Only Shades of Gray: A Critique of Moral Relativism in a Monkees Song?

There is a song about the sadness of moral relativism in an unusual place: “The Greatest Hits of the Monkees.” Some who are old enough may remember growing up with the songs of the Monkees. I confess their song “Only Shades of Gray” was not one I remember well from those days. But it is a fascinating song about moral relativism. Some think it’s just a song about growing up. But to most it speaks of a time when things were more certain and compares it to these more modern times when it seems everything is disputed and up for grabs, no more black and white, only shades of gray. It is all the more poignant that the song was written in the turbulent 60s and perhaps represented the anxiety generated by those times when just about everything was being thrown overboard.

Now I know that it is wrong to point any particular age as the “golden age.” Scripture itself warns against this: Do not say: How is it that former times were better than these? For it is not in wisdom that you speak this (Ecclesiastes 7:10). I am also aware that not everyone feels the same about the “good old days.” For some they were not all that good. We should not forget the terrible wars of the early half of the 20th Century. Further, I serve in a parish that is predominantly African American and for many of my parishioners previous days featured “Jim Crow” laws, disenfranchisement, lynching and enforced segregation.

And yet, it remains also true that some fifty years ago we had a much wider consensus on basic moral teachings and appropriate behaviors. Pre-marital sex was considered gravely wrong and guarded against. Remember chaperons and separate dormitory facilities? Easy divorce and remarriage was considered wrong. Abortion was illegal, it never even entered our minds to give children contraceptives. There was also strong consensus against homosexual activity. Families were larger and most were intact. There was also a general appreciation of the role of faith and prayer in American life. I could go on but perhaps this is enough.

Here too I can hear the objections: “We might have had those standards but we didn’t live them well….Things went on behind the scenes, families weren’t perfect, many kids still had sex etc. etc….” But I will respond by saying, At least we had those standards and saw them as truths to be respected. It is an extreme measure, a kind of nihilism, to say that since we do not live up to our standards perfectly we should not have them at all.

And I also know we were more wrong about some things in the past. We were more racist and less open to legitimate diversity, less concerned about pollution. But here too it is extreme to say that because we were wrong about some things in the past the whole thing should be thrown out. Why not keep the best and purify what is needed?

So here we are today, is a radically relativistic time where there is less and less agreement about the most basic of moral issues. And, without a common basis for discussion, such as Natural Law, or the Judeo-Christian worldview we are left to a battle of wills, an increasing power struggle where the one who shouts the loudest, has the most money, wins an election or has the most access wins, at least for the moment. Reason and principles increasingly do not transcend political, economic and social distinctions. There are fewer and fewer shared values that every one agrees on no matter what their party or background. Whatever our struggles of the past, we used to agree on more. Many of those certainties have been replaced by a wide presumption that everything is just shades of gray.

Listen to the song. Don’t forget my disclaimers. I do not propose a simplistic old=good; new=bad scenario. I just write to provoke thought. Please feel free to comment. I couldn’t find a good video of the Monkees performing the song (I think copyright may be involved) so I have included a group that sings it a lot like the Monkees did. First the words, then the video.

  • When the world and I were young,
  • Just yesterday.
  • Life was such a simple game,
  • A child could play.
  • It was easy then to tell right from wrong.
  • Easy then to tell weak from strong.
  • When a man should stand and fight,
  • Or just go along.
  • Refrain:
  • But today there is no day or night
  • Today there is no dark or light.
  • Today there is no black or white,
  • Only shades of gray.
  • I remember when the answers seemed so clear
  • We had never lived with doubt or tasted fear.
  • It was easy then to tell truth from lies
  • Selling out from compromise
  • What to love and what to hate,
  • The foolish from the wise.
  • It was easy then to know what was fair
  • When to keep and when to share.
  • How much to protect your heart
  • And how much to care.

25 Replies to “Only Shades of Gray: A Critique of Moral Relativism in a Monkees Song?”

  1. Beautiful lyrics, I had never heard of this until you posted it. Your posts most definitely do provoke thought. I am wide awake yet again, thinking about things waaaayyyy too much. My great-aunt died yesterday after struggling with illness for quite some time. I have shoved my own emotions into a little box to support my family and be the rock and “medical expert” that they often expect me to be. Kinda stinks being one of the only medical people in a family sometimes….

    I have often thought about how times have changed too, some for the better and some for the worse. I think in some cases people have developed more of an understanding of the world, but in others we still have bigots and closed minded people. I think that our world is more jaded now than it was before. On a happier note, I do think that because of all the hardships that people will turn to the Church for guidance. The Church has helped me in ways that other people or places just can’t. Going to Mass has become a source of peace for me.

    1. I’m sorry to hear of your great-aunt’s passing, Katherine.
      May the angels and martyrs come to meet her, and may the Lord grant unto her eternal rest and let His perpetual light shine upon her.

      1. Thank you, Bender. I am glad that her suffering has ended but feeling upset that I didn’t get to know her better. I think it’s gonna be a rocky next couple of weeks with my family and the funeral stuff.

  2. I thought I knew every Monkees song – but I never heard of this one. I like it, and this band singing it, too.

    There are fewer and fewer shared values that every one agrees on

    I believe this is because too many people have given up either having the ‘God Standard’, or believing in God at all. Too many people say it’s wrong to impose ‘God Standards’ on them when they don’t believe in Him. The bible, the Gospels, hold no sway over people who, using their God-given free will, can so easily dismiss them when it is convenient to do so.

    At least when most people actually believed that God existed, then there was something to work with.

    I agree – chuck the bad and renew the good.

    1. Yes, the song is surely less known but there it is on my Monkees Greatest hits album David Jones on lead vocal.

      As for your reflection which is right on point, I can say that things have changed even in my 20 twenty years as a priest. It used in my early years as a priest that people had reverence for what was in the Bible. They might not listen to me or even the Church but if I could show it in the Bible they would think twice. Most folks I meet now do not have this reverence for even the Holy Book.

    2. This is a great point, Jan. I never did understand how some people don’t believe in God. Their lives must be rather lonely I would imagine.

  3. It’s tough to tell if they are lamenting the fact that everything is gray today, or if no longer seeing things as black and white is a sign of moral maturity?

    I’ve read that the song was written in 1965, which would be when LBJ was escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The writers, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, also wrote Cass Elliot’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music” (1968), which could be interpreted as a relativistic “make your own rules,” but they also wrote the Righteous Brothers’ “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration” (1966), which is hardly a “gray” song, but it is about the anxiety and anguish of loss. And then there is the Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place” (1965) about the dreariness of life and wanting to find “a better life.”

    1. Thanks for connecting a lot of dots here Bender. I’ll have to look into these other songs as well. An addition to your list is a less well known song by The Who called “Had Enough” which is a kind of pure “nihilism” It’s way over the top in terms of it’s rejection or any norms but has some interesting lines as to the king of sorrow and suicidal tendency that results. Perhaps I will blog on that song soon!

  4. Though born in the late 70s I’ve been familiar with this song my whole life–Mom was a big Monkees fan and would play the vinyl… Anyhow, I always thought of this song of speaking about the childhood innocence we all go through individually rather than any particular “golden age” of global moral rectitude and consensus. When we’re young, everything is new and young and we don’t realize how much history has gone before — the whole world is young with us. But as we get older we experience scandal of whatever level, have our childhood innocence shattered, and then have to deal with our own personal fall from grace and the moral confusion that comes with it. Natch, it’s a different experience for each of us, but the basics remain the same–when we were children things were so much more simple, but now we realize so many things aren’t so simple (or, at least, those things which are, in fact, simple, acquire complex explanations to support and defend them against the attacks of relativism and other moral heresies).

    Christ said, “Unless you become like a child you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Meaning unless you return to the state of seeing things as simple (even while mastering the complex explanations) you will not know God, because God is simple, and therefore cannot be in His presence.

  5. Maybe things were not perfect back then but having a moral code to live up to kept many in society in check. For example, in High School you always had the good girls and the bad girls, the good boys and the bad boys. The bad rebelled and could be found in the backseat on lover’s lane. The good, no matter how much their hormones were raging, abstained because they knew they would be frowned upon. Today, anything goes which has caused a behavioral shift. The bad are worse or they don’t try to hide it as much if at all. But the good don’t act as good. Since premarital sex is no longer frowned upon , those who would normally fight their urges, give in with the old, “Everyone else does” attitude. Make that the prevailing “wisdom” coupled with peer and societal pressures and unintended pregnancies, disease etc. skyrockets. Soon, society becomes a culture that promotes death both physically and spiritually. Not to be so doom and gloom but all I see are momentary highs followed quickly by lengthy, even permanant suffering. Maybe things aren’t black and white anymore, but there is still life and death and there is no inbetween. God Bless you Father and thank you.

  6. More dot connecting (see What is the Flesh?) —

    “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sun Shine In)” from Hair, which is of course about a bunch of long-haired, free love, dope-smoking hippies during the Vietnam War —
    We starve-look
    At one another
    Short of breath
    Walking proudly in our winter coats
    Wearing smells from laboratories
    Facing a dying nation
    Of moving paper fantasy
    Listening for the new told lies
    With supreme visions of lonely tunes . . .

    In the movie it is sung when the main character goes marching off to war and in the play, according to Wikipedia, when he appears as a ghost, having been killed in the war. It starts out rather despairingly, before transitioning into the more positive “let the sun shine in.”

  7. “There are fewer and fewer shared values that every one agrees on”

    Well, that’s true, and what’s worse, I often find myself in the minority in many discussions regarding certain values.

    My niece called me last months back to talk about sex. She is 15 and girls in her class are having [alternate forms of] sex so they won’t get pregnant. My niece was upset because so many of her friends were agreeing with the sexually active girls that they were being “responsible.” I wrote a letter to the principal of her (Catholic) school. It is likely that my niece’s friends were going along with the talk to be cool and did believe the behavior was wrong. I told my niece if the opportunity arose again, say what she thinks and walk away. Chances are it would give other girls the courage to walk away too.

    I know my example was extreme, but there is a growing general consensus regarding certain types of behavior. The climate is becoming less and less that, “Oh, it’s not such a bad thing,” to certain types behavior actually being labeled as good, normal and responsible. I’m not sure how we change this.

  8. “And yet, it remains also true that some fifty years ago we had a much wider consensus on basic moral teachings and appropriate behaviors.”

    My impression is that we still have consensus – it’s just that those basic moral teachings and appropriate behaviors have changed, and are no longer (as) in line with Catholic teaching. Previous commentators have noted issues with pre-marital sex – I think most people do not believe there is a moral issue at stake when two consenting adults have sex; they consider it appropriate behavior. In a not unrelated vein, the homosexual lifestyle is now more or less considered acceptable behavior by many people, including the representatives of our own city.

    Of course, those of us who are Catholic will view this as a degradation of the moral order. This is true; the question is how do we respond? Being realistic, the long-term outlook is for further degradation – the arc is bending away from and not towards God. As we have seen in the District, those of us adhering to Catholic teaching will become more isolated, more prone to public censure, bigger targets for public contempt, and, I have to say, fewer in number. We will have more believers abandon or at least dilute their faith as sticking to their principles becomes harder. Rough times ahead. May the Holy Spirit guide us and keep us true.

  9. Here’s a bit of trivia for you —

    In the 1960s, there was another singer, David Robert Hayward-Jones, performing under the name “Davy Jones.” But because of the confusion, he later adopted the stage name David Bowie.

  10. I loved this song, I just sent all my LPs to my daughter in Texas..
    Listening to it just made me cry :*(
    not for me but for my kids.. grandkids.. great kids.. will they ever know
    what Truth is in this chaotic, compromising world?

  11. The culture that disconnects the use of sex with the permanent commitment (that used to be assoicated with Christian marriage) leads to more single parents living in poverty or near poverty; and also to the current generation of child-bearing adults having fewer children than the number needed to replace their generation, one for one (approx. 2.3 children per woman ages 15-45). After a few years the number of workers needed to support the retired generation in social plans such as Social Security declines, leading to major stresses — consider what is happening today in Greece.
    The civilization may collapse, if it depends on young adult immigrants to keep the pensions for oldsters in force. Perhaps a judgment of God on people who reject His command in Genesis to increase and multiply.
    For your consideration.

  12. Msgr, I thought I was the only person in the world who remembered this Monkees song! Great piece!

  13. Some people are just so very wedded to their relativistic and moral equivilence view of things. For example, to bring in yet another cultural reference, I really do not understand these folks who still are not convinced that the Man in Black is Evil, while Jacob is Good. It really is that black and white. But some continue to insist that Jacob is not entirely good and MIB not entirely evil. Even after MIB plays the Tempter with Sayid, after being a Liar with everyone, and then he kills everyone in the Temple, some are still saying that. I just don’t get it.

    (I’m talking about Lost, by the way.)

  14. A very similar song (in Spanish):
    It goes, “everything is the same, nothing is better.” It has somewhat of a disappointing ending, in that the singer gives up and just says (paraphrasing), be dishonest, nobody cares, “in the oven [hell] we will all meet again.” It might also be sarcasm, though.

  15. If I’m not mistaken, it was Peter Tork that sang the lead vocal on Shades of Gray. Though you can hear Davy Jones distinctly on background vocals. Take it from a 53 year old die hard Monkees fan!!!

  16. Roy, both Peter and Davy sang verses in the song Shades of Gray. I was listening to it when I was wondering who wrote it, which led me to this page. I was a huge Monkees fan and still am. I always loved the song for its introspection of the generation. BTW i’m a 56 year old fan. I am not Catholic but rather catholic. (orthodox presbyterian) In reading this examination and introspection I feel a bit of connection with the words of msr. Pope. However a bit lacking in bringing this into biblical context. The world is gray, the world is unstable, however Christ says “I am the way, the Truth, the Life. He is the absolute in which we can rest.

    Thanks for letting a non-catholic put 2 cents in

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