Month: March 2010

Confessions of a Localist in Training

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I was recently sent this note by a young lady who listened to the first episode of the Roads From Emmaus podcast:

…I listened to your first “Roads From Emmaus” podcast and instead of joy I got a guilty nausea in my stomach. The ideal “me” in my head agrees with you, we should reach out to our neighbors and community. I’ll admit I don’t really have much experience in that area having been an Army brat with constantly changing environments where that isn’t always possible (perhaps I got too used to it).

I can’t use that excuse now though because my husband and I have a house… and we’re here to stay (as far as we know); and yet, I feel a reluctance to really branch out to even our neighbors. We only have 4 houses near us actually because we’re on the outskirts in like a farming community but even if I see them outside I’m reluctant to approach them and talk. I worry that anytime I reach out to someone that I’ll be overburdened or that they’ll want to keep the relationship going and I won’t out of personality mismatch (as has happened many times to me before).

Even if someone in a store randomly strikes up a conversation with me I worry I won’t be able to get away to finish my shopping. Additionally, I worry that once I start up a relationship, I will be the one required to maintain it and if I fail, I will be seen negatively in their eyes…. I’ve thought about joining a local community group here but again I fear my free time will then be non-existent.

I realize a lot of this comes from the passion of love of self that the Church CONSTANTLY reminds us of, but I was hoping you may have some advice on how to get started (slowly!!).

Like this young lady who wrote to me, I have a background in the military (not me, my dad). Indeed, my father and both of my grandfathers were all military men, and when my father finished his tour in the US Navy in the early 1980s, my family joined up with an Evangelical missionary radio organization. My family has thus been mobile over multiple generations. Localism doesn’t particularly come easily to me, since I not only have moved twenty times (spanning across six US states and one unincorporated territory, over fourteen different towns), but I also grew up in the age of mass computing, where everyone had the opportunity to get on the Internet in early adulthood. This is also the age of the ATM, the automated grocery store checkout machine, etc.

These inventions, coupled with my residential background, have not made me an obvious localist. I did not grow up on or near any farms. I have never lived in one home for more than five years. I still define myself very much by the state where I lived the longest (eleven years in North Carolina), but in the five and a half years since I moved from there, I’ve lived in three more homes. I therefore come to localism much the same way that I did to Orthodox Christianity: as a convert, full of wonder at the beauty of what he’s encountered. As a convert to this manner of thinking and living, just as with Orthodoxy, I believe I’ve become grafted in to a form of cultural recusancy, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot meant in his piece Thoughts After Lambeth:

The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide.

I suppose that all this amateurish rumination requires me to set out some sort of definition of what localism might mean, at least in how I use the term. I believe it to be essentially a matter of attention. I should pay attention to the people around me, to the institutions next to me, to the communing community in which I live, more than I do to concerns beyond my locus. I am thus not in favor of globalism or nationalism. I find more value in patriotism for one’s town or even state than I do to our national government, because it is much better to love what’s in front of you than it is to throw love “out there” to some ideal entity.

Localism is, in the words of one of my favorite weblogs, about place, limits, and liberty (this piece in particular is worth your perusal). Implied in that combination of things is local, self-governance.

My reading of history is such that most people were basically localists until recent times, though there was no need for a name for it. There was no television or cheap oil or cheap broadband access to draw our attention everywhere but here. Necessity and economics required that we know our neighbors, if only so we could trade or buy our necessities, so that we could find husbands and wives for our children, so that we would not be left bereft of comfort and help when tragedy struck. But now, all those connections have been stripped away, and our collective alienation is so acute that we grope around politically to try to find national, systemic solutions to all our challenges. It really used to be that your local family doctor would probably treat you anyway when you couldn’t pay him, but once our government told him that we’d pay him so he wouldn’t have to be charitable any more, something precious was lost.

In any event, I was asked for advice by this young lady, and I promised her in a private note that I’d give some, and she kindly gave me permission to make it in the form of a weblog post. I have to say that I am not really the best example of a non-hypocritical localist, nor do I have much experience at this project. I am trying, bit by bit, with God’s grace, to form a better consciousness within myself and for my wife and for my children. And, indeed, I do believe it is a question of grace. The Incarnation bears many implications within it, and Place is one of them. Christ was not incarnate in a universal body killed upon a universal cross in a universal city. No, He had one body, taken from one woman, crucified on one cross in the one city of Jerusalem.

Christianity was always meant to be local, evidenced by the many small churches built in many places throughout its history, rather than this ridiculous, monocultural, globalist idea which insists that churches should resemble rock-n-roll arenas that seat thousands. Every street corner was meant to be sanctified. We were not meant to drive out of the suburbs and fill up some massive stadium in order to have a mass trance in group hysteria over a rock-n-roll band that puts Jesus’ name into otherwise secular songs which (badly) imitate the pop music of the monoculture. Yes, Christianity is a universal faith, but it is not a mass faith of faceless consumers who buy into a bland religious product.

Of course, even if you’re not a believer, the truth is that the time will likely come when our currency’s bottom will drop out and/or we lose our ability to travel easily and cheaply (due to a spike in transportation costs, most especially of oil). When either of those things happen, it will be the relationships you’ve built in your community which could not only save your life but allow you to grow and thrive while the rest of the country flails about. (It will also be the death of the mega-churches.)

So, here are some of my bits of advice, in no particular order:

  1. Buy local, especially local food. It tastes better, for one thing, and it’s had less time for its nutrients to drop out. But you also have the chance to meet the people who make it. Meet them, talk with them about their vegetables, their goats, or what have you. Most farmers are actually pretty cool people. But it’s not just the farmers. Someone who is selling you the work of his own hands has a different relationship with you than someone merely passing on a “product” that got shipped in from somewhere else.

  2. Attend the church closest to you. Obviously, don’t attend one that’s heretical, but attend whatever’s nearest and is preaching the true faith. If you have some sort of major, major problem at that church, then check out the next nearest one to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your preferred cultural flavor. Those are still God’s people, and that’s still the Eucharist there.
  3. Don’t worry about having to “maintain” friendships with people. Just go about your business and show genuine interest in the people you encounter. Favor old people over young people. Do all that, and you’ll probably find that “maintaining” friendships will be a joy. Our relationships were meant to be mediated by the everyday commerce of life, not by deliberately planned phone calls, text messages, emails and dinner dates.
  4. Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around your town. It’s a different place when you walk it, and it’s a lot more interesting when you’re not zooming by at 40 mph. (Plus, your kids will be less antsy.) It’s also a lot healthier, and you save money on gas. (This will also stand you in good stead if we ever do hit peak oil.)
  5. Take pictures of your town. They will help you to look for what’s beautiful in it.
  6. Try to do all your shopping, banking, and other business within two miles of your home. The closer, the better.
  7. Move out of the suburbs and into an area where there is a real community center. Or better yet, do what you can to get your suburb to turn into a semi-urban area (also called “new urbanism”), where almost everything can be walked to.
  8. If you are ever involved in building something, try to make your new building be reminiscent of the oldest architecture in your area. It doesn’t have to be identical, but it should not draw attention as radically different from the surrounding landscape. Good, humane architecture is about tradition, not really about innovation.
  9. If you are building or altering a house, put a front porch on it. Go outside when it’s hot inside rather than cranking up the air conditioning. Likewise, make your bedrooms small and your common rooms big.
  10. Learn how to garden.
  11. Think up a name for your house. (Not “Ralph,” either, but something appropriate for a place.)
  12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good. It’s not. You were made to commune. That doesn’t mean that everything you do has to be in public, but the public good needs to become more important to you than your private good.
  13. Learn the history of your town. It’s probably really interesting.

My experience is that, if you do these things, you will have a more peaceful, joyous life, and you’ll also be a living testament that it is possible to be truly human, which also communicates the Gospel to people, too.

Have any ideas of your own?

This Holy Earth: Ecological Vision in the Cosmic Cathedral

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Both parts of my February 3 talk at Bucknell University are now available via Ancient Faith Radio, on the Roads From Emmaus podcast.

Take a listen here: Part 1, Part 2.

Raising Humanity

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The following is an excerpt from the lecture on evangelism which I will be giving in Bethlehem this coming Sunday. This represents some of my first articulated thinking on localist themes with regard to evangelism.

Another aspect to the question of location in evangelism is perhaps a bit less obvious, and that is the need for us to foster human community in the places where our parishes are. Our society is fast moving toward converting every human person into a mere part in a big machine. The relationships that used to govern every aspect of our lives have been disconnected because we have cheap oil and fast transportation. Most of us don’t know who produces our eggs or our milk. Most of us will never meet the people who grow our coffee or build our cars. The casualty of our high-speed economy is relationships. Thus, not only do all the people along this depersonalized chain of production and consumption not care as much about what they produce or what they receive, but it’s also become much harder to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

For the majority of Americans, their homes are a place where they park their cars and sleep at night. They don’t know their neighbors. They don’t work near their homes. They don’t shop near their homes. “Community” is a concept that has more sentiment to it than incarnational meaning. In the past, most people worked with their neighbors, went to church with their neighbors, relaxed with their neighbors, and bought things from each other in their shopping. Now, most of these relationships have been severed and replaced with some kind of outsourcing, usually made possible because of easy transportation. It’s extremely easy to have your family, your co-workers, your fellow church members, your neighbors, and the people you see at the markets all be entirely separate sets of people.

I mention this not to encourage nostalgia for a bygone era nor to suggest that we all need to stop commuting to work or church or the store immediately (though some adjustment probably would help!). Rather, our problem is a theological one, an anthropological one. The more we as human persons are stripped of the community and the communion for which God created us, the more the good news of Jesus Christ will sound like a non sequitur. What’s the point in eternal salvation in Christ, of becoming united to the God-man when I have so many text messages to answer? I don’t need a church community—I have hundreds of friends on Facebook (and I can turn them off whenever I like).

This is not to condemn participation on the Internet or use of modern technology—I myself make a lot of use of such things. But a time is soon coming when people will have to make a choice between being cogs in a machine or being human persons. One of the challenges of the Orthodox Church in the 21st century is not only in bringing Christ to people, but simply in showing people what it means to be human. If we have no sense of our humanity, then we will never understand the nature or the tragedy of sin. And if we do not see sin, then we cannot see why we have need of salvation.

Ironically, these devices which were supposed to save us time take up more of our time, and even while we’re more connected than ever, our collective alienation has grown. We as a culture are becoming lost in a virtual world defined by isolation rather than saved in an incarnate reality defined by communion.

As a result, I strongly recommend that every parish takes the time to get to know the surrounding community, reaching out to them and helping to build community links between people. Not only will this yield numerous opportunities to share Christ with people who need Him, but it will raise the collective humanity of our cities and towns. If we are to encounter the God Who is human, then we need to regain a sense of our own humanity, or else we will find Him inaccessible to us. The point of God taking on humanity was so that we could access His divinity. But if we do not even know what it means to be human, then how can we begin to access God in the humanity of Jesus Christ?

The good news is that momentum is already gathering in parts of the culture to counteract the depersonalization permitted by our technology and promoted by our dedication to so-called “higher living standards.” Whether the philosophy goes by “localism,” “regionalism,” or “agrarianism,” there is a desire afoot among many in our culture to try to find new ways to restore true community, even if it’s just by trying to buy food grown locally or by supporting local charities over ones that are far away.

We have to re-learn how to be humane, how to be human. This is critical not only in terms of our ability to raise the collective humanity of our home towns but also because it is part of our internal ministry within our parishes. In order to keep ourselves human, we have to nurture community within our parishes, real community built on relationships which have multiple connections in them, not solely that we all see each other in church on Sunday. Having more frequent church services helps to build this community, as well as joint projects for local charitable work, deliberately patronizing each other’s businesses, introducing our children to each other for marriage, trying to live near one another, and working to live and work closer to the church.

Whatever we may choose to do, we should always have in mind that God has called us to sanctify the place that we’re in, to make it an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven. We will never achieve the Kingdom fully while we still live the earthly life, but there is much we can to do hold back the darkness and to bring the Light Himself flooding into our neighborhoods.