January 26, 2017 / Praxis
Erick Sierra reflects upon his journey across the diverse landscape of the Christian church in search for that place where God most fully dwells.
February 27, 2017
Elon Musk, the progenitor of SpaceX and other tech companies, says humans have two options. Option one: we can find our way to Mars, inhabit it, and survive. Or option two: we stay on Earth and face an extinction event.1 This, I suspect, is an effective way to raise money for his space project. Americans are enthralled by the prospect of world-ending disaster and the hope of escaping it. There is a reason that movies like Mad Max and Avatar gross hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Part of what draws us to these movies is the action and drama, but the apocalyptic scenarios also get inside our heads and interrogate us. They ask us about who we are and how we got that way. And they give us a glimpse of how the devastation of a place leads to a deeply wounded identity.
Take Interstellar, for instance. After another century of undeterred growth and greed, the Earth’s land is stripped of its nutrients and crops begin to suffer from blight. There is global hunger. Our protagonist Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, was trained as an engineer but has, out of necessity, become a farmer. He is described as “born forty years too early or forty years too late.” This suggests a struggle to make sense of his identity in an unsettled place. He laments that “we used to look up and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt,” and in the wake of the film, this probing sense of identity presses on viewers, asking us where we are, where we belong, and what we should we be doing. Are we primarily, as Cooper thinks, pioneers and explorers tasked with discovery? Or are we caretakers who are responsible for tending to the Earth? These questions are heavy with significance and, I believe, they are already echoing in our minds, waiting to be amplified by movies like Interstellar.2
So where are you from? On the surface, this is not a complex question. It is often the first question asked of us by a stranger. Most people will answer by naming the city, town, or state in which they were raised. I, for example, might say Huntington, Indiana. But in this answer, we discover just how complex the question actually is, because Huntington is not a simple answer. Huntington is a place saturated in a particular history and culture, and this is true of all places. When I say Huntington, I am not simply giving a geographical position; I am giving a social context. I am giving a set of parameters for beginning to understand who I am, or at least who I might be. Said differently, our identity is always tied up with a place.
What’s in a Place?
The idea of place has become more complicated in the last several generations as telephones and the Internet have made it possible to be in several places at once. It sometimes seems that people are more invested in a social media place, such as a Facebook community, than they are in their nontechnological places.
Other social phenomena have also complicated our understanding of place. Fast food is one place to start. Michael Pollan, a professor and author, estimates that nearly 20 percent of Americans’ meals are eaten in their cars.3 Where the table was once a place of respite, a moment of familial unity to interrupt the busyness of the day, it now collects dust, unopened junk mail, and other items too troublesome to put away in a hurry. We are now more transient than ever, in both physical and technological places, and our transience inevitably affects our identity or, at the very least, our ability to know our identity.
Wendell Berry observed our transience over forty years ago. He suggests that it stems from the loss of a healthy farming culture in America, a loss that was exacerbated by the exodus of farmers to the city.4 The culture of a healthy farming community is complex, Berry says, and displays traits such as “communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration.” Within this culture a certain kind of mind is cultivated—a mind that “has learned the disciplines necessary to go ahead on his own, as required by economic obligation, loyalty to his place, pride in his work. His workdays require the use of long experience and practiced judgment, for the failures which he knows that he will suffer.”5 If the mind of the farmer was lost upon arriving in the city, then what has replaced it?
According to Berry, the mind and character of the responsible farmer is mostly being replaced by “the knowledge of some fragmentary task that may be learned by rote in a little while.” Put another way, the mind of the farmer has been replaced by the mind of industry.6 This industrial mind is specialized or, in Berry’s words, fragmented. That is, the industrial mind expects people to do only one specific job. In industrial farming, specialization means that a farm will raise only one crop or one animal. In industrial manufacturing, specialization means that a factory worker will work only within one area of the production line. One could argue that specialization enables people to become masters of their craft, but the cost of specialization is very high. It encourages a kind of tunnel vision in which the connections between systems are overlooked. For example, an economic specialist in a place like Flint, Michigan, might think it makes good sense to switch people’s water source to the Flint River because that specialist is primarily taught to consider the financial implications of decisions. A culture taught to think in terms of specialization will fail to see how its economic actions might affect the social, political, technological, or environmental lives of others around the world or, in the case of Flint, those downstream. In this way, the industrial mind is simplified, for it fails to attend to the complexity of interdependent systems.
The second simplification of the industrial mind is its transience: the industrial mind assumes no meaningful connection to its place. We in the United States are painfully reminded of this every time a factory shutters its local production so that it can employ cheaper labor elsewhere. The industrial mind has its eye on efficiency and expansion, place being only a passing concern. We can again think of fast food: how often have we ordered a burger from a drive-through lane, just off the highway, and then merged back into traffic without having a clue about where we are in the world? Most of us never know the farmer, the state, or even the region in which the cow we’re eating was raised. That’s because in fast food—or industrialized food—place is irrelevant.
And here, when the mind of the farmer is replaced by the industrial mind, we see evidence of the simplification of character. Norman Wirzba, in his book From Nature to Creation, elaborates on this point:
To know how to live presupposes that we know who we are and where we are. For example, to be dressed in an athletic uniform and in a gym means that I am going to play a game of some sort. What I am to do follows from where I understand myself to be located (an athletic facility) and who I perceive myself to be (an athlete). But what if it is impossible for me to know that the place I am in is a gym and that I am an athlete, which places and calls me into a particular kind of role?7
The industrial mind, with its transience, creates in us a sort of ethical amnesia, a confounded character. When living according to the industrial mind, we feel no sense of connection to a place, so we forget how it is that we ought to live in that place. Without a rooted sense of place, we are “basically passive, occupying a provisional, endlessly changeable identity.”8 Unlike the farmer who knows her place, who feels it in her bones, the industrial mind is transient and confused about who it is or what it ought to be doing.
Where Do We Belong?
We Christians are as prone to accept the industrial mind, and the simplification of mind and character that comes with it, as anyone else. We struggle to understand our own place.
We must not be too harsh on ourselves—after all, our Savior said “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NASB)—and yet Christians do have a heritage of belonging to places. We are a people of Eden, a place that we were to tend and care for, a place that clearly identified us as creatures of a God who wanted us to flourish with the rest of creation. We are a people of Israel, a place that embodied in its fruitfulness God’s faithfulness to the people God liberated from Egypt. And we are a people of the new earth, a people called to look forward to the coming restoration of all things—the making new of all things—when Christ returns to establish a permanently redeemed world. In all these things, we must confess that Christians are a people tightly bound to and deeply in need of a place.
It should go without saying, then, that I believe that genuine Christian living must deeply consider the meaning of place. We must attempt what Berry calls “the reverse movement”; we must counteract the simplification of mind and character by pursuing the hard work of “establishing complex local cultures with strong communal memories and traditions of care.”9 I am not now imagining something like the Moral Majority, which sought to reverse certain cultural trends, starting with desegregation, through political power and legislation. That effort is wholly born from the industrial mind, for it assumes that culture can be imposed upon a people through the creation of new laws, as if culture could be manufactured. It does not consider that culture is enlivened over time, brewing in the exchanges of people who care about their shared life. Instead, I am envisioning a renewed emphasis on practices within our church communities that produce the kind of culture that is appropriate to our place.
Is it good and right that pastors are sometimes projected onto screens instead of being in the place where the people are gathered? Is it good and right that we do not know or wish to know the people with whom we worship? How can we build the kind of community that Berry advocates? How can we find our place? We must find practices that raise questions about transience in our churches.
We have a possible answer, I think, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In that letter, he is adamant that the church’s practice of eating together is significant. When the Corinthians eat, Paul says, they should “let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24, italics mine). Thus, Paul explains that if eating some food causes our neighbor to stumble, then we’d better not eat it. In other words, we are to be intentional with how we eat. Our identity is not located in our ability to decide for ourselves, as the transient American culture insists, but in our place at a table full of people with whom we share our life. Later on, when the Corinthians are gathering for the Lord’s Supper, Paul reprimands their lack of intention:
But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you (1 Cor. 11:17–22).
Our identity, Paul suggests, is not found in the things that divide us. Our identity is not found in our wealth or our power, those traits that might allow us to eat and drink to the shame of the poor among us. Instead, our identity is found in our place at the table alongside the people of God and before our Lord whom we remember there. By continuing to eat as if our economic, political, or social position actually mattered, we are “despising the church” and “shaming those who have nothing.” We are to govern our table manners, according to Paul, in a way that evidences our understanding of and commitment to where we are and whom we are with. In other words, if we are at the Lord’s table, then we shouldn’t be acting like we are at a business dinner.
Paul tells us that we meet God in Communion; he shows how Communion invites us to engage in our complex local culture and traditions of care. When we take Communion, we are instructed to “judge the body rightly” or to be “disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:27–32). In eating together, we see those among us who “have nothing” and offer them food, rather than turning them into statistics. In taking Communion, we are drawn to a place that gives us identity, a place that gives us a people, responsibility, and a sense of meaning. Moreover, by taking Communion, we are rooted in the body of Christ, which is not a spiritual concept but a living reality. By taking Communion, we are forced to acknowledge the real people, the real place, and the real food that shape how we live in the world. And thus, when we choose not to participate in Communion regularly, we become disconnected from the responsibility of engaging in our community, of giving ourselves to the community in vulnerability and trust.
But we also need a communion practice that resists individualism and transience. We need a communion practice that looks more like community and less like a fast-food meal in the car. I am speaking here primarily to my evangelical sisters and brothers. In the evangelical churches I have attended, Communion tends to consist of each individual helping his or herself to a tiny cup and a tiny wafer. This act, it seems, is only a sacred moment between the congregant and God—there are no interactions with other members of the community. For those of us working in the industrial mindset, such a practice seems normal. What does it matter how we get the task done, as long as it gets done? Why is it important to engage with others if Communion is primarily about me? Matters such as conviviality, a fundamental aspect of biblical Communion, are lost in this method of taking in Communion.
In contrast, most other traditions have ministers of Communion who speak to each individual, make eye contact, and serve the bread and cup. In this way, the practice of Communion resists transience, especially the transience inherent in projecting a pastor onto a screen. A person on a screen can hardly know the complex makeup of the congregation gathered in front of the screen. Only a person present within the congregation can understand that community. Those who offer Communion do not offer only the bread and wine of Communion but also a hand of fellowship that says “We are in this together.” Unless we mean to mimic the loneliness of the transient, industrial mind, we must embody our Communion with interaction and intention.
And if we want to be really intentional with how we practice Communion, we could go one step farther. We could make our own bread out of ingredients purchased from local farmers. We could work it together. We could bake it together. We could challenge the individualism that causes our deepest divisions by making the practice of Communion fully communal. Communion would bind us to our place by supporting local agriculture and to one another by the act of making, giving, and receiving. Practicing Communion in this way models an alternative way of life for those in the church, a way that challenges the anonymity and specialization so deeply embedded in Western culture. Communion done in this way could become for us an act of participatory discipleship.
Writing about the value of buying from local farmers, Bill McKibben says,
A tomato from the small farmer at the end of your suburban road takes less fuel to transport, and a tomato from the farmer at the end of your suburban road tastes better. But it’s more than that—it’s better because it comes from a . . . farmer down at the end of your suburban road. Getting that tomato requires you to live with a stronger sense of community in mind . . . requires that you shed a certain amount of your hyper-individualism with a certain amount of neighborliness.10
McKibben is not just theorizing. People have “ten times as many conversations at farmer’s markets as they do at supermarkets.” By buying locally, “you go from being a mere consumer,” McKibben concludes, “to being a participant” in the community.11 Imagine if we practiced Communion in a way that urged us to be neighborly or to meet our neighbors! Of course, practicing Communion as an act of memory is a good start. We must not forget, however, that we are remembering the Christ incarnate in a way that should ultimately transform our behaviors, compelling us to be neighborly. We are not mere consumers; we are participants. Practicing Communion as a communal act, a neighborly act, helps us establish ourselves in our place and, so, helps us understand where we are from.
Let Us Break Bread Together
Christians, like the community in Corinth, used to eat meals together regularly, perhaps every night. Those meals would often include the practice of communion, and that practice helped them form a sense of place, a sense of belonging. In the passages I shared in this essay, that place was Corinth, a place that posed its own particular difficulties. The Corinthians were staggering under the revelation that in Christ all are equal (Gal. 3:28). People were divided over whether Peter or Paul was the better preacher. People were divided by class. Men and women were struggling for authority. They were facing the complexity of their place.
Someone thinking with the industrial mind would obscure these complexities by letting each person go his or her own way, fracturing the church until it became a specialized, personalized concept. But someone thinking with the mind of the farmer would realize that there could be no place called Corinth without these complexities. She would also recognize that she will never know who she is or what she ought to do if she tries to escape her place. She would, then, pour herself into that place with fervor, as if her very existence were on the line. She would shape it and it would shape her.
In this regard, trying to think and live according to the mind of the farmer seems to have an awful lot in common with what Paul calls the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). This mind does not fantasize about its place in the stars; it seeks to deeply embed itself in its place. Although Christ may have wandered without a home, he is still God incarnate, the God called Jesus of Nazareth. He is the same God who wept over a place called Jerusalem. He loved that place. Now we, as the body of Christ, must work at living together, “united in the same mind” (1 Cor. 1:10 RSV), to know our place and ourselves. When we break bread together, as the Corinthians did, we are given the opportunity to consider our place and who we are in it, to learn the many complexities and the many gifts inherent to our place. By breaking bread together, we are practicing the reverse movement that Wendell Berry describes; we are “establishing complex local cultures with strong communal memories and traditions of care.” If we continue to eat fast food, alone in our cars, we will continue to struggle to know where we are, but if we consistently break bread together, we might just have a shot at being renewed by the transformation of our minds and so discover where and who we are in the process.
Forget escaping to space. Let’s break bread instead.
Currently residing in Greenville, South Carolina, Zen Hess keeps busy working at a local bike shop, reading and writing, walking his dog, and traveling with Jessie, his wife. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, he writes regularly on the blog Theology Forum.