Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Few Words in Defense of Bigness (and other comments on recent iMonk/BoarsHead content)

At the Boar's Head Tavern John H recently described (a propos Hot Fuzz) the British class system as it pertains to supermarkets. Despite Jason Blair's description of an analogous heirarchy in Minnesota, like John H I am not sure anything similar exists in the US. And I think I know why: because in the US no supermarket chain has national reach. Maybe Target, but they don't always sell food. Walmart is close to national too, but again I don't think it plays a big part in the food market. (Sam's Club does, but it is interesting that the NE has Costco, which seems not to exist in the Midwest.) Moving from Massachusetts to B-ton, I had to learn a whole new set of supermarkets: goodbye Star Market or A&P; welcome Kroger's and Marsh. And except for Aldi's, WalMart, and Super Target (I'm assuming that's a different line of the same chain as "Target") heard of any of the chains listed by Jason. OK, my point: if you have a country which is very big, and where people move around a lot, but the chains are regional, there is too much churning of customers to build a very stable class hierarchy. Bigness (at least of the country) and mobility (at least of people) is coming in for a lot of knocks on the "traditional conservative" blogosphere these days, but it has some compensations . . .

And here is a very interesting post by Michael Spencer about the real grassroots visible unity among Christians in Appalachia. It's a lovely essay, informed by his discerning love for the people of the region in which he works. But I can't help but notice that almost all of the instances of visible unity which he highlights take place in the public sphere, not the church sphere. This isn't "altar and pulpit fellowship" -- this is strong ministries directed at public schools, hospitals, the drug abuse problem, along with the pervasive blessing by the church of family events: funerals and weddings. The base of it all is the assumption:

There is a general feeling in our community that most people are Christians, or if they are not, they will be when they face some of life’s realities. Conversions in our community are frequent, and almost always take the path of a person raised inside the faith returning to the faith of their family and church; the faith of grandparents and parents.

Now in areas with large non-Christian populations this feeling cannot be reproduced. But also it relies on a good deal of practical "Constantinianism" -- the identification of public institutions with the Christian community. You can see the logic here:

Because our community has a large public school that is the primary source of community pride and identity, local churches and Christians focus on ministry in the public schools. This means that organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes are generously supported by churches and the school administration. The lack of religious and cultural diversity in our community means that demonstrations of Christian faith are common in the public schools. Teachers have no fear of prosecution if they read the Bible or lead a class in prayer.

Local ministers have also used the “Ten Commandments” cases in a neighboring county to promote a strong, across-the-spectrum support for public display of the commandments. One day I was giving a test over the Ten Commandments in a high school Bible class, when I noticed, in the middle of the exam, that someone had hung a large, ornate copy of the Ten Commandments on the wall. I had no idea where it came from, but the students were grateful. (emphasis added).

Note that it is not just the relative lack of diversity, but also the identification of Christianity with the community's public institutions that makes this visible unity possible. I don't think this is an accident; I tend to feel that it is "Constantinianism" which is the real check on sectarianism; or to put it differently, it is paying attention to the needs of people defined by locality (a category of public life) which blunts the urge of any creedal body to define the needs of people by ever-more finely divided belief. The question is: how far do you want to go in either direction?

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