The Age of Sneers and Shrugs

George Steiner concludes his coruscating (if sometimes also dazzling, in both senses of the word) Lessons of the Masters with this lapidary and disturbing description of our time. Does it seem accurate to you? And what about the last question?


I would entitle our present age as that of irreverence. The causes of this fundamental transformation are those of political revolution, of social upheaval (Ortega’s notorious “revolt of the masses”), of the scepticism obligatory in the sciences. Admiration, let alone reverence, have grown outmoded. We are addicts of envy, of denigration, of downward levelling. Our idols must exhibit clay heads. Where incense rises, it does so towards athletes, pop stars, the money-mad, or the kings of crime. Celebrity, as it saturates our media existence, is the contrary to fama. The wearing, millionfold, of the football god’s jersey number or of the crooner’s hairdo is the contrary to discipleship. Correspondingly, the notion of the sage verges on the risible. Consciousness is populist and egalitarian, or pretends to be. Any manifest turning towards an elite, towards that aristocracy of the intellect self-evident to Max Weber, is close to being proscribed by the democratization of a mass-consumption system…. The exercise of reverence is reverting to its far origins in the religious and ritual sphere. Throughout mundane, secular relations the prevailing note, often bracingly American, is that of challenging impertinence. “Monuments of unchanging intellect,” perhaps even our brains, are covered with graffiti. At whose entrance do students rise?

Well, at U2’s and Stephen Colbert’s and perhaps Barack Obama’s, I suppose. But who else’s?

0 Responses to “The Age of Sneers and Shrugs”

  1. Josh

    Is his description true for a big chunk of our society? Certainly. What else would we expect from a thoroughly postmodern mindset and the aftershocks of political and religious scandals exhibiting the break-down of integrity among well known public leaders?

    That doesn’t mean respect and reverence are limited now exclusively to idols of our pop culture. There is genuine respect out there for people who are perceived as authentic and having earned respect.

    Some people do stand out and continue to do so. In the realm of Christian faith and theology I often find widespread respect for people like Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, Karl Barth, N.T. Wright, just to mention a few.

    Even a certain John Stackhouse is occasionally mentioned as an intelligent, well balanced voice … not too often though … maybe some are concerned it may damage his humility! 😉

  2. Mike in Maryland

    Certainly not at my entrance. I teach Bible related courses at a Christian High School. What concerns me most is not the students’ thinking skills, writing ability, or other traditional pedagogical concerns. These can be addressed and coached in the classroom.

    Reverence in the classroom setting, if I understand Steiner’s quote right, is manifest as being “truly present.” What concerns me most about the students is their growing inability to be truly present in the class. They are so used to consuming media, etc. that the class simply becomes something else to consume…or not consume.

    I haven’t read Steiner’s book, but I will. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Ed

    It describes my some of my students as well. Some of whom, are paying more attention to Facebook than to my lecture.

    It also describes some churches! The lack of respect for anything rampant in our culture is all to often reflected in a lack of respect or honor for God in our churches.

    So – metaphorically speaking – do we rise at God’s entrance in our churches?

  4. poserorprophet

    What I find interesting about this — as a person deeply immersed in this culture — is that most people are genuinely looking for something or someone to respect and honour and treat with admiration. It’s just that they honestly can’t find that thing or person. I know many people who fit the description provided by Steiner… but they are unhappy that they fit that description and wish they were otherwise.

    Here, I think, we need to mention the impact of the ongoing commodification of all things in life. When everything and everybody are reduced to the level of objects (pragamata, to use Heidegger’s term) that can be branded, bought, and sold, then reverence becomes next to impossible… despite our best efforts. This, I think, is one of the ways in which the economics of global capitalism ends up impacting the core of who we are.

  5. Steve K

    I see myself, a lot, in this.
    It happens more when I ‘dazzle’ my mind by never setting it too long on something. We become dilettantes of everything because we are presented with everything. If we can disengage, ‘go dark’, become more silent in body and mind, we can, ironically, look past ourselves.
    Don’t really want to say more as I just wanted to say I agree with the title: “Age of sneers and shrugs”. (In a sense, I’m sorry for adding to the constant stream).

  6. Henry Cullihall

    Re: Your paste on George Steiner
    “At whose entrance do students rise?

    It sound like the rant of The Cynic who’s wearied from making too many books, whose “bubbled reputation,” (Shakespeare) is ending.


    • John Stackhouse

      Well, maybe, Henry, but Steiner is enjoying a pretty golden time in his golden years. Are you sure he is the The Cynic?

  7. Henry Cullihall

    I’ve been translating Koleth for some time now. (I dislike the LXX Ecclesiastes) Steiner sounds like Koleth’s rant, mine and your rant at not being at the center any more which happens to us “bookmen,” with big egos.
    Koleth is the story of us all. He doesn’t use Golden Years; I think he’d say its a euphemism for old age with it’s health issues of slugging along in this battered old carcass, half deaf, blind, finding it hard to eat, moving his face like a bunny to keep his dentures from falling out, nursing home a possibility then: death. This is the path of us all and Why we can love people as ourselves. They are us. We are them.

    “Alone into the alone,” according to some. I think “alone into supernal light.” I would never be critical of him…he’s me and you and all humanity…I thing GRrrrr Old man. Haven’t you read Koleth?

    So don’t be mean John. I know he’s probably got a better life than me…That’s not hard to have.


  8. Sneers and Shrugs « Breathe

    […] and Shrugs Posted March 29, 2010 Filed under: Uncategorized | The following is a provocative post from theologian John Stackhouse who is referencing an author. Found it […]


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