In the fiction of C.S. Lewis, continually we see examples of the importance of simple acts of decency over against the destructive, soul-destroying selfishness that ultimately is at the root of damnation. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom’s journey to space is the result, in some important ways, of his sense of duty to a poor widow who has lost her son. He doesn’t even particularly want to do what he needs to do, but he is driven to do it by a deeply ingrained sense of duty and decency. We might say that it has become “second nature.” At the other end of the spectrum is Eustace from The Chronicles of Narnia, whose selfishness has turned him into a dragon. Incredibly invasive surgery is required to un-dragon Eustace—only Aslan can do it.
And this brings us to our chief point: manners matter. Manners are not primarily about the proper placement of the dessert fork. They are primarily about decency and civility towards our neighbor. And when full grown, they are about loving our neighbor and resisting the temptation to selfishness. In that sense, our very salvation is bound up in them. The loss of civility, then, is tantamount to the destruction of a civilization and the condemnation of our souls. And this is what Lewis wants us to see in his fiction. The generation destroyed by the flood was, undoubtedly, uncivil.
In what sense are manners biblical? The reductionist would reduce manners to convention, and then argue that they are optional (as are many social conventions). Like fashion trends or linguistic fads, manners change over time, he might argue, and therefore, there is nothing sacred about them. Of course, this entirely misses the point. Manners exist in a society because human beings are divine image bearers. Why do we set the table? We could just as easily rip flesh from bone with our hands and incisors. Why do we pray before our meals? Why do we make eye contact when someone is speaking to us? Why does a gentleman hold the door for a lady? Why does a young man help an elderly person carry packages? It really is as simple as understanding that we are divine image bearers. As creatures created in God’s image, manners help us to recognize the dignity of another human being. Yes, they are about civility. But civility, ultimately, is about reflecting the triune nature of God. God exists in perfect community—three persons who love each other so perfectly that they are one.
The imperative of manners in a Christian community, then, is that civility towards our brothers and sisters in Christ is one of the chief ways that the world sees our Trinitarian unity. Insofar as manners train us to consider the other, it follows that a community without manners must be inherently selfish. And a community that is inherently selfish is expressing the opposite of what Christ prays in his high priestly prayer:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me (John 17:20-23).
All of this begins in the family. The family is the microcosm of the larger communities we inhabit. And it is in the family that our bonds of decency are formed. Little lessons like sharing, and letting the other go first, and helping to clear the table, and speaking respectfully to parents—these are all the initiation into civility. Dad, model this civility in how you treat your wife. A young man’s character can often be determined, quite simply, by how he treats his mother. And how he treats his mother will, in all likelihood, reflect how you treat your wife. Older siblings, model unselfishness to your younger siblings. Let them win in the “go fish” game. Let them see you scoop the ice cream for them, before yourself. In all of these little things we are beginning to engage in the divine pattern of civility expressed so beautifully by Jesus’ second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Manners, then, are the initiation into a culture of civility, the full-flowering of which—through the divine grace of our salvation—is unselfish love.
Would you like to dive deeper into learning how you can instill good manners in your children? Join us for our upcoming event on February 28 at 7:00 pm, where former White House aide to Nancy Reagan, author, and life coach Sheryl Eberly will give a presentation titled "Whatever Happened to Manners: Helping Our Children Flourish in a Rude World. Registration is free but required. Find out more information here. Or, click below to view our on-demand webinar that Graham Dennis and other Veritas faculty and adminstrators presented on manners.