The importance of place

The coming of the industrial age signaled the beginning of the decline of traditional communities. Massive migrations began as people moved from rural to urban areas. These migrations are still happening today in developing societies such as China.

Some see this as inevitable. Perhaps it was. But, it was not without ill effects. Peter Laslett talks about this in The World We Have Lost. Consider the industrial revolution’s consequences on morality. If you lived in a small town of 5,000 people where everybody knew you, your actions would be severely limited by your environment. You wouldn’t even consider doing things that happen to be regular temptations to people in the city. Adultery is difficult for a rural agrarian. The risks are too high. Not so much for the urban man. The city offers shelter and anonymity that the small town doesn’t.

Enter Wendell Berry. Berry, a Kentucky farmer and prolific writer, laments the changes brought on by modernity. He is especially disgusted with the modern breakdown of community. Families and communities are no longer self supporting (were they ever?) and find themselves at the mercy of modern impersonal economic powers. This is especially poignant for Berry the farmer. Even with government assistance the independent American farmer is a dying breed. Everyday, farmers sell off their land, trampled underfoot by big corporate agribusinesses. Communities shrivel as sons and daughters travel to different cities for school and then different cities again for work.

I haven’t read enough of Berry to know what he suggests as a solution, but Eugene Peterson has. Peterson was recently a full time professor at Regent College and is now a full time writer, building off of his Message fame. What is important about Peterson is not his theological appointments or his writing accomplishments. What is important is that he pastored a church, one church, for 29 years. From 1962 until his retirement in 1991 Peterson was the pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland.

Peterson didn’t stay at this church because he had to. He’s always been famous. He probably could have gone to a much bigger church if he wanted to. He probably could have made a lot more money. A bigger church in a more urban city like New York might have appreciated his literary talents more. Peterson refused to leave.

Why? He certainly wanted to from time to time, but his spiritual director was adamant. Wendell Berry was adamant. Place matters. Peterson realized that true community could only be created with a dedication to a place. The hard work of shepherding souls takes years of investment.  Souls are hard and embittered. The Spirit sometimes does His work on us in an instant, but more often than not He prefers a long drawn out drama. After all, it’s a much better story and God loves a good story. The only way Peterson could be “effective” as a pastor was to invest his life into a community. And that’s what he did.

This is not a popular view. Consider culture warrior Hugh Hewitt. In a recent book, Hewitt recommends that Christians who plan on influencing culture have to be prepared to move quickly and often. He says that people who are intent on changing the world should plan on moving to a city with broad cultural influence like New York or Washington. Live in Denver or Dallas? Too bad. They’re not “important” enough.
What about the kids? What about an aging mom or dad? What about spending time investing in the life of a community like Peterson did? This never factors into Hewitt’s account.  His vision is marred by a blind lust for power. And if we’re not motivated by power, we’re motivated by mammon. Why else do we uproot our families and abandon friendships for a better job?

The problem is that we don’t value place. The church has to start to develop a theology of place and its importance.

There has been recent talk of a new monasticism. It’s a great idea. You should all look into it. People are starting to look at ancient monastic vows – to chastity, poverty, obedience, etc.

What is missing from their vows is a commitment to place. Perhaps this could be a new vow.

What do you think?