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  • The Coming of the Absaloms

    Introduction

    When it comes to the key events that helped to create the society that emerged in the American/Western World in the wake of the Second World War - arguably the most traumatic event in history - many would be inclined to cite the 1950s as the fulcrumic decade, and according to Charles Ealy, author of the article "Seeds of Change Sown in 1955", published in Nov. 2005 in The Dallas Morning News, that's especially true of its midpoint.

    For all that, though, it's the mythic 1960s, with its Rock-Youth culture, and quasi-religious worship of sexual abandon and the use of mind-expanding drugs, that tends to be credited as the true decade of change, and with the reader's permission, I'd like to trace the evolution of the most revolutionary decade of the 20th Century, by briefly depicting the culture from whence it sprang, and then - and at greater length - the decade that both preceded and birthed it, with special emphasis on its central year of '55.

    The Coming of the Absaloms

    Were they really so staid and conformist, those much treasured mom-and-apple-pie fifties? We've already established that they weren't, and that they didn't yield as if by magic to the wild, Dionysian 1960s…

    The truth is that far from being a sudden, unexpected event, the post-war cultural revolution, whose repercussions continue to be felt throughout a tragic broken West could boast historical roots reaching at least as far back as the European Enlightenment. Since that time, the Western World has been consistently assailed by tendencies hostile to its Judaeo-Christian moral fabric, and what happened in the 1960s was simply the culmination of many decades of activity on the part of revolutionaries and avant-gardists, especially since the First World War. Even Rock, a music which the celebrated American evangelist John MacArthur once described as having “a bombastic atonality and dissonance” was foreshadowed at its most experimental by the emancipation of the dissonant brought about by Classical composers of various Modernist schools.

    Moving to the totemic year of '55, I begin with a day marked by an event which had a colossal if still largely unrecognized influence on the evolution of American and Western culture, that being the 7th of October, on which five major 20th Century figures, namely, Elijah Muhammad, RD Laing, Ulrike Meinhof, Oliver North and Vladimir Putin, attained the ages of 58, 28, 21, 14 and 3 respectively.

    It was on that day that - at San Franciso's Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore Street - about 150 people gathered to witness readings of poems by Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, Phillip Lamantia, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder.

    All went on to be leading artists of the Beat Generation, a term which first saw the light of day in a 1952 article entitled "This is the Beat Generation", written for the New York Times by John Clellon Holmes, author of the proto-Beat novel "Go" (1952). Holmes had allegedly coined the term following conversations he'd had with Jack Kerouac in 1948 with regard to the disillusioned generation that had emerged in America in the wake of the Second World War.

    Kerouac the self-styled "shy Canuck" from Lowell, Massachusetts, also attended this epochal clarion cry to the counterculture, but didn't read, preferring to cheerlead instead in a state of ecstatic inebriation. However, his roman ŕ clef "On the Road" (1957) which centers on the mid-century wanderings he undertook in America and Mexico - largely with his muse and close friend Neal Cassady - remains Beat's defining work.

    After the reading, the Beat movement, which had existed in embryonic form since about 1944, left the underground to become an international craze, with the Beatnik taking his place as a universally recognized icon with his beret, goatee beard, turtle-neck sweater and sandals.

    '55 was also the year in which Rock and Roll assaulted the mainstream thanks to hits by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others, although it's "The Blackboard Jungle", which, released on the 20th of March, is widely credited with igniting the Rock' n' Roll revolution, indeed late 20th Century teenage rebellion as a whole. It did so by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock", over the film's opening credits. Originally a rather conventional blues-based song recorded by Sonny Dae and his Knights, Haley's version, which was remarkable for its earth-shaking sense of urgency, ensured the world would never be the same after it. In August of the year, Sun Records released a long playing record entitled "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill", featuring the so-called King of the Western Bopwho went on to become Rock's single most influential figure apart from the Beatles.

    On the 30th of September, James Dean died in hospital following a motor accident aged 23 after having made only three films, the greatest of which, Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" emerged about a month afterwards. It could be said to be the motion picture industry's defining elegy to the sensitivity and rebelliousness of youth, with Dean its most beautiful and tortured icon ever. As such his image has never dated, nor been surpassed. The modern cult of youth was born in the mid 1950s.

    However, Dean himself had been powerfully influenced by Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, arguably the two foremost pioneers of the Stanislavski Method within the Motion Picture industry, who'd honed their craft in the late '40s at the celebrated Actor's Studio in New York City. The screen personas of Clift, Brando and Dean, in which vulnerability and defiance were fused to luminously magnetic effect served as prototypes of the neurotic and narcissistic individualism that went on to exert such a seismic influence on the evolution of the sixties counterculture in era-defining movies such as George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (1951), Stanley Kramer's "The Wild One" (1953), and Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" (1954).

    Their mixture of incandescent beauty and sullen defiance was hardly new though, having been a feature of Romantic rebels again and again at least since the heyday of Byron and Shelley; and it could be said that their true spiritual ancestor was none other than King David's much loved yet fatally rebellious son Absalom, of whom it was written in 2 Samuel 14:25: “But in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.”

    Again and again, 1955 is cited by cultural commentators as the year in which things started to change in America and the West. When it comes to Britain, there seems to be no doubt that within the space of a mere two generations, a spectacular rise in criminal violence from the low rates of at least the previous two centuries, occurred from about 1955. This same rise coincided with increasingly large-scale denigration of such traditionally sanctified Christian institutions as marriage, pre-marital purity and the two-parent family, which had always been seen as the enemy by various revolutionary tendencies within art and politics, while being respected by the majority, and affected every industrial nation apart from Japan.

    As in Britain, so in the US, but given America's far greater size and complexity, the situation has of necessity been more extreme. Take a remarkable article written for the Fall/Autumn 1955 edition of the Trotskyist Fourth International entitled "Youth in a Delinquent Society":
    Its author, one Joyce Cowley, was at pains to emphasize the general conformity of American youth in the mid 1950s, while also making it clear that cautious conservatism was far from being the total picture, and that there'd been a sharp rise in crime since the onset of the decade. She also stated something to the effect that the nature of the crimes committed during this period were of a shocking gravity that had been relatively uncommon in the US in more recent decades. To support her point, she alluded to various phenomena which are all too familiar to those of us who came to maturity in the 60s and beyond, including the abuse of narcotics, and acts of gratuitous cruelty and violence, from teen gang rumbles to the senseless sacrifice of innocents.

    But does all this mean that civilization, not just in the US and the West, but as a whole, is irrevocably doomed? Many Christians are indeed of the belief that these are the final days prior to the return of the Lord, of which He speaks in Matthew 24:37: “But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.”They may indeed be right, and there are many indications that this is the case. However, in the verse immediately preceding the one just quoted, Jesus makes it clear that when it comes to the precise day of the Second Coming, only God the Father knows: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

    Thence, it may well be that if the nations of the West return to the Judaeo-Christian values on which they were founded, not half-heatedly... but with the kind of uncompromising passion for God that provoked the great revivals of history, like prodigals, broken and contrite in spirit, our great civilization may yet survive.
    Comments 15 Comments
    1. Arnie Madsen's Avatar
      Arnie Madsen -
      You should get an award for getting the most words possible in every sentence.

      And the most topics in every sentence.

      Not an easy read, but I think I pieced together the message . Thanks.

      Still wondering who is the "Absalom" mentioned ... is it the Old Testament figure ..... or was it a 1950's TV show or something.

      Thanks.
    1. peyret's Avatar
      peyret -
      And the point is what? That the "beats" threw out a perfectly good civilization and way of life in favor of something unGodly by engaging in rebellion and looking for something more meaningful and deeper in life than country club memberships, financial oneupmanship, and a generally repressive and classified society?

      I would argue that the narcissism and self-indulgence of the middle class of the 1950s emerged virtually unscathed and lives on today in the form of greed, disdain for virtue and honor, and a power crazed oligarchical society. The 50s and 60s had no effect whatever and many of the protesters of that era occupy the power centers of today.

      There was no rebellion or revolution shift in values. It is the same today as yesterday - maybe worse.
    1. bdh's Avatar
      bdh -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arnie Madsen View Post
      Not an easy read, but I think I pieced together the message.
      Agreed. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

      Our rule for articles is 2,000 words or less and when I read through it this morning before publishing, I thought "WOW! this is a book packed into 2k words!"

      Very compact and a great piece of work if one is prepared to take the time to digest the many facets this article enumerates.
    1. Arnie Madsen's Avatar
      Arnie Madsen -
      I actually grew up in that era. I was 16 at the height of Beatlemania. My shirts were "mod" which was a mixture of flowers and psychedelic designs. My hair was down to my shoulders , I had a car and there were three big radio stations playing Beatles and Elvis music 24 hours a day.

      Did it affect me ? Yes , finally I had my own music , previously , all there was were the twangy old country songs of our parents. I was part of the baby boom of the youthful 60's.

      None of us did any drugs whatsoever , we could not drink until age 21 , and about the worst thing we ever did was sneak a cigarette.

      We (baby boomers) were the majority. Our parents and old people were the minority. The world was ours and we knew it.

      But we were good kids with good values , All the music did was bring us together with a common interest. Most of the music was positive and upbeat. "We love you ya ya ya" type of thing.

      By the 1970's most of us were married , and we raised our kids with the same values our parents did. All of my friends from back then still live good and productive lives.

      But it was not the music or theater or Hollywood that formed us, it just added to the basic good that we already had from normal family life.

      I did not discover Christianity until age 34 (1986) but I did not have to make any radical life changes from my secular lifestyle. The spiritual awakening was profound , yes , but today my favorite gospel is often by Elvis.

      Those who knew him best , said his truly best moments were when he would retreat to solitude and sing his heart out to the Lord.

      A few memories. Thanks. I still hope Carl Halling comes back to explain the "Absalom" context of his article. I still don't get it.
    1. Amos_with_goats's Avatar
      Amos_with_goats -
      2 Sam 15:1
      After this it happened that Absalom provided himself with chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him

      We have come to look on this as 'good'. The idea that we celebrate ourselves... is a virtue in our society... many of
      the themes of this (excellent) article point to this. It is so
      subtle we don't see it... it is just accepted.

      It invades our thoughts, even our doctrine. The idea that we
      are superior to all who have suffered for the cause of Christ and would be 'removed' before WE should suffer... after all, we are
      different right?

      It is indeed all about us.... at least it can be if we do no allow the Lord to transform our thinking.
    1. moonglow's Avatar
      moonglow -
      I think for most people they won't understand this article..its over my head..the sentences don't make sense to me. I feel like I am reading another language. Sorry. I wish I had a clue what it was saying..but I just don't.
    1. episkopos's Avatar
      episkopos -
      Absalom was a son of David that was a usurper of his own father's authority...and God's! Absalom is rebellion for rebellion's sake. It is based on selfishness and pride but with a catchy slogan to mask the ultimate design. While it may appear that there are times when rebellion is warranted (trusting God is better) the case of Absalom shows no glimmer of reason.

      The baby boomers have all but abandoned any hope for a "brighter" future. They have in fact solidified the worldly hold that society imposes on they who wish to suceed. They have sold out.

      There is a parallel to be made between the generation that now wields power in the world and Absalom. Not that the older generation was Davidic in any sense.

      No, but it was Absalom in spirit nevertheless.
    1. Longsufferer's Avatar
      Longsufferer -
      The mixing of secular principles and practices with heavenly principles and practices for modifying righteousness to accommodate sin has always been the betrayal since the third century; only now and in this last century it has been intensified to accommodate more abundant sin, especially in our countries of free thinking without any bounds.
    1. moonglow's Avatar
      moonglow -
      Quote Originally Posted by episkopos View Post
      Absalom was a son of David that was a usurper of his own father's authority...and God's! Absalom is rebellion for rebellion's sake. It is based on selfishness and pride but with a catchy slogan to mask the ultimate design. While it may appear that there are times when rebellion is warranted (trusting God is better) the case of Absalom shows no glimmer of reason.

      The baby boomers have all but abandoned any hope for a "brighter" future. They have in fact solidified the worldly hold that society imposes on they who wish to suceed. They have sold out.

      There is a parallel to be made between the generation that now wields power in the world and Absalom. Not that the older generation was Davidic in any sense.

      No, but it was Absalom in spirit nevertheless.
      Thanks for explaining this. That helps me understand a bit better what the article is about. But the thing is the average age of a baby boomer now is 66...they are aging and what I see in alot of churches are people there age ...this includes my mom and her husband. If the point of the article is how the baby boomers affected their children, and those children's children in attitude that would make more sense to me...though even though my mom was a baby boomer she didn't go through any rebellious stage...wasn't smoking pot while raising us girls or anything like that and all three of us girls are Christians and raising our children in church and in Christian homes too.

      Our home was dysfunctional after my dad died for a number of years...but not because of any connection through this idea that all baby boomers rejected certain standards. It was more due to grief and the standards (the idea), that a woman cannot be whole or complete let alone happy unless she is married. That caused alot of turmoil for my mom which of course affected us girls.

      God bless
    1. Equipped_4_Love's Avatar
      Equipped_4_Love -
      I thought this was an excellent read -- thank you for writing it, although I think it ended quite abruptly.

      Interesting that you quote that Joyce Crowley article, and mention "conformity." I was not around in the 60's, but I do recall that a lot of the young people were screaming and whining and carrying on about the travesties of "conformity," how the man was "bringing them down," and how change was needed aka "social revolution."

      Ironically enough, the book of Romans tells us not to be "conformed to this world," but be "transformed by the renewing of your mind." It doesn't say "do not be conformed to this world, but go out and protest and rebel and do your own thing." I think the "beat generation" (or whatever generation we are referring to here) used the social ills of the day as an excuse to go and outwardly rebel and do whatever they want and, in the process, basically contributed to the decay of this society, as this article so rightly points out.

      People hail this generation as "heroes" because they were not afraid to question authority and ala Dee Snider yell "We're not gonna take it." That's pretty sad!! I do not see them heroes, but malcontents hiding behind a mask of martyrdom. They had the first part of it right, "Be not conformed to this world," but went about it COMPLETELY WRONG.

      They did not want change -- they wanted the liberty to do their own thing. They DEFINITELY were not taking a Godly or Biblical approach.
    1. Carl Halling's Avatar
      Carl Halling -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arnie Madsen View Post
      You should get an award for getting the most words possible in every sentence.

      And the most topics in every sentence.

      Not an easy read, but I think I pieced together the message . Thanks.

      Still wondering who is the "Absalom" mentioned ... is it the Old Testament figure ..... or was it a 1950's TV show or something.

      Thanks.
      Hi there, Arnie, Carl here, and thanks for the review, and I'm glad this essay came across as it did, although wasn't aware it would at the time: but I love how you put it! Yes, the Absalom mentioned is the OT figure, David's tragic wayward son. Thanks for commenting. Carl.
    1. Carl Halling's Avatar
      Carl Halling -
      Quote Originally Posted by peyret View Post
      And the point is what? That the "beats" threw out a perfectly good civilization and way of life in favor of something unGodly by engaging in rebellion and looking for something more meaningful and deeper in life than country club memberships, financial oneupmanship, and a generally repressive and classified society?

      I would argue that the narcissism and self-indulgence of the middle class of the 1950s emerged virtually unscathed and lives on today in the form of greed, disdain for virtue and honor, and a power crazed oligarchical society. The 50s and 60s had no effect whatever and many of the protesters of that era occupy the power centers of today.

      There was no rebellion or revolution shift in values. It is the same today as yesterday - maybe worse.
      Hi there Peyret, thanks for commenting, and you raise some very interesting points which I'd like to address. The Beats were certainly artistically exalted. To take, for example, two of their most famous works: Kerouac's "On the Road" and Ginsberg's "Howl" are in my opinion, major works of literary genius; no question about that. And there's no doubting their collective colourful charisma and brilliance. Nor that their rebellion was to some degree justified; however, they did to some degree seek to throw the baby out with the bath water as I see it. For all its faults, the America of the 1950s was deeply imbued with a respect for the Judaeo-Christian foundations of the culture, and the moral values that spring from these. In terms of the Beats, in general they could be said to be opposed to these, in some cases pretty passionately (although Kerouac, the Beat par excellence, was by all acounts a patriotic man with a strong conservative streak). Of course, America is still a deeply Christian country, and to a degree exceeding most other Western nations who were affected by the Counterculture, such as the UK, in which born again Christianity constitutes but a small minority of the population. Yet, the rise of the Counterculture exerted a massive impact on all Western nations including the US, and that this occurred could to a significant degree be attributable to the Beat Generation. As a Christian, I can't see this as a good thing: although prior to becoming a Christian, this was not the case. And I still enjoy the artistic fruits of the cultural revolution of the 50s and 60s and beyond. Just not like I did.
    1. Carl Halling's Avatar
      Carl Halling -
      Quote Originally Posted by bdh View Post
      Agreed. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

      Our rule for articles is 2,000 words or less and when I read through it this morning before publishing, I thought "WOW! this is a book packed into 2k words!"

      Very compact and a great piece of work if one is prepared to take the time to digest the many facets this article enumerates.
      Hi bdh, a book packed into 2k words...I'd never had an article of mine described like that before, but I love it! Thank you . Carl.
    1. Eyelog's Avatar
      Eyelog -
      Mr. Halling, you say:
      it may well be that if the nations of the West return to the Judaeo-Christian values on which they were founded, not half-heatedly... but with the kind of uncompromising passion for God that provoked the great revivals of history, like prodigals, broken and contrite in spirit, our great civilization may yet survive.
      I think that statement shows precisely what you are doing with this brilliant series of articles you have published here. It is so easy for folks to obsess on the symptoms and miss the cause. The culture is an effect, as are world-views. But you do us the service of pointing to the cause from within the maze of a rich fabric of historical narrative. Thank you for bringing culture to intelligent Christian thought at this venue.
    1. Diggindeeper's Avatar
      Diggindeeper -
      I've come to realize it is ALWAYS a 'sub culture' more than a 'counter culture.' I remember when Elvis rose from nowhere, from an unknown to fame and to me and most who were here at the time...he was a very welcome person of a different 'beat'. He didn't march to the same 'beat' as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby (kind of 'upscale' beat) or even to the country 'beat' of Ernest Tubbs and Pasty Cline with all their singing about she don't love me anymore, so I'm gonna go get drunk again. Elvis was a welcome difference!

      But on the heels of Elvis came a more 'abrasive-in-your-face' kind of music..the 'I'm gonna do what I wanta do' beat, look and message of freedom that was saying, "I wanta be free of all restrains...parental, religious, the government...I AM gonna do whatever I want and you can't stop me."

      As I've seen things over the years, whatever music that parents and churches disapproved of... that was what they wanted. For nothing more than to be rebellious. I really have a small dread in the back of my mind that something sinister is in the works and its something we can't put our finger on, but indeed, the music style and the appearance of the people who love it is not good. There is a sub culture today that craves the outrageous. The more outrageous they look the better their peers love it. They want 'outrageous.' Many of us can't understand WHY they love the music they love, the hard-rock-metal-'screaming'-'growling' and their over use of profanity in their racket that they call 'music' to their ears. Ears which may go deaf in a few short years because they insist on the extra loud volume to force others to hear what they are 'proclaiming.'

      This now rising sub culture group looks outrageous with piercings that cover their faces, arms, chest, etc. They have green or purple or shocking pink hair. They look like they would stink and often do. They try to look (and act) like thugs. They know they can't get a job looking like they do, but they don't care...they don't want a job. They only want outrageous! And what they call 'music' is nothing but noise and racket.

      It seems this growing sub culture is determined to be as outrageous as they possibly can be. In your face outrageous! And the scary part is the sub culture will someday be the ones in government positions and other positions of influence. They will be the teachers, the parents, etc.

      Scary, scary thought!
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