Without form and void, or, do manners matter in age of Facebook?

By Franklin Sanders

Culture gives a society form. Like a potter shaping his pots, culture forms and shapes not only art and literature, but all of everyday life in manners. Manners prescribe the form we use to deal with each other in every encounter, the form for properly dealing with birth, death, marriage, and all human celebrations and mourning.

When introduced, unless you aspire to belong to the utterly uncouth, you look the other person in the eyes, smile, and say, “How do you do?” These forms show that we acknowledge and respect each other – and also keep down gun and knife fights. Form is not slavery, but the indispensable aid to civilized life in every comfortable and uncomfortable situation. Form is not the strait jacket of the fanatic, but the  comfortable and elegant suit of the civilized.

Culture is self-enforcing

Culture dictates that certain forms must be followed, even in the lowest dives. A lawyer of my acquaintance recounts an altercation in a Wayne County tavern years ago. A stranger entered, ordered an adult beverage, and thought recklessly to amuse himself by throwing spitballs at a lady seated nearby.

Words of rebuke erupted from the lady’s husband. The stranger cast aspersions on the lady’s beauty. Justifiably outraged, the husband at last shot the offending stranger, not much to any onlooker’s surprise and, luckily, not much to his hurt.

At trial, the members of the bar were speculating what sort of defense the husband’s lawyer might enter for his client, seeing that numerous eyewitnesses would testify against him. With no hint of dismay, the defense lawyer carried out an ordinary trial, until the time came for his final argument to the jury. Aware something was in the wind, everyone crowded into the courtroom to listen.

It was a defense based on Wayne County manners, to a Wayne County jury. The lawyer stood before the jury and admitted his client had shot the offender, but added, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there are ten things you may not do in a Wayne County tavern, and everybody knows it. No. 1, you do not throw spitballs at another man’s wife. No. 2, you do not call another man’s wife ‘ugly,’ even if she is.”

I forget now the other eight acts forbidden in Wayne County taverns, but the jury must have agreed with them all, for they let the shooter off with the lightest possible penalty. Certain forms must be observed.

Form is vanishing

Not so long ago Southerners were famous for their forms and manners. Even the humblest and poorest dwellings observed their daily forms, especially at table. Woe betide the child who ate before the blessing, and greater woe yet waited for him who reached for the fried chicken before the preacher. Men opened doors for women, and ne’er a cussword passed their lips in female company. The F-word was unspoken, let alone the now-ubiquitous twelve letter adjective-pronoun-noun-verb-adverb. One slip and you were branded for life as unworthy of decent company.

Yet today, even in the South, form and manners are quickly disappearing. It is a bizarre experience today to attend funerals and weddings where people not only eschew the forms of decent dress (“Please! I don’t want to see your midriff bulge. Tuck it in!”), they haven’t a clue what form the occasion calls for. Like true existentialists, they choose for themselves, one from column A and one from column B, and make up the form as they go. Anything will do, so long as it’s not traditional. Dance on the coffin? Fine. Take your wedding vows off a TV show? Great. Even when the results do not reach the utterly grotesque, they offer no persuasive argument in favour of abandoning traditional forms.

The fault lies with the church

The fault for this abandonment of ancient forms lies not with the state but with the church, for the church trains our inmost hearts and tastes. For its part the state still enforces its time-honoured forms. If you doubt it, attend any court. See what happens when the judge enters and the bailiff cries, “All rise!” Remain seated, and you will quickly learn what the state thinks of form. Next the bailiff will cry out, “Oyez, Oyez, this honourable court is now in session. Draw near and ye shall be heard.” Most likely the bailiff does not say this because he secretly speaks Norman French and understands that “Oyez” means “Hear ye” in French. No, he says it because that bailiffs have used that form since memory runneth not to the contrary.

By and large, the church has abandoned form, and thus made form and manners dispensable in people’s eyes. Once every church had a set form or liturgy it followed, whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, or Roman Catholic. Growing up Presbyterian, I knew the menu every Sunday: prayers, creed, responsive reading, offering, sermon, hymns, and benediction. However, when I went to church with my Baptist grandparents, the service wasn’t much different, except for the man in front waving during the hymns. My Methodist cousins were positively high church with their liturgy filched from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It was, after all, the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Today most Protestant churches have abandoned form in a race to conform themselves to formless modernism. “Come as you are” has replaced “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” The worship permutations of shallow evangelicalism are dazzling. I have attended churches where the major draw was not the preaching but the coffee bar in the lobby, as the narthex is now called.

Worship has degenerated to an orgy of entertainment as the “seekers” relax in cushy theatre style seating, slurp their lattes, and watch worship on a colossal overhead screen to the throbbing beat of the resident rock band. No participation is required. I once attended a church (once only) where there were 1,999 men in polo shirts and one in a suit and tie. Never mind who that fellow was wearing the tie or why he never returned. That church did not, however, obliterate all form, as they were diligently traditional in collecting the offering. Some traditions never die, I reckon.

Much as it stresses the imagination, I have even heard preachers boast that they never prepare a sermon, but just preach “whatever the Lord gives them.” The results are predictably less than riveting. Why does the Lord become so stingy when we abandon the forms of study, meditation, and duty? Beats me.

Nor have the once-liturgical churches lagged behind in this race to modernist bliss. In 1979, the once starchy Episcopalians abandoned the Scripture-packed Book of Common Prayer for a more seeker-friendly liturgy that made no one uncomfortable by the insensitive and tasteless mention of sin, repentance, or orthodox Christianity. The outcome? Orthodoxy has been cast aside along with the form that inculcated it, and the Episcopal Church now ordains homosexual bishops, women, and even cats for all I know.

Roman Catholics joined the race with Vatican II, the folk Mass, and other liturgical experimentation. OK, maybe a Mass in Latin had outlived its time, but what about the rest? Meaning lives in form. No form, no meaning. New form, new meaning.

Form’s revenge

Human beings are inescapably formal. Forms do not give life meaning by themselves, but form brings the meaning of life into expression. I pull out chairs and open doors for my wife not because she is too dumb or helpless to do those things for herself, but because observing the form visibly expresses my love and respect.

The Southern statesman and philosopher John C. Calhoun said that the one condition humans cannot stand is anarchy. The boundaries of form and law — culturally or legally enforced — make life harmonious, gracious, predictable and manageable. Obedience to the law is liberty. Form’s limits draw the indispensable boundaries of freedom — and insult. Without form, freedom cannot live. Without form, the only limit to freedom is that gun in the hand of a Wayne County man, determined to avenge an insult.

I much prefer manners.

A small beginning

Most forms are enforced culturally and passed down from generation to generation by training children in them. In the South, we have a priceless cultural foundation four hundred years old, but it will die, is dying, unless we train our children in that culture. Throw a hammer through your television, and make it a family ritual to enjoy supper together. Start there. Train your children to eat with a knife and fork, to carry on intelligible conversation, and to meet strangers with a handshake and straight-on gaze. Train them to show respect for elders, peers and inferiors.

And when the boors tell you this modern world has rendered all those forms outmoded and old-fashioned, simply smile and nod. They’ll never realize that you have identified them as the nincompoops they really are.

Good manners demand that much courtesy.

Used by permission. Subscribe to the Moneychanger’s daily commentary by dropping your email address at Franklin’s website, the-moneychanger.com. Franklin Sanders is publisher of The Moneychanger, a privately circulated monthly newsletter that focuses on gold and silver and the application of Christianity to economics, culture and family life. We have subscribed to this newsletter for more than 20 years, and consider it a must read. F$149 a year. Franklin is an active trader in gold and silver (he’ll swap your green Federal Reserve rectangles and give you real money in return). He trades with savers and investors outside Tennessee. F. Sanders, The Moneychanger, P.O. Box 178, Westpoint, Tenn. 38486 Tel. 888-218-9226.

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