation and annihilation.

    All I can do is to have faith in the God Who promises me that all kinds of hell must pass, including the destruction of the earth, before I will find what I’ve been looking for in my longing for lost innocence, in my backward glance at an earlier time.

    The look backward shows me what is lost. And the look forward, which I do fearfully and hopefully, shows me what must be lost before innocence and I meet again.


    Bill Gnade

  16. Mike the Eyeguy

    Bill, it appears that in my zeal to make my point that I offended you and made you feel less than welcome (and as you said, “safe”) and for that I am truly sorry.

    Of course you made good points as always, but I do think we have fundamentally different views when it comes to the narrative arc of history. I see it as neither an uninterrupted march toward progress nor as a relentless “slouching toward Gomorrah,” but instead as very much a staggering, lurching gait, not unlike a drunk: two steps forward, one step back, with an occasional “SPLAT!” on the side of the road.

    What other conclusion can I draw when I look back into history and see that every generation has complained about “today’s corrupt youth,” general moral decay and pined for the “good old days?”

    Even Elijah despaired that all was lost only to learn that there were still “7000 men who have not bowed their knees to Baal.” And yet here we all are, and round and round she goes.

    I may be wrong, but I think that is the point The Preacher was trying to make.

    I do disagree with your assertion, though, that the biblical meta-narrative “consists entirely of things going from good to bad.”

    What about the kingdom metaphor of a tree whose branches fill the earth? Doesn’t that imply “progress?” Is this not an ongoing process although obviously far from complete? Has not the salt scattered by the better angels of the Christian church over the past two millennia counted for something or had at least some salutatory effect?

    Are not scientific knowledge and technology, despite their mixed legacy, salutatory effects born of the very-Christian belief in an orderly creation that could be explored and “tamed” for good?

    Perhaps it was the Pavlov reference that offended the most and I apologize if that sounded condescending. But the fact is (and here you must forgive an old psych major like me for returning to the lab to make my point) we all have our conditioned responses. To wit, I tend to react strongly when people look at the past through exclusively rose-colored glasses and remain blind to the progress that has been made.

    As to my references to Jim Crow laws and racism being “old ground predictability” in your words, I sincerely hope that you’re right that this has been rendered “old news.” But after checking my email inbox these days, I’m not so sure. I think we will learn much about ourselves on this count over the next few months.

    My “wrong side of history” and “things you’ve written” references were specifically directed toward your opposition to Barack Obama and I should have made that more plain. It doesn’t appear to me, judging from the posts on your blog and at (such as this one), that you’ve blinked at all on that count.

    Again, that’s fine–it’s an election year–have at it! But as you have correctly noted before, my “cool ambivalence” prevents me from being quite so confident in my very qualified and cautious support of his candidacy. So in that context, I think my question was a fair one–do you ever “blink” or have doubts about that specific thing?

    But if you indeed having trouble sleeping, my friend, I sincerely wish you many good Zzzs soon! I’m no stranger to insomnia myself, and I would never wish that on anyone or make light of it in any way.

    These are strange times, Bill, and many people are on edge. Reasonable people of all stripes must stick together, and I apologize for any obstacle that I have placed between you and me or anyone else who might have been offended by my response.

    Again, I like Garrison Keillor here: “Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”

    I’ll aim to keep my own fires burning gently. Peace to you, old friend.

  17. Bill Gnade

    Dear Mike,

    God bless you. Please know that, though we have never met, I love you like a brother (in Christ, of course).

    We DO disagree, perhaps on many things. Again, I apologize for dragging out the boilerplate social issues of our time; I apologize for being so thin-skinned. You brought up race, another boilerplate issue; we both probably fell into cliché (well, I did anyway). As usual, I probably got carried away.

    You cite “The Preacher”. May I cite him? Here’s a passage that deserves more study, I believe:

    “And I saw that ALL labor and ALL achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor.” (Ecc. 4:4) [emphasis added]

    Pretty heavy-hitting stuff, for sure.

    Have you ever read “ENVY: A Theory of Social Behavior” by Helmut Schoeck? It was written in 1968. It was a ground-breaking work then, and it is still one today (despite the claims of some of the Amazon reviewers who clearly either did not read the book or did and are afraid of it). I read it last winter. It is easily in the top 5 of my “Most influential books” list. It could even be #2 (and some days, it may be #1). I’ve recommended the work to only a few people; I fear that it will shake the faith of many who read it.

    I pass this along solely because you mentioned “The Preacher.” But I do think you will find it fascinating. Seriously.

    Again, all peace and bliss to you. You are a dear man. (I am a rabbit man.)

    Peace and mirth,


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