Lament for a Lost Way of Life

Reflections on two films about rootedness

Modern life in the West is characterized by a rootlessness that substitutes cheap consumerism for contentment, technology for real human connection, and immediate satisfaction for the long-term commitment to particular places and people that imbue life with meaning. Americans have exchanged an older way of life in which families were embedded in communities committed to cultivating the land and one another’s virtue for freedom: freedom to travel, freedom to dissolve and reform relationships at will, freedom to pick from the multitude of lifestyles on offer. Neither the consumeristic pursuit of more stuff nor the power over nature that modern technology promises man is able to satisfy the longing in men’s souls to know and be known by particular people, to be part of a real community that is tied to a unique place. In ever-increasing numbers, Americans move from their hometowns in pursuit of jobs, opportunities, schooling, and the like. Perhaps this was inevitable with the arrival of the automobile, the airplane, and the internet. But neither a one-week vacation nor a frequent video chat will ever replace living day-by-day alongside family and friends that one (and one’s family) have known for decades. Renting a nice apartment near an urban center with easy access to “experiences” will not be a satisfying substitute for the deep knowledge of a town or land that is accumulated over generations.

Two twenty-first century films  powerfully  depict an alternative to this modern rootlessness. The first is Sweet Land (2005) directed by Ali Selim, the second, Godspeed: The Pace of Being Known (2016). In Sweet Land, an adult grandson is dealing with the death of his grandmother and the possible sale of the family land. Most of the film is a flashback to the story of Inge – the man’s grandmother – and her arrival in a farming town in northern Minnesota just after World War One. Inge is a German national who moved to the United States to marry Olaf, a young Norwegian immigrant who owns a small farm. Olaf’s parents have arranged the marriage, yet not everything proceeds according to plan.

Inge arrives speaking almost no English. Her future husband is late to meet her at the train station. Before Inge and Olaf can get married, she must stay with a friend and his family, which includes a plethora of children, allowing no privacy for Inge. She is forced to share a bed with strangers, and when her hosts’ family bath day arrives, Inge sensibly declines[CW2] .

The problems Inge faces in the new land seem to grow by the day. When Inge and Olaf attempt to get married, they find that bureaucracy and anti-German sentiment (it is 1920) work against their attempt to begin their lives together, as the county refuses to issue a marriage license and the pastor refuses to marry them. Inge cannot stand the close quarters of the neighbors’ living arrangements, and so moves into Olaf’s house, which forces him to take up residence in the barn. This leads to a tension that is maintained until the end of the movie:  Inge and Olaf must learn to live together and work the land together yet remain maritally separate. Moreover, Inge and Olaf must wrestle with problems with their community. Their awkward living arrangements lead to public scandal: Two unmarried people are (apparently) living together and refusing to wait for the completion of the legal necessities regarding immigration and marriage. Their pastor informally ostracizes them from the church.

In addition to Inge and Olaf’s difficulties in dealing with the local community, the community must navigate how to handle the rapid changes of the modern world. This is seen most prominently when Olaf’s best friend Frandsen receives a visit from a local banker in a three-piece suit. The banker demands payment on Frandsen’s mortgage, which had allowed Frandsen the modern convenience of buying a new tractor to operate his farm. Olaf has taken the opposite approach, farming his land with horse and plow and traditional tools. For Olaf, this is because “farming and banking don’t mix.”  Frandsen’s decision to modernize backfires: He cannot pay the banker, and his farm is put up for auction. A moment of self-sacrifice, a strenuous harvest, a second chance for Frandsen, and an opportunity for reconciliation between the community and Inge and Olaf bring the flashback to a close.

The romantic, funny, and very human story of Inge and Olaf is the backdrop for their grandson’s wrestling with the decision to keep or sell the land that they had lived on and farmed for decades. His life strikes a sharp contrast with the life of his grandparents. Whereas Inge and Olaf’s life was inextricably bound up with working the field and working through relational problems with each other and the community, modern life – despite its many benefits – allows the grandson (and us) to maintain a sort of distance from the land and from the community. Sweet Land is a very human movie. There are messy situations, and they are not always remedied in the best way possible.  Yet the film depicts a way of life in which human beings could not escape from their problems easily through modern methods but were forced to work through them.

In the modern world, the internet provides access to “online communities” based on similar interests, and so we often do not get to know our neighbors next door, who may be different than us and difficult to love. Modern grocery stores offer us a dizzying variety of foods to eat, and we thus lack knowledge of how to obtain even the most basic food by “the sweat of the brow” (Genesis 3:19). Relocating across the country (or world) has become significantly easier over the past century with moving companies and telephones and the internet. And so we avoid the difficult work of rebuilding decimated small towns and rural areas.  

The modern world has severed us from the people around us, from our ancestors, and from the lands in which our families lived for decades, if not centuries. Sweet Land paints a nostalgic picture of an older way of life that might serve as a model of the sort of community we should aim to regain. To escape our modern rootlessness, we must reconnect with real people and places, people like Inge and Olaf and Frandsen, and places like the farms on which they labored and the church in which they worshiped.

Godspeed is a short documentary about Matt Canlis, an Anglican pastor who studied under Eugene Peterson, and the people of the parishes he pastored in Scotland for almost 15 years. The documentary includes interviews with Matt Canlis, Eugene Peterson, N.T. Wright, and many of the people of Canlis’s parishes in Scotland. The documentary begins with Canlis recounting a conversation with Eugene Peterson a decade and a half earlier. Peterson had told Canlis that if he wanted to learn how to be a pastor, he needed to go find a parish that was like a fishbowl – a place small enough where Canlis could not avoid being known by his parishioners. If Canlis really wanted to learn to shepherd like Jesus, the great shepherd, he needed to slow down. So Canlis moved to Scotland.

Canlis’ first job there was as a parish assistant at St. Leonard’s Church while finishing his studies in St. Andrews. During his first day on the job, Canlis asked the pastor where his office was. Canlis was surprised to learn that he did not have an office – but neither did the pastor. Canlis asked the reverend: “So where do I work?” The minister pointed down the road and said, “Start walking. Get out into the parish.”

The film insists that walking speed is the pace of life necessary to live like Jesus. Rather than racing through life from one speaking engagement to the next, Jesus walked the land of Galilee with his twelve disciples, taking the time to really get to know and be known by the people. For Canlis, our modern departure from this path is dangerous.

Canlis describes how in Scotland, a parish is a  real place – an area of land bounded by ancient markers like stone walls, farmers’ fences, and centuries-old walking paths. The houses and farms in the parishes have names, not numbers: Wartford, Auchencrieve, Stephen Mackie, Late Stephen Mackie, and Balquindachy are just a few of the names of farms mentioned in the film. These names demonstrate that the people’s connection to the place and land is neither shallow nor fungible. No one has a deep and abiding connection to an apartment labeled with a 5-digit number surrounded by a chain-link fence. But living on a farm named Wartford surrounded by stone fences built centuries previous is evidence of a connection to the land that most modern Americans have lost.

Canlis’ time pastoring in Scotland next took him to the town of Pitlochry, where he met a tall, red-haired, large-bearded man named Alan Torrance. Alan first trusted in Jesus during Canlis’ time in Pitlochry. His conversion is notable in part because of what persuaded him of the truth of the Gospel message. Alan recounts in the film how that when studying with Canlis, he realized the scale of the places of Jesus’s ministry. Alan had previously thought that Jesus was preaching in big cities, where he could preach up front and then remain unknown among the crowds. Jesus’ life need not match his words if he were a big-city dweller. But then Alan realized that Jesus’ ministry took place in towns and villages of similar size to Alan’s home. In Alan’s village, everyone knows everyone, and there is no hiding. Jesus’ ministry, Alan realized, was the same way, which meant that if Jesus had been a hypocrite, everyone would have known it. The fact that so many small-town people believed Jesus persuaded Alan that he must have been the real thing.

The final ministry spot of Canlis’ time in Scotland was Methlick, a village that “gave small a whole new meaning.” Methlick has one school, a church, a tractor dealer, one gas station, a pub, a bus station, and little else. In the film, the people of the parish recount how life in their village is slow, and that is good. It allows them to spend time thinking and getting to know people.  In the film, Canlis recounts how his time in Methlick and Pitlochry taught him that his role as pastor is not merely preaching on Sunday mornings – although that is essential – but shepherding day-by-day the particular people in the villages – by really getting to know them and loving them. After one of Canlis’s sermons in Pitlochry that he thought especially good, Canlis asked a fellow minister for his thoughts on it. His answer was unexpected: “The ending should have come ten minutes sooner.” Canlis protested, arguing that would have made the sermon only 20 minutes – the people deserve more on a Sunday. The other minister replied: “Matt, the people deserve more on a Monday.” Canlis’s self-described “awesome” sermon on Sunday had come at the expense of shepherding the people Monday through Saturday. Preaching God’s Word is central to biblical shepherding, but biblical shepherding does not end when one leaves the pulpit. 

The epilogue to the documentary recounts how Canlis, after his time in Scotland, moved back to his hometown in Washington in the United States. The images of the medium-sized town of Wenatchee, Washington paint a very different picture than the tiny villages of Scotland. The lives of the parishioners in Wenatchee seem like a different world than the lives of those in Methlick. Yet Canlis aims to take the lessons he learned in Scotland back to America, to learn to live life unhurried rather than speeding through life unknown by others.

Sweet Land and Godspeed together present a way of life that modern Americans have by and large forgotten. That way of life means being tied to a particular and unique people that all have their own stories and come from particular, unique places. Both films show the beauty of the land in which people are rooted, and they suggest that something is lost when we uproot ourselves from the soil. Perhaps this way of life is unattainable in the modern world. Perhaps these films simply create a nostalgia for what once was but cannot be again. There are real-life concerns that necessitate living in a city or moving for work. But maybe these films point us towards the possibility of a future free from the modern rootlessness in which we find ourselves, even if that way of life must be adapted for the modern world. Some might deem our rootlessness freedom – freedom to live anywhere and do anything. At one point in Godspeed, Canlis explains that by learning to slow down and connect with people and place he found true freedom: the freedom to know and be known. Perhaps we American Christians can rediscover true freedom in the same way.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Christian Winter

Christian Winter is a doctoral student in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan, but was raised in the Last Frontier—Alaska. His in-progress dissertation is on Nietzsche. Christian received a BA from Union University and an MA from Hillsdale. He and his wife Julia live in Jonesville, Michigan, and are members of College Baptist Church.