The Geography of Somewhere

The landscape of my childhood was a subdivision in Roseville, Michigan. My parents moved there from their apartment in Detroit in the 1950’s. Roseville was the kind of suburban space that sociologists would later contemptuously describe as “the geography of nowhere.” For them, suburbia’s monotonous uniformity and non-descript architecture epitomize the cultural decline of the United States. Although our neighborhood was not nearly as uniform as Levittown, the prototype for all American suburbs, it was similar enough. Most of the homes were small and built in ranch style. They had screen doors, a milk chute, and a basement. Sidewalks ran up and down each side of the street and the blocks were laid out in a criss-cross pattern, running north and south or east and west.

Still, there was enough difference between the houses on our block to at least differentiate them from each other. One might have awnings and another a garage. Some had trees planted on the parkway near the road. It is true they sat in a uniform row but there was relatively little danger that you might walk into someone else’s house by accident. What is more, each block had its own kind of flavor. Belleair, the block behind us, always seemed to be a little more upscale to me. Perhaps it was because it had been developed after ours. Or maybe it was because of its pretentious sounding name. Some blocks were older, others poorer.

One of the most significant landmarks in our neighborhood was the field to the west of our street, a swath of undeveloped land that we always referred to using the definite article. It was not “a” field but “the” field. We spoke of it as if it were the primeval field of the world, the garden where God planted His first tree. In actual fact, there weren’t many trees in that field. Yet to my childhood imagination it was a wilderness, as mysterious as it was wild. We spent hours there, exploring its boundaries, hunting crayfish or frogs and hiding from bullies among its weeds. It was dotted with wildflowers, a few strawberry patches, and smelled of milkweed and uncut grass.

The field was bordered on its east end by a farmhouse, which stood across the street and kitty-corner from our brick ranch. An old two-story home, I always believed that it was the first house in our neighborhood. I wondered if we were living on the remains of someone else’s farm. In my memory, that old house was green and inviting when it was inhabited and dark and mysterious when it was not. I visited it only once or twice, entering by the back door into the kitchen. I remember a red plaid tablecloth. After while it stood empty, and we were certain it was haunted. It was eventually torn down and replaced by three new, brick ranches which fit the look of the rest of the neighborhood better. I was sorry to see it go.

Mr. Wooten lived in one of the new houses. Our neighbors whispered that he was shell-shocked. Something had happened during the war, but nobody knew what it was. On some nights we could hear him shouting at his wife in their home across the street. They argued loudly until he finally stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him. In the early morning hours, he reappeared on our doorstep, hammering at the screen door and ringing the doorbell. At first, I thought he had mistaken our house for his own. But with a mumbled apology, he explained that he had forgotten his keys and needed to call his wife to let him in. When she seemed unwilling to do so, he slammed the phone down and with another mumbled apology wandered off into the darkness. I was never sure whether she let him in or not.

On the field’s northern border was a small party store that my father used to call “the great facility.” He got the title from the owner, who told him when it first opened that he planned to provide the neighborhood with “a great facility” that would sell them cigarettes, beer, and bread. But my brother, sister, and I always called it “the little store,” once again employing the definite article in a way that seemed to suggest that there was no other. My father bought his vodka there, while we purchased penny candy by the fistful.

The western border of the field was marked by another old house. We viewed its inhabitants with some suspicion because the children who lived there had a reputation of being unruly. How could they not be wild, living on the border of civilization as they did? Our homes rested on neatly measured property lines and along a paved street, while they lived on a gravel road that went past the little store. Who knew where their property began or ended? To the rest of us, they seemed like mountain people living deep in some Appalachian holler, strange and exotic with customs that were foreign to our own way of life. Our suspicions seemed confirmed when some years later the father of one of our friends abandoned his wife and ran off with the woman who lived there. We did not usually venture that far into the field. If we had drawn a map, we might have etched the warning “Here be Dragons” in that spot.

On its southern border, the field was hemmed in by Church Street, the block where the Baptist and Catholic churches were located. Those two landmarks made a deep impression on the landscape of my soul. It was where I first sensed the fear of the Lord and became God-haunted. It was in that space that I first heard the gospel.

The emotional memory of much of my childhood is contained within these boundaries. On the one hand, there was the teeming life of the block with its orderly row of homes, each one a cultural universe of its own. The overall topography of the block may have seemed the same but the smells, customs and values of my Polish and Italian neighbors seemed quite strange to me. What is more, every house was a center of drama. Each one the site of its own daily morality play, where husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, loved and fought, defended or betrayed one another.

Then there was the other world that lay in the direction of the horizon and the setting sun. This expanse, although it was really only a few blocks square, seemed to my child’s mind to be almost infinite in scope. I thought I could spend my whole life exploring there. The wild beauty I saw in its weedy shambles lit the spark that granted me my first vision of the undiscovered country. It shaped some of my earliest images of what heaven might be like.

Sometimes, I go back to the neighborhood where I grew up. The streets seem the same but my friends are all gone. I drive past their houses and remember what it was like to stand on the porch on a summer’s day and call them out to play in singsong chant. I imagine them appearing at the door and tumbling out into the yard. The field is gone too, having given way to more developed land and nondescript office buildings. The few trees that once grew there have been cut down. The old houses that marked its borders have disappeared. The little store is still there but it is no longer as little as it used to be. You can still get your beer and bread there but you can no longer buy a fistful of candy for a penny. As I turn the car toward the expressway, I drive past the place where the gravel road used to be and recollect the scent of milkweed and uncut grass. In my mind’s eye the old boundaries of my childhood reappear. Once again I see the familiar geography of somewhere.

Falling Into the Culture Gap: The Allure of “Hipster” Christianity

Recently Gap Inc. reversed its plans to change the company’s familiar logo because of the widespread unpopularity of its new image. Visitors to the Gap’s website scorned the new logo, ridiculing it for its ugliness and complaining that it was something a child could have created using clip art.

 It seems reasonable to assume that Gap Inc. returned to its old logo because they were afraid that consumers’ dislike of its new symbol would adversely affect corporate sales. I am not criticizing the Gap for changing its mind in this matter. This seems like good business sense to me. Some have even speculated that the whole thing was merely a publicity stunt–perhaps an ingenious variation on the old “new” Coke strategy.

 But I do wonder what all this says about us as a culture.  Are we really so image conscious that we would refuse to purchase a product because we didn’t like the company’s logo? I suspect that for many the answer is yes and I fear that the church is not immune. We live in an age where image is everything and cool is king. Congregations care more about a preacher’s style than the content of his message. It is the age of what Brett McCracken calls, in a recent article in Christianity Today, “hipster Christianity.” This is a Christianity that is not so much a faith as it is a style and whose chief vulnerability is “its fundamentally disposable, moving-on-to-what’s-next transience.”

 Our fashion conscious culture lends itself to a style oriented church. I do not see this as a new problem. It is essentially the same mentality that prompted the Corinthians to so align themselves with their favorite teachers that one said, “I follow Paul” and another “I follow Apollos” (1 Cor. 3:4). Paul, despite having a following of his own, adamantly refused to adopt the trappings of Corinthian coolness, preferring to cling to the decidedly unhip message of the cross. He might have been more “effective” if he had paid more attention to Corinthian tastes. But for him the cost of being hip was just too high.

Read Brett McCracken’s interesting article on the Christianity Today website: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/september/9.24.html?start=7

Ministry Monday: The Future of Ministry

In a recent blog post, William Willimon proposed ten theses about the future of ministry (http://willimon.blogspot.com/2010/04/ten-theses-about-future-of-ministry.html). A Methodist bishop, Willimon looks at this issue through the lens of the mainline church. He expects mainline Protestantism to continue to experience numerical decline and to continue being pushed to the margins of culture.

The solution he proposes is theological. “The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right)” Willimon observes.  The best way forward is mission related not methodological. Willimon explains, “The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.”

Willimon’s ten theses make me wonder how conservative evangelicals would answer the question, “What is the future of ministry?” How would you reply this question? What does this mean for training institutions like mine that seek to prepare students for future ministry?

Playing Technopoly

I have been reading Wendell Berry on my digital reader. I feel guilty about it. Berry, a beautiful writer whose prose reads like poetry, composes all his books in longhand. His wife types the manuscript on an old Royal typewriter. He will not purchase a computer. “Much is made of the ease of correction in computer work, owing to the insubstantiality of the light images on the screen; one presses a button and the old version disappears, to be replaced by the new” Berry writes. “But because of the substantiality of paper and the consequent difficulty involved, one does not handwrite or typewrite a new page every time a correction is made.”

Berry prefers the handwritten or typewritten manuscript and compares it to a palimpsest, a document that bears the marks of its own history. “A computer destroys the sense of historical succession, just as do other forms of mechanization.” I don’t know how Berry would feel about my reading his words on a mechanical device, but I can guess. Then again, I suppose he had to give permission to have his words distributed in electronic format.          

Still, Berry’s reticence to use the computer is a stubborn reminder that technology is a double edged sword. New technologies do more than change the way we work. They change the way we think. According to Neil Postman, new technologies “alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like–a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is real.” This is because technology is value laden. Embedded in every tool, Postman notes, “is a cultural bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attribute more loudly than another.”

The technologies associated with email and the internet have done more than change the way we communicate, they have changed our idea of what constitutes communication and community. Immediacy is valued over contemplation. Wide dispersion is more important than personal contact. This technology has spawned new vocabularies and social customs. Some extremists even argue that it will eventually produce an entirely new humanity.           

My field of higher education, specifically theological education and ministry training, is hardly immune from this. With the exponential growth of online courses and the rise of for-profit schools like Phoenix University and DeVry, there is already great pressure to invest our energy and money in the development of technological rather than human resources. It is hard to see how this can be avoided. It is only a matter of time before schools like Phoenix decide to offer theological education. And there is far more to this shift than simply the manner in which content is delivered. Their approach reflects a fundamental change in educational ethos. The magister has become a marketer. The pupil has become a customer. You can teach a pupil but not a customer. Everyone knows that the customer is always right.

Of course, it could be argued that this change is a good thing. Shouldn’t schools be more sensitive to the needs of their constituents? After all, higher education is still greatly influenced by the medieval culture from which it sprang. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt it to lose some of its feudal trappings. Change can be good. So can technology. Even Wendell Berry acknowledges this. “It would be uncharitable and foolish of me to suggest that nothing good will ever be written on a computer” he admits “Some of my best friends have computers. I have only said that a computer cannot help you to write better and I stand by that.”

I tend to agree with him. But I use a computer to write anyway. I’ve begun writing a blog, a medium of communication in which I suspect there is more pressure to post frequently than to reflect carefully. And I am reading Wendell Berry on my digital reader. I feel guilty. I think I will put Berry aside for a while and turn to Eugene Peterson. He always makes me feel better. I’ve been listening to his latest book on my iPod.