Monday, October 31, 2005


Our shameless generation

The other night while watching the latest volume of Warner Brother's excellent Looney Tunes DVD reissues, I was struck by how often one of the fanciful cartoon characters, caught in an embarassing situation, would betray his inner emotions with a beet-red blush across his face. For instance, if Elmer Fudd found himself without his customary garb, he'd clutch his polka-dotted boxer shorts while wearing a mortified expression, for he was ashamed to have been caught in a state of undress. On countless occasions in older cartoons, I've seen how an animated gag culminated in the visible shaming of the victim. Even today, at least fifty years after the creation of these cartoons, I often find myself laughing uproariously at such depictions of comic shame.

Of course, shame is not always a laughing matter. During my childhood in the 1960s, I enjoyed the great benefit of being brought up with a goodly amount of good ol' fashioned moral virtues such as shame. Yes, my friend, shame is a good thing. Although the situation that leads up to one's shaming is generally a bad thing, proper shame is good and right because it serves as a reminder that we have willingly (or sometimes unwillingly) violated a moral or social standard of God or man. If I have sinned against God or my neighbor, it is good that I am ashamed if my shame helps to lead me to repentance, and it is far better to be ashamed for cause than to sin in a shameless manner.

In Genesis, immediately after the Fall of Man, we read of the very first manifestation of man's new guilt before God: Adam and Eve, realizing for the first time that they were naked, sewed together fig leaves to make themselves aprons. They had sinned against the commandment of God, and thus felt shame for the very first time in human history. Although their sin obviously put them in the wrong, they were nonetheless right to be ashamed because they stood guilty before their Holy God.

Shame obviously does not always lead to repentance, but shame does accompany guilt, and the awareness of one's guilt is necessary before one will see the need for repentance. This is why the Law ought to be preached alongside the Gospel: I cannot rightly understand why I stand in need of a Savior when I am not aware of my guilt before God. Guilt and its accompanying shame isn't sufficient to work repentance in a sinner's heart, but it is an essential beginning.

Therefore, I'd like to suggest that one of the most fearful trends in American society is its outright shamelessness. Admittedly, sin and vice of all kinds have always had a thriving existence in our society, but in past generations those who indulged in such wickedness possessed enough shame that they pursued their pleasures more or less in secret. This behavior of course didn't make them righteous, but it did at least signal an awareness that what they doing stirred up at least a small amount of shame. How things have changed since then! Perhaps on account of the post-Freudian drive in psychology and related sciences to eradicate guilt and shame, we now live amongst a generation that betrays little or no shame for their deeds. Far from being ashamed, people will now offer often eloquent defenses of their conduct: "I only do it with a consenting partner" or "I'm not hurting anyone but myself" or even "I was born this way." Behavior that was once held to be morally suspect at best, or wicked at worst, is now nothing more than a lifestyle choice. For shame we have traded shamelessness, and for liberty, license.

As I close, I would like to submit an antidote to the vice of shamelessness: the virtue of modesty. I use the word modesty in the sense of "formality or propriety of manner." In contrast to the license that's practiced by the shameless man, the modest man will take care to conduct himself in a proper manner. I am not speaking merely of propriety as defined by the written and unwritten standards of human society, but far more importantly the standard of Scripture. The righteous man, far from granting himself the license to do whatever he pleases without shame, will take care to ascertain what behavior God requires, and will therefore take pains to conduct himself accordingly. In so doing, he will serve as a living testimony of the evil of the increasingly shameless generation in which he lives.

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