Christendom and the West: Essays on Culture, Society and History. By Thomas Storck. Four Faces Press, 1999.
Thomas Storck is an essayist and cultural commenter who writes extensively on subjects such as religion and American society. Christendom and the West: Essays on Culture, Society and History is an anthology of fourteen of his essays on assorted topics, such as “Faith and Culture,” “Is Poetry Possible?”, “The American as Universal Man,” and “The Meaning of the Catholic Intellectual Revival.” The essays in this volume are all fairly brief, and can be read in minutes. They can be excellent conversation starters, or can also serve as useful starting points for self-reflection.
The essays are designed to challenge the reader, and it is possible that a reader may find himself nodding along with the author over the course of a couple of paragraphs, only to be shaken by a confusing or thought-provoking point, or irked by the sudden introduction of an opinion with which he disagrees.
All of Storck’s essays are of similar levels of quality, though their content is quite wide-ranging. In “What is Western Culture?”, Storck raises the question of what exactly the “West” is, and what went into making the modern mindset.
“It is interesting that modern man sees his ancestors as having been more parochial than he, whereas in fact, the opposite is true. Traditional European man was more cosmopolitan, but at the same time more rooted in place than we are. Though intensely nationalistic and looking at things though the eyes of our partial and one-sided cultures, we have very little sense of place. The patriotism of the nation-state that we cultivate is hardly the same as the local patriotism of the medievals and ancients. We have got everything exactly backwards. Because of the lack of strong nationalistic bonds and of such supra-national forces as the Latin language, a largely international academic and intellectual life, and international dynastic ties, traditional Western man rightly regarded all of Europe and the West as his home. But at the same time, he had much more of a sense of place than we have, who are apt to move about, especially within our own countries, and in fact to carry our national prejudices with us wherever we might go. If it is possible to have parochial cosmopolitans, than the modern world has managed to produce them!”
–“What is Western Culture?”
Storck repeatedly emphasizes the fact that the societies, governments, and mindsets of today are all heavily shaped by the past. Ideas, cultures, and political policies from centuries ago all serve to shape today’s world, and it is remarkable how little the average individual knows about the long chain of events and ideas that molded the present. Storck’s work is particularly intriguing for scholars of intellectual history, for he often contemplates how a standard mindset might be different from one century to another, and just how much people are shaped by their surroundings, both tangible and intangible.
Throughout his work, Storck asks the big questions: Who are we and how did we become what we are? How does what happens in our minds affect the world around us? Are we free to choose our own paths, or does all that came before us wear us down to a predetermined groove? How does religion affect the mind, body, and soul? In “The United States as a Cultural Vacuum,” Storck does not bash American culture so much as explore how the nation, ruling ideologies, and ways of life were created and evolved to the present day.
“The definition of what it means to be a human person that is proposed by the United States is implicit in the image we commonly have of this country. Our history as a political entity extends back only to 1776, at which time, for many, perhaps most, of us, not one of our ancestors lived within the bounds of the thirteen English colonies. But, we are told, this should not trouble us. We are all generously invited to appropriate for ourselves the status of descendants of those rebellious colonists and to make their tradition our own, and indeed to extend it back to the first English settlements in North America, to the Pilgrims and Jamestown, and back even further to England to capture such events as the signing of Magna Carta, events that are held to have contributed to the formation of the American historical and political tradition. But in reality, as we all know, our actual histories are many and disparate, some indeed to England, most to other European countries, many to Africa, increasingly many to Asia. And to an important element of the population, the Hispanics, the historical tradition extending ultimately to Europe has been incarnated for over 500 years in other parts of the Americas and with very different historical landmarks and memories.”
–“The United States as a Cultural Vacuum”
At the heart of Storck’s work is the firmly stressed point that nothing stands completely on its own. Social revolutions and cultural change do not just spring up suddenly; they are the product of what comes before them. Furthermore, Storck frequently takes note of the fact that the historical and cultural narratives that the average person is familiar with are often factually flawed or based on false assumptions. It is also wrong to assume that changes in society simply happen and are inevitable. Changes in mores and expectations occur because people make decisions or assumptions, and to riff on Alexander Pope’s famous line, whatever is, is NOT necessarily right.
One of the most passionate essays in the volume is “The Mixed Legacy of the 1960’s,” which analyses one of the most talked-about decades of the twentieth century and explores the reasons for the alterations in accepted social mores and cultural standards. Storck is a fierce critic of the 1960’s, but he repeatedly raises the important point that history occurs because human beings make decisions and that actions invariably have consequences.
“And as the counterculture's decade gave way in the 70s to another era, the use of sex to tear down the edifice of hypocrisy became more and more an act of hypocrisy itself. For the establishment culture no longer bothered to pretend that sex did not exist or pretend to chaste use of it. The establishment types simply decided that there was nothing wrong with all the sex of the counterculture, so why shouldn't they join in the fun too? It was the same with drugs. They no longer were the outward sign of a confused search for community, but now just something to do to keep from being bored. The establishment found that promiscuous sex and drugs could coexist well with MBAs and corporate jets. And as the members of the counterculture moved into their late twenties, they found there was little or nothing in their principles which prevented them from enjoying the best of both worlds too. Keep the sex and drugs and take the money too. It was too good to resist. Had there been much of intellect in the 60s rejection of the establishment, instead of intuition and feeling, then more people might have seen through the massive sellout that occurred. Or had many turned to the Catholic faith, the only living thing in Western culture capable of withstanding the bourgeois spirit, then the recent history of our country and our civilization would have been very different. But as it is the enduring value of the 60s lies in what the era can show us about actually living in a non-bourgeois manner, not in any living survivals of its spirit. With a few exceptions - of which this journal is in part an instance - what was valuable in the 60s has not survived, but the good that was achieved, amidst all its errors and excesses, always remains as an inspiration and illustration of what might be done. Even in the midst of the new bourgeois age, those who learned well the lessons the 60s had to teach, and have rejected its errors, can themselves point out truths our culture has never absorbed and thus can never transmit.”
–“The Mixed Legacy of the 1960’s”
Christendom and the West is a fairly quick read– most of the essays are only eight or nine pages long, often including footnotes. Many of these essays are most likely to appeal to people who already share the Church’s opinions on various social, political, or cultural matters, so the effectiveness of the book as a persuasive force is unknown. Storck’s work will, however, help people sympathetic to the role of Christianity and Catholicism in the world understand a very important point: that ideas have consequences in the world, and the consequences often are more far-ranging than might be expected at first thought. Storck’s essays may assist readers in crafting better critical works and opinion pieces themselves, for they are narrowly focused, routinely stress the author’s thesis, and cite evidence frequently to back up important points.
For more information on Thomas Storck, see http://www.thomasstorck.org/. At this time, Christendom and the West is sold primarily at http://www.chesterton.org/shop/christendom-and-the-west/.