A Different Way of Life in Small-Town America
Living in New York City, Washington D.C., or a similar big city of global significance is alluring for many. The multitude of diverse languages, cultures, cuisines, and ways of life in big cities – not to mention the job prospects or opportunities to make a difference – draws millions. Moreover, many Christians rightly see these towering metropolises as mission fields full of people who need the Gospel and thus move from their hometowns. And yet, far too often we hear stories of Christians who have moved to the city, gained the world, but lost their souls. Why is this? What is it about these places that proves so devastating for the faith and morals of many Christians?
To help provide the beginnings of an answer, let us turn to what might seem a surprising place: the discussion of maritime cities by ancient authors.
In his work On the Commonwealth, the ancient Roman orator and statesmen Cicero discusses his city, Rome, and what the conditions are for a flourishing republic or city. Geography is one important consideration: For example, a bad site for a city could make it difficult to defend. Whether a city is constructed on the coast or placed inland is another important factor to a city’s flourishing. For Cicero, the decision impacts the character of the city. He argues that “Maritime cities are . . . subject to corruption and alteration of character. They are exposed to new languages and customs; not only foreign goods are imported, but foreign customs as well, so that nothing of ancestral institutions can remain unaltered.”1 In the ancient world, the easiest means of transporting people and goods across great distances was by ship. Thus, coastal cities – places of port for the ships carrying foreign goods and customs – were melting pots of diversity. The old ways of life in a place were mixed with new, foreign elements. Over time, those old ways – “ancestral institutions” – were worn away.
Cicero goes on to describe how the citizens of maritime cities are shaped by this: “People who live in those cities do not stick to their own homes; they are drawn far from home by eager hopes and expectations, and even when they remain physically, in their minds they are wandering in exile.”2 Cicero noted in the first century BC that cosmopolitan cities uproot people from their homes and even change how they think. Rather than having a fixed way of life and manner of thinking shaped by a particular religion, people, and place, those who live in coastal cities are constantly exposed to countless belief systems and ways of life. The ancestral is only one of many options, and the coastal-city-dwelling-individual has the freedom to exchange the life and mores of his parents and grandparents for alternatives that he would not have encountered in a provincial, inland town.
This seemingly limitless freedom causes the individual to feel adrift at sea, homeless in the world, “in [his] mind . . . wandering in exile.” In these reflections, Cicero is recognizing a truth of human nature: human beings are the sort of creatures that need limits, horizons, boundaries in order to flourish. We are not like our infinite Creator but are finite creatures in need of the sort of cultural horizons that maritime cities do not provide.
Plato, like Cicero, views the changeable character of coastal cities as suspect, but he emphasizes a different drawback. In Plato’s dialogue Laws, the main character argues that “although a land’s proximity to the sea affords daily pleasure, the sea . . . infects a place with commerce and the money-making that comes with retail trade, and engenders shifty and untrustworthy dispositions in souls; it thereby takes away the trust and friendship a city feels for itself and for the rest of mankind.”3 One need not fully agree with the sharpness of Plato’s critique of commerce to recognize that the wealth and luxury found in coastal, trade-centered cities tempt many with various vices, which over time cultivate “shifty and untrustworthy dispositions in souls.” Now, small, inland towns are not perfect places – they have their own characteristic issues – but often excessive wealth and luxury are not among them. For Plato, the vices associated with coastal cities degrade individual morality and thereby also “the trust and friendship a city feels for itself and for the rest of mankind.” When one man cannot trust his neighbor, when there is no harmony or common loves, then there is neither a commonwealth nor a common public. In such a society each individual pursues his own private pleasures in a dog-eat-dog city. And if a man is unable to form a bond with those with whom he is in closest proximity, his fellow citizens, he will certainly be unable to form a strong bond of “trust and friendship . . . for the rest of mankind.”
But what do these two ancient authors’ thoughts on coastal cities have to do with the 21st century? With the advent of modern technology, especially the automobile and the airplane, all modern metropolises have become coastal cities. All major cities have large airports that provide the opportunity for the quick transport of goods and people around the world. Furthermore, the advent of globalism has made every large city a melting pot like those coastal cities of ancient Greece or Rome. Thus, the large metropolises of today are analogous to the coastal cities of Cicero and Plato and suffer from the same critiques.
Now, an astute reader will rightly raise two objections, one to Cicero, and one to Plato. To Cicero, the Christian might object: “What if ‘the ancestral’ is in fact wrong, pagan, or evil? Maybe the ancestral needs to be destroyed for a better, more modern morality to take its place.” In various places at different points of history, this might have been the case. But in America, the ancestral religion is Protestant Christianity, and the ancestral way of life was one that upheld justice and order: necessary conditions for the good life. Thus, when “ancestral institutions” are degraded in coastal cities today, that means traditional, orthodox Protestant Christianity is degraded. Defenders of “traditional marriage” (see: marriage) are berated as backward bigots. Affirmers of historic Christian views on male leadership in the Church, society, and family are dismissed as fundamentalists or patriarchal. This quick dismissal of the ancestral is the norm in coastal cities. Yet when the ancestral is good – as it generally is in America – then it is problematic when the ancestral is degraded by “foreign customs” that uproot the individual from his religion, his people, and his place.
The objection to Plato that will be raised regards his attack on commercialism. One might reasonably ask: “Cannot the wealth found in big cities be used for good, and not merely for evil?” Of course. Moreover, the luxury of big cities that manifests itself in the dizzying variety of restaurant cuisine and for-purchase experiences does not necessarily lead to vice. But focus on luxurious pleasures easily crowds out more central aspects of right living: cultivating Christian moral virtue, developing martial skills to defend the community, and providing necessities for the family. Obviously enjoying a meal at an Ethiopian or Japanese restaurant is not itself wrong, as long as such pleasures do not distract from the Christian’s call to follow Christ. However, numerous authors, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have recognized the possibility that luxury can tempt one away from what is truly good. Perhaps their agreement might cause us to be hesitant to chase after luxurious living.
Life in the Big Apple or Los Angeles or The Swamp is not necessarily degrading to the moral virtue of individuals. There are faithful Christians living in big cities all over the world. But the temptations leading away from faithful Christian living are strong. And so for those still living in small towns or in wide-open spaces around America, perhaps the draw of the pleasures and opportunities of the city can and should be resisted.
But the decision of where to live should not be only reactionary. That is, one should live in a small town or a flyover state not merely because it is not a metropolis but also because it is itself good.
Modern city life is characterized by a busyness that makes it difficult to find solitude. It is in being truly alone with one’s thoughts – in the woods, away from the distracting noises and the flashing lights of the city – that one can reflect on the most important questions of life or pray. Finding that kind of solitude is difficult in the hustle and bustle of the city. In contrast, in small towns and rural areas, quiet is closer at hand. This increased opportunity for solitude is a good of provincial places that is often overlooked.
The unique character and closeness of the people of each small town or village is another reason to live there. Each place has its own memories and language and particular people. One need not read a Wendell Berry story to get a picture of this; talking to elderly folk in rural areas will suffice.
My friend Gerry is about 85 and has lived in my region of Michigan his whole life. He has told me about farming and raising cattle and operating a trucking business during his working career. His children and grandchildren still live in the area; he can watch his great-grandchildren play basketball. He has driven me around the region (avoiding the freeways) and pointed out both the changes and that which is largely the same as when he was young.
John and Nancy are an older couple that are relatively new to the area – they have only been here a few decades. Over dinner and cards (Euchre, of course) we will chat about their kids, the goings on at our church, how their pottery business is doing, or whether the men or women will win the Euchre match this time. Their dogs are always ready to chase a ball or wrestle – even when we humans are not. When my wife and I are at their house there is no rush to get home or to the next thing. The pace of small-town America makes for a different way of life.
Large metropolises have their own unique characteristics, but those cities are often made up of people who have moved there during their adult life and will move away at some point later in their own lives. Familial, inter-generational memories are fewer. Not as many people purposely move themselves to those off-the-beaten-path sorts of places where the people who live there have had family in the area for generations. In those places, the history of the people and the history of the place are intertwined: to tell the story of one is to touch on the story of the other.
Living in the provinces gives greater opportunity for this sort of community, a community that includes the elderly and their necessarily slower approach to life. This sort of community is able to maintain a connection to the more distant history of the land because it is inter-generational.
But what about the nations? The good news of Jesus Christ must be taken to the four corners of the earth. If everyone remained in their hometown, how would the good news go forth? Beautiful feet are needed.
Human beings are limited creatures. We are all called to particular and different tasks. Nobody has a vocation to everything. Some are to be traveling evangelists, like Paul, and that is good work. But some will do the work of evangelism over generations in their own communities. These might not travel for conferences overseas but will populate their local school boards and fight for the cultural conditions conducive to the spread of Christianity. These Christians will educate their children to love the Lord and go on to teach others; some of whom will remain local; some of whom will take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. These Christians will be faithful to their own local churches or parishes, recognizing that the Great Commission is fulfilled by the church rather than by mere individuals, and they will know that by spreading Christ’s love to their next-door neighbor they are contributing to the cause of spreading the good news to the nations.
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