The Billboards of the Times

“From the beginning of creation,” said Jesus, when the Pharisees, seeking trouble, tried to pin Him down on the matter of divorce, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mark 10:6-8). Then divorce, according to Jesus, is not merely impermissible. It is a contradiction.

I note what Jesus did not do here. He did not take a poll of rabbinical commentators. He did not ask the Pharisees what they thought about it, in order, like Socrates, to tease out between Him and them some strand of the truth. He certainly did not turn to people in difficult marriages, or to people who had taken advantage of the Mosaic permission, which was granted, He said, “for your hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5). He returned to the source, the well-spring of being and creation. In doing so, He encourages us always to do the like; and we interpret the unchanging will of the Creator through the person, the teachings, and the works of Christ.

Yesterday I heard about the letter going roundabout the churches in Great Britain, inviting everyone to interpret the signs of the times in the dialogue that will be the action of the coming synod. I am constitutionally suspicious of people who are not forthcoming about what exactly they want to discuss and why. A conversation between friends is one thing. A dialogue among people who do not know one another and who do not know precisely why they have been convened is quite another. 

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It must be so. Free-floating conversations about “the world” are impossible, and attempts at them are a colossal waste of time. Subjects must be determined—and who determines them? Therefore, such dialogues are dominated by the worst kinds of people: the politicians, bustling about in private conversations, putting their soldiers in order, setting agendas long before ordinary people minding their business even know there are to be agendas at all, and thus directing all things, as by gloved hands working hidden levers, to their foreordained conclusions.

And which signs should we be reading? Which things are signs and which are not? Jesus rebukes the Pharisees when they demand from Him a sign from Heaven—this, after He has been teaching and working miracles for quite some time. They want their own private sign, on call, it seems. “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky,” He says, “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:3-4). That sign is both hopeful and admonitory. Jesus has already applied it to Himself, to His own death and Resurrection (Matthew 12:40). 

But outside of His death and Resurrection, no hope for man is to be found, and thus no sign for hope. “If for this life only we have hoped for Christ,” says St. Paul to those Corinthians who evidently had trouble with the notion of resurrection in the flesh, “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). For otherwise the signs of the times are dire, and we do not want to read them. “As were the days of Noah,” says Jesus, “so will be the coming of the Son of man,” unexpected, while all the people are buying and selling and marrying and giving in marriage, and the skies lour (Matthew 24:37-39).

“Looks like rain,” says one politician to the next. “Have you met with our friend yet to feel him out about our zoning plan?”

“There is nothing new under the sun,” says the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and if we are not considering the providential work of God in time and through time, this lone sentence of his contains more wisdom than does a library full of secular optimism. What signs are there to read, and who can read them? The two reading glasses provided for man without Christ are history and a shrewd knowledge of immutable human nature—the latter derived from careful observation and broad experience, or from literature, the distilled wisdom of mankind. Think of that great sign-reader Tocqueville. 

Yet what is modernism if not a contemptuous rejection of history, because, to use church-like terms, the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in the world, or, to come down closer to earth, we now have television and toilet paper? And what is modernism in the arts, if not a contemptuous rejection of tradition, and even, as inevitably as the night follows the day, a rejection of the norms of beauty and wisdom to which the men of all cultures in their various and uncertain ways have testified?

If there is any sign of the times we are in, it is that nobody can read signs. Our Church has a greater and broader cache of historical experience than any institution in the world, now or in times past, and we do not avail ourselves of it. Our Church is founded upon truths that do not ebb and flow with the tides—that do not change because a Herod is on the throne, or because a committee of indifferently educated congregants would displace Herod and do his bloody work in a kindlier and gentler style. But we must read, and if we do not read signs, what do we read?

We read billboards. That was what the people in Jesus’ time were reading, polls and billboards. Caiaphas read the polls and drew this conclusion: that it was expedient “that one man should die for the people, and the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). The chief priests read the polls, and that is why “they planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus” (John 12:10-11). 

Billboards always promise something new, but billboards themselves are not new at all. They have things to sell, and people, having grown weary of this old new thing under the sun, turn instead to that old new thing under the sun. The collapse of marriage in our time, the single greatest moral calamity to befall us, is an old new thing; what is new is the technology and the massive wealth that permit us to think we can get away with it. But I doubt that the synodists will be talking about that.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


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