October 8, 2012

The Poster Boys of Goodness


These are the current poster boys of goodness, if Guildford Grammar School near us is any indication.  Four members of the same family, great-grandfather (in the framed pic), grandfather, father and son (current student).  The billboard – in a prominent location near the school, a main road and a train line – is obviously pitched towards our aspirations.  Send your son to our school and you will be responsible for generating a dynasty of good men.

At one level that is true.  Living near Guildford Grammar, and knowing many young men who went through the school, there is a palpable difference between them and many of those who went to other, lesser schools (you mean government schools, why not just say it? – egalitarian Ed?). Many of these young men ooze leadership, confidence and manners.  They can look an adult straight in the eye and hold a great conversation. They end up in all sorts of powerful, creative and dynamic industries, giving back to society in public and private ways.  So no problems there at all.

But I couldn’t help thinking about the issue of goodness.  I just spoke at Claremont Baptist Church on the story of the rich ruler in Luke 18.  It’s a passage soaked in concepts of goodness.  The young man calls Jesus “good“, Matthew’s account has him ask “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God.”  The whole story hinges on the mistaken perception of the young man that he can set the bar of his own goodness to such a level that it is both jumpable and able to see him enter life in the age to come.  Jesus disavows him of that notion pretty quickly.  He is a good man by his own standard and, considering the astonished response of the disciples to Jesus’ words,  good by the standards of the day. Human beings are adept at setting the bar of their own goodness and jumping it.  When we miss the height, do we like an Olympic high jumper go back to work on it to clear it next time? Generally not. Our modus operandi is to set the bar lower, so that next time we do clear it!  A lifetime of such bar-lowering is our usual trajectory.

But it’s not just that our internal personal standard of goodness changes, the external cultural one does also.  Look again at the billboard.  Four generations of the one family, all of them described as good.  However, what the society considers “good” has changed markedly over the years between the great-grandfather and the young still-student boy.

In the early part of the 20th century a “good” man was one who would fight for king and Empire and had a clear “Christian” moral framework.  Perhaps some of that rubbed off on his son, but there was certainly a shift away from the Christian moral framework to a more secular version.  Hard work, family values and mateship were the order of the day.

But things were changing! The attitude towards family, war, empire and mateship shifted markedly. Have a read of  Alan Seymour’s hugely controversial anti-ANZAC play – The One Day of the Year, written in 1958. It picked up the zeitgeist which questioned every social value in the country, and painted those who celebrate ANZAC Day as backward thinking and hypocritical – bad  even.

This progressive perspective marched on through the 70s and 80s when the third generation was at school (the 40-something dad is my generation). I was the only person in my year 11 English class who even knew when ANZAC Day was celebrated , much to the mirth of my English teacher since our family had only returned to Australia from a long stint in the UK. Keeping an open mind was everything, and it was in my time at Curtin University doing an Arts Degree that I discovered that not only was my understanding of what was good (young Christian lad that I was), not good, it was actually bad.  There was almost a glee with which hardened English lecturers deconstructed the rather flimsy faith of the recently graduated Catholic school girls, some of whom were just looking for an excuse to be a little bit bad (or very bad in some cases – sorority Ed). 

In some senses the job seems complete.  Self-expression is the highest good in our culture.  Being true to yourself and looking within your heart can and does excuse all sorts of badness, reframing it as goodness because it is proof you are being authentic. Experiences are essential.  You must be free to experience what you want to experience, and others cannot deny you this.  Even in church the language has shifted.  As the number of short-term, educational mission trips has risen, the returnees increasingly talk about the event in terms of their experience as the end in itself rather than in terms of the byproduct of serving.  Not true of all of course, but a growing and worrying trend.

The great irony of course, is that in the midst of all of this cultural change and redefinition of what is good, ANZAC Day has been revitalised like there is no tomorrow (which is probably how many people actually feel about the future – Ed).  Alan Seymour and his ilk would be horrified by the growing patriotism and quasi-religious element to it.  As organised religion has declined, and as notions of what is good have become fuzzy, the myth of ANZAC has grown, though not perhaps in the form it once was. In many ways it is the Disneyland version of the real event,  a chance for people for whom one “experience” is starting to blur into the next, to give their atrophied hearts a spiritual and emotional kickstart. After all iPhone 6 won’t be out for at least another two years, and there are two ANZAC Days in between that. Seymour’s generation sought to shift the goalposts of what is good and what our values should be, only to discover that the next logical step was to remove them.  Faced with a boundary-less future, today’s generation are huddling in the middle of the oval, unsure where to turn.

The big question is this: When the young boy on the billboard is the forty-something man, and there are two framed pictures and five generations represented, what will goodness look like then?

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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