Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Are You a Social Bumpkin? aka Is Cleanliness Next to Godliness?

Lawrence James, in his history of the Middle Class, contrasts the aspiring gentleman with the bumpkin.  See how you measure up...

"The gentleman had not only to aspire to high ideals, he was expected to be restrained and fastidious in his manners. Decorum did not come naturally, if the incivilities listed in the literature of courtesy are anything to go by. Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century textbooks on etiquette strongly suggested that there was an inclination towards coarseness that needed constant admonition. Eating habits needed refinement for... a gentleman was identified by how he ate. Workmen thrust their fingers into dishes and tradesmen wiped their noses on the sleeves of their gowns. Elsewhere gnawing of bones was forbidden and one manual noted that the precise carving of meat distinguished a gentleman from labourers who hacked at joints with their knives... Other giveaway signs of the bumpkin had to be shunned. There were warnings against picking noses and blowing them on table linen, probing ears for wax and rolling it into pellets, scratching testicles, picking teeth with knife points, spitting and farting. "Belch thou near no man's face with corrupt fumosity," advised Hugh Rhodes Book of Nurture (1577)"

As a race we are a obsessed with outward appearances, with the appearance of godliness rather than the true power of God. Whether it be in occult forms such as witchcraft (where it looks like we have the power, but it is not of God) or the kind of etiquette mentioned above (where we appear to have godliness, but it is impotent to prepare us for the age to come).

Those of you who know me, will probably admit that I lean more towards the bumpkin than the gent (if the cap fits... ;-) And it's true to say that (in my modern snob mentality) I find hard not to read a priggish attitude into the gentlemanly literature of this former time, whether it's really there or not.

However, what has struck me reading James is how much prosperity is linked to gentlemanly-ness. Back in those days, you could be a true gentleman if you could afford handkerchiefs, and cutlery and more than one set of clothes etc etc... It wasn't long before gentlemanly-ness (defined as economic prosperity + adherence to many social conventions that the gentleman's new found prosperity afforded) was being confused with godliness.

Now let's not be crass, the two do have many things in common. Jesus, was a gentle man, but he was not rich in the eyes of the world, and he only followed convention when it was appropriate to do so; sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn't.  His sternest rebuke was to those rich religious leaders who followed etiquette for their own selfish ends and ignored the point of them.

Cleanliness is not next to godliness, but that's not an excuse for being coarse or pillorying the establishment with its various conventions. Godliness is not measured in financial currencies, but that's not an excuse for sponging laziness.

Christians should be all things to all men, so long as the motivation is displaying Christ and not a slippery weaseling desire for self-advancement and/or self-protection.

Great wisdom and discernment are needed in these matters.  They are generously given to those who humbly seek them.

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