The Foolishness of ‘Chronological Snobbery’

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It was C. S. Lewis who coined the phrase “chronological snobbery,” which he defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

So, according to this way of thinking, anything new and current must be better than that which is old and out of use.

New scholars know better than old scholars. New technology is better than old technology. New morals are better than old morals. New customs are better than old customs.

Of course, there are many cases where the new, without dispute, is better than the old – or would you like to attempt to fly overseas in one of the Wright Brothers planes? Or perhaps you prefer your first PC, from 1985, with floppy drives and a miserable little monochrome monitor, to your super-charged, state of the art PC or Mac today?

But, just as obviously, not everything new is better than what came before it – unless you actually believe that the latest, ultra-vulgar, musically-flat, hip-hop song is better than Bach. 

For Lewis, there was a simple way to refute chronological snobbery. Speaking of things that had become passé, he wrote,

“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

Breaking these down into even more simple concepts, ask yourself this question.

How do you feel when you look at old family pictures? Do you find those old hairstyles embarrassing, if not downright hysterical? Do you find those old clothes to be hopelessly outdated? Do you ask yourself, “What in the world were we thinking? We thought we were so cool!”

But that’s the whole point.

We think we are cool (or, hip, or suave, or contemporary, or chic, or whatever the buzz word happens to be) today. We think our hair looks great. We think our choice of clothes is spot on. We think the current trends are totally cutting edge.

Yet it won’t be long before we look back at these pictures – pictures from today – and go through that exact same process, “What on earth were we thinking?”

I once saw a really cute meme on social media showing children’s hairstyles from the 1950s and 1960s and comparing them to children’s hairstyles today. “What on earth were those parents thinking?” we wondered as we looked at the pictures and laughed. (If we’re old enough, some of us were asking, “What were my parents thinking?”)

But that’s the same thing another generation will think when looking back at pictures from today. “What were my parents thinking?”

More importantly, let’s ask ourselves if kids graduating from college today know the English language better than previous generations. Or if they have better critical thinking skills. Or if they are better versed in world history. Or if they can identify more nations on a map or globe. Or if they can speak or read as many foreign languages.

Speaking of foreign languages, did you know that some of the early grads from Harvard, which was formed as a Christian-based school for the glory of God in 1636, gave their commencement speeches in Hebrew or Greek or Latin? In fact, to get into Harvard, students were required to be competent in Latin—able to read, write and speak Latin prose and verse “with tolerable skill and without assistance” —as well as grounded in Greek grammar. To repeat: all this was required simply to enter the program.

And perhaps we could ask if this generation of American Christians is better versed in the Bible than previous generations of American Christians. (You get the point.)

Of course, it is an equally foolish error to think that everything that went before us was better, as in, “Oh, for the good old days!” 

At the same time, we must confront the foolishness of chronological snobbery, showing adequate respect and honor for that which has been tested by the crucible of time and still remains relevant.

There is much truth in the “ancient paths” (see Jeremiah 6:16), and there was a reason that the Torah stated,

“Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess” (Deuteronomy 19:14).

There is a spiritual principle in these words for all who have ears to hear.

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