On The Coarsening of Culture and What We Have Lost

There was a movie from back in the late 1990s called “Blast From The Past” The Movie begins in the early 60s at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. An eccentric man and his pregnant wife have built and elaborate fallout shelter underground in their backyard. It is no ordinary bomb shelter but a large and well stocked one that even allows the growing of food and fish and has many amenities.

When a plane crashes nearby they think the country is under attack and that the Atom Bomb has hit. They run into the shelter and lock it behind them setting the automatic locks not to open for 35 years when the radiation had dissipated.

During this time the pregnant wife gives birth to their son, Adam whom they raise in that shelter. Adam receives the usual education one would expect in the early 60s, strong on reading, writing and arithmetic, American and world history. He also obtains a liberal arts college education from his father who was a professor. The education included Latin, Greek, French and German. Adam also learns all the usual social skills of that time such as basic manners, how to treat a lady, ballroom dancing, the meaning of life. He is also raised to reverence God.

In a way the family was frozen in time and preserved the values of that time of the early 60s. The film does not present that time as flawless. The mother has a bit of a drinking problem, the father is rather eccentric and xenophobic etc.

Suddenly it is 1997 and the locks come open. The family makes its first excursion since the “bomb” went off. The father expects to find that those who survived will show signs of radiation poisoning and that the world will surely manifest many signs of the destruction the bomb surely wrought so they go forth cautiously.

Now, you and I know that no atom bomb ever did go off. Or did it? As they emerge from the bomb shelter the once quaint neighborhood they lived in has become a red light district. They see shocking things. Not only prostitutes and adult book stores, but also drug addicts, trash-filled streets and signs of grave disorder. People are coarse in their behavior etc. They run back into the shelter concluding that things are worse than they thought. They send their son Adam out to get provisions and possibly to find a wife if he can locate someone who is less effected by the “radiation.” Then they will once again throw the locks on the shelter and wait for things to improve on the outsiide lest they be poisoned by it all. In this scene Adam emerges from the shelter and first encounters a drug addict who thinks Adam is God. Adam then goes forth and sees things and people outside for the first time.

As Adam goes forth he discovers that beyond the world of the red light district is less devastated but he still struggles with what he experiences. Families seem in disarray, people are coarse, cynical, and use God’s name in vain. The technology amazes him as do simple things like rain, the open sky and the ocean. In this scene he is troubled by some modern cultural trends and then sees the ocean for the first time:

It is quite clear to us who watch the movie that much has been lost. Adam is head and shoulders above the modern people who surround him. He is kind, respectful, polite, innocent in his interpretation of the world. He is much smarter than those around him as well, having quite an encyclopedic knowledge compared to the moderns around him. In this scene two things are illustrated: his superior education and also his coming to grips with modern technology. How can a computer (giant in his world) be in a house?

And he can dance, really dance! Not just the gyrating common in modern dance floors but the flawless execution of 40s swing is natural to him since he was trained in every form of ballroom dancing by his parents. Here is a dance scene that shows that, while dancing was getting a little risque it still required training and talent. Pardon some of the language in this clip but remember the coarsening of culture is what is in on display here.

He is befriended by a young lady named Eve and her brother. They think him to be strange and naive but come to discover he has much to teach. In this scene they ponder something he has taught them about graciousness, kindness and the blessing of strong family ties.

This movie is worth seeing. It is not preachy (like me). It gently suggests to us that we have lost some important things in the past 40 years. Things like kindness, optimism, the value of traditional education, the importance of parents teaching and raising their kids. In many ways the movie gently suggests that we have become coarse, cynical, even vulgar. Family ties have often been severed and culture has melted down to more base level. Education is less thorough and broad, simple things like learning to dance are lost. As I have already said, the early 1960s was not a perfect time. Many troublesome cultural trends were already well underway. These are not unreported in the movie. But still the point remains, some things of great value have been lost. A young man steps out the past and is bewildered by what he finds. Technology is impressive, but people seem lost and cynical. The world is hostile and disordered. But he brings with him some healing balm, some of the best virtues of the past, to remind us all that we have lost important things along the way. The bomb did go off. Not the Atom Bomb but an even more devastating cultural bomb. Rebuilding will take time.

34 Replies to “On The Coarsening of Culture and What We Have Lost”

  1. This movie has always been one of my very favorites. It is so completely subversive!

    I cannot imagine how it ever came to be made! Did no one notice what was being said about the current state of our society?

    I guess if you load up a Hollywood movie with enough stars, even a moral fable can pass through undetected!

    This should be an inspiration to Godly filmmakers everywhere: Craft your work with care and it may slip undetected into mainsteam media!

    As always, so much to be thankful for!

  2. Great post! I do think our culture has become quite coarse. I am sure dating is quite a bit different now than it was back then, too. I am definitely not a typical lady – everything my dad told me girls couldn’t do of course I tried. Driving stick shift, working on muscle cars, pretty much all the sports and stuff boys like to do. I am still something of a tomboy and prefer workout clothes to a dress any day. Am I coarse for a woman? Maybe so, but it depends on how you see it. One person could see me as well rounded while another could think I could stand to be a lot more ladylike. Maybe another definition of coarse is what you mentioned above : how our culture uses so much profanity, how people curse our Lord, the whole hook-up culture – I could go on and on. Great observations, Monsignor, you always get me thinking!

    1. I learned to drive on a stick shift (a 1974 Chevy Vega that my friends named the Toilet Flush because that’s what it sounded like when I pushed in the clutch) and continued to drive cars with a manual transmission.

      When my 1993 Escort was about ready to bite the dust I bought an automatic-transmission Taurus. It seems that nowadays manual-transmission station wagons are rather a rare breed, at least those within my price range.

      I feel as though I’ve gone to the dark side…

  3. Thank you for this post, Monsignor. Nice to know that some current movies aren’t afraid to present such truths. BTW, don’t ever feel bad about being “preachy”!

  4. If there’s anything original justice and the graces Christ has won for us has taught me, it is this: to desire the past is futile, but to hope in God for something better is always rewarded.

  5. Msgr, I respectfully disagree. Certainly, there are coarse and crude elements to our culture these days; just as there always has been. I do not subscribe to the ‘things were better back in the day’ line of thought. I suspect that each (older) generation looks back with some sadness, if not bitterness, at how much things have changed; while each (younger) generation embraces change. Those in their teens or twenties today will look back in a similar manner in three or four decades time (God help me, I’ll be in my eighties then, what will I think of the world!?!).

    I do think, however, that the coarseness and vulgarity to which you refer is there, is glorified by certain sections of society, and is viewed as ‘cool’ or the norm for some. It can be hard to swim against that filthy tide. It is part of our mission as Catholics, to reject that life personally and be seen to do so publicly; and, I suspect you would add, preach against it too. Thanks for doing so.

    1. Yes, I tried to indicate in two places in the post that I am NOT saying merely that things were better “back in the day.” Somme things like racism were not better. However, my point is that there are things that we have lost. Many of the basic numbers were better: lower divorce rates, lower teenage pregnancy, lower dropout rates, higher test scores for our children viz other parts of the world, indecent expression was more limited etc. So my argument is not that everything was better but rather that some important things have been lost.

    2. “Msgr, I respectfully disagree. Certainly, there are coarse and crude elements to our culture these days; just as there always has been. I do not subscribe to the ‘things were better back in the day’ line of thought.”

      Graduates of Catholic youth groups, even the ones who stay as regular churchgoers, now make casual jokes in mixed company about things that would have been unspeakable in the past, like obscure pornographic perversions. The ladies, even NFP-using wives, indulge in same-sex kissing to titillate the men. “It’s always been this way!” doesn’t capture the crisis we’re in. Racism is now taboo, but gross indecency is practically expected.

  6. Many days when I leave my home I feel like I left the safety of the bombshelter. As my faith has strengthed over the last couple of years my disgust with what I see in the world has certainly grown. Just go to your local mall or watch an hour of TV to see what is now acceptable.

  7. Coarse and vulgar is definitely all around me, from the woman’s T-shirt in church that said “kick a-s” to scruffy kids in ill fitting clothes at the local decaying mall. (I actually saw a man on the second floor spit over the railing, thankfully there were plants just beneath.)

    For a better tomorrow, kill your TV today.

  8. I’m afraid that we’re much worse than vulgar; we’re obscene. A kind of sequel to this movie could be imagined in which a parallel experience happened to a blue-collar family, none of whom knew Greek or Latin. The most important things we lost have nothing to do with academics, except to the extent that academia has been steadily undermining them for all this time. (Well, as a physics professor, I should perhaps say “those folks on the other side of campus”.)

    1. Yes and didn’t the other side of the campus misinterpret the Theory of Relativity? Seems to me that they took a concept of phyical science and turned it into a morality and philosophy.

  9. When I watch classic movies and see the way people dressed, spoke, and interacted, I see a culture that we no longer have. You wouldn’t think of leaving the house to take the garbage out in clothes people go to court in today, and there used to be fines for using foul language on the street in mixed company. Now it’s all gone, and someone who strives to be proper is seen as a freak. Shame.

    1. I’m sorry to say that this is very true – two big offenses against civilized society are dress and manners. Appearance doesn’t seem to mean much to most people anymore – even professionals often look slovenly. Kids don’t dress for job interviews and are seen as freakish if they do, or worse, if they dress decently for school. And I don’t know about you all, but the way people dress for Mass in the last three parishes I’ve lived in is really appalling. I don’t even mind if they wear new jeans and decent shoes (both genders!) but so many just wear shorts and printed tee-shirts, tennies with no socks, skin tight clothing that is inappropriately revealing. They don’t dress for weddings or funerals. Nothing is sacred anymore.

      As for language, I have to laugh about the example of using foul language in mixed company – so much of the time bad language is aimed right at women, and worse, most women I know can at least keep up with most men in that department.

  10. If you believe in an objective moral standard (i.e. the Christian Moral life as exemplified in Christ and His saints) than you should also except the possibility of a “back in the day” that was actually better. I mean in an overall sense where the tone/color of the culture of society during a particular time can be more morally upright than the overall general morality of a culture of a society of a different time. The morals of society have not been on a steady decline since Adam and Eve. There are peaks and valleys overtime. I believe our current situation is a moral valley. Didn’t Paul VI predict this valley? How do we climb? What causes a society to raises its moral standards? Thank you for this post Monsignor. When you walk into a room with a foul odor it jumps out at you right away but after you’ve been in the room for a while you hardly notice until someone else walks in and says, “What Stinks?”. We need to have the source of “what stinks” pointed out to us. God Bless!

  11. Howard is right, ours is a pornographic culture.
    I’ve been a high school teacher for twenty years, while rasing my children, II only teach every few years. Each time I go back to school, I am shocked at how debased the culture has become since the last time I taught.

    I lived through the sexual revolution as a young teen, having been raised with Gidget and by the time I reached adolescence, “Hair” was the norm, but even so, I think the deterioration of culture is accelerating.
    Schools are complicit in this, openly cooperating with Planned Parenthood whose aim is to destroy modesty and involve teens in fornication to profit from it. The books which I see on the shelves of English departments are full of sinful behavior lauded as exemplary, and the teachers flaunt their immoral lifestyles. They are too busy teaching political correctness to cover reading and math.But this is intentional as well.
    It reminds me of how the Romans controlled society, giving bread and circuses, to the ignorant populace keeping them entertained while the elites ran society unopposed. We have our pornography on Iphones and laptops, our texting, and our video game addictions to keep us occupied while our society implodes from within. Just like Rome.

  12. When my grandmother was alive, she’d tell me stories about her youth. It always seemed to me that people were happier in her day than mine, and her generation lived through the stress of the Great Depression and a world war! They lived more simply without grand aspirations beyond living a solid, good, clean life. There is beauty in that simplicity.

    After the Tsunami, a documentary was done about those who survived versus those who perished. By and large, the survivors were some of the poorest who lived simply and learned to rely upon and understand their environment. When they recognized the signs of what was coming, they headed for high ground. Though their villages were destroyed, because they had a simple way of living without a lot of worldly things, they bounced back better than those who had more before the tsunami. It was also noted that in the “wealthier” areas that were built up, many perished as a result of their possessions being pushed through the waters and literally crushing people. On the same theme, more recently, a comment was made in the news about the state in Haiti. Though most of the country is poor, the poorest of the poor live in the rural areas. Though the earthquake also took what little those people had, it was predicted that these people would persevere best, as they live more simply- off the land and sea.

    Last note about dancing- when my cousin got married, one of the Franciscan brothers from his high school came to the reception. Before becoming a Franciscan, he was an Arthur Murray dance teacher. We have great pics of him (in his robes) doing the jitterbug with my grandma. Wish I could do that, but, alas, I am one of those who never learned to dance.

  13. I love this movie and after reading some of the posts here I suspect that the perception of what you describe, Monsignor, would be influenced by the level of assimilation to the present day culture. I remember growing up in the 60s with one liberal parent and another one a conservative. I can testify to collateral damages of the 60s cultural bomb.

    My brother had a classmate whose parents did not allow TV in their home. He turned out OK but back then we secretly prayed to God our parents would reject that extreme idea. I believe that we need to cultivate the virtue of temperance in every age without becoming desensitized. The faster the changes to culture come the more we need to turn to God for guidance and discernment. The Tsunami example is very helpful since anybody can be educated on the simple and ancient signs God provides in nature and on the need to keep life simple in case one needs to run fast -which Christ taught us about. The worse case is when the stench of death is gradual and we fail to recognize it thus become part of it.

    More on Temperance

  14. This is a submission of intent. I have just viewed a film against the media regarding the abortion issue, and can clearly see how times have changed, in this case, hopefully for the better, than they were forty years ago. Please forgive me, Msgr Pope, that this comment is not directly responsible to the topic of the day. I would like to clarify, however, my intervention of the last few days by bringing the matter up-to-date with my on-going studies. I shall not continue with these submissions, if these submissions are harmful in any way.
    I am reading ahead and into tomorrow’s gospel (Mark5, 1-20) which is the story of the ‘Legion’. It seems that I misinterpreted the advice given to this man when I read this gospel a few short months ago. Unlike the other example, Jesus does not tell him not to speak about the casting out of the devils into the swine; and so, he also does not, as in the other case, forbid him to speak of his p(P)resence. Instead, in the ‘legion’ case, He tells him to “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” I am thus at least learning, that interpretation of the gospel may not be best done from the point of any abstract theory, for it may be that Jesus speaks to the intentions of the specific individual, within a specific time and place; something that is beyond me in my reliance on generalization, and dependence on my own finite experience.
    I therefore want to assure you, Cinzia, that I will not interfere in your matters with Msgr Pope again. I do note however, after researching this, that the other time you submitted to this post, (and it was the only other submission I found) you were also critical. This leads me to conclude that I may have been mistaken about the source of your pain, although the topic on which you spoke then was similar, in that it concerned going into the ‘troubled waters’. I want to assure you however, that I do indeed feel your pain, and pray that with the grace of the Holy Spirit you will overcome your present difficulties.

  15. Times have not changed. I have just read. ‘Sidewalk Counselor’. Today’s blog. I say this, because that is the issue I was speaking about. I just want to be clear, although I know I can be mistaken, that this is an example of what I feel we should become increasingly aware of. Thank you for your patience.

  16. We used to go over to my Uncle’s once a month for a visit. We all gathered in his living room and just talked. Sunday clothes were required. Heck, my Mom used to have us dress up to go to the Mall! Eventually jeans crept in, but they are not an elegant mode of attire, and I still don’t wear them to Church. I should probably quit wearing them to the Mall! Syndicated columnist George Will wrote a good column on jeans awhile back. Here is a link to it: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/15/AR2009041502861.html

    One of the sadder things I’ve noticed is the corruption of our language. Many words now have gathered innuendos that are now being used pervasively–witness the growth of the online “Urban Dictionary”. A plain sentence can take on cruder connotations. These are the slang words the kids are being explosed to. It’s much worse than when I was litte.

    I think part of the problem is our public schools are really able to teach virtue. They aren’t allowed to teach religion. The only commandments a student will learn are “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shall not kill”, but there is so much more that one needs to learn and that our schools and culture will not reinforce.

  17. Argh! The last paragraph in my post above had quite a few major errors in it, so I retype:

    I think part of the problem is that our public schools are not really able to teach virtue. They aren’t allowed to teach religion or really anything of a positive moral nature. The only commandments a student will learn are “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shall not kill”, but there is so much more that one needs to learn which our schools and culture will not reinforce. Compare what a child in a Catholic school can potentially be taught (I say potentially, because I doubt that there is a lot of thorough catechesis going on) versus the omissions and restraints that are exercised in a public school, and one sees the path for a general impoverishment in the student’s ability to learn and acquire virtue.

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