Dateline: 9 January 2007
At two o’clock this morning, awake with a sinus headache, my head over a steaming-hot pot of herb-infused water, shrouded with a heavy canvas barn coat (to keep the steam in), I started thinking about the subject of community. It wasn’t the headache or the steam or even the peppermint that brought this subject to mind. It was one of Marlene’s cookbooks that I idly leafed through while sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the water kettle to boil. I’ll tell you more about the cookbook in my next blog essay. For now, I’d like to tell you some of the things that went through my steam saturated brain....
It seems to me that good community can happen anywhere. It used to be very common in close-knit ethnic urban areas. Jews, Irish, Germans, Poles, and so forth lived in distinct communities with a culture all their own (often these people had large gardens and were, for all practical purposes, agrarians). I’m sure that is still the case in some urban areas. Good community can and should also happen within churches. Indeed, within the ethnic urban neighborhoods I mentioned, there was almost always a nearby church that was central to the life of the community. Good community also happens within fraternal organizations, and other kinds of groups where like-minded people regularly gather.
Those examples are, to my way of thinking, examples of good community. But they are not examples of the very best to be found in the realms of community.
Those of us who are seeking to more closely embrace the ideals of Christian agrarianism, understand from God’s Word that the fellowship of Christian community is essential to the Christian life. And, beyond that, we know that we are called to be a witness for Christ with the life we live in the more-worldly community outside our church community.
But we Christian agrarians are also inclined to think that community lived within the agrarian paradigm (as opposed to an urban or metropolitan setting) is also more Biblical and more preferrable. Cities and urban areas are, and have, throughout history, almost without exception, been centers of human pride and rebellion against God. Such places are suited to be mission fields but I seriously question if such places are best suited to raise Christian families (and families are the backbone of a thriving Christian-agrarian community).
I know that statement will not meet with approval from millions of modern-day Christians who raise families in cities or suburbs. Please understand that I didn’t say it to be contentious, nor to condem. I said it simply because I believe it is true. I grew up in an urban setting and moved to a rural setting when I was a teenager. That gives me some personal perspective. And here’s some biblical/historical insight into why I think the way I do on this subject....
In Genesis 9, after the flood, God blesses Noah and his sons and tells them to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth. So "Noah began to be a husbandman, and he planted a vineyard." Noah was a pretty smart fellow. He knew better than to go start a city. Agrarian life fit what Noah understood God wanted of him and his descendants. (Of course, he shouldn’t have gotten drunk on his own homemade wine, but that’s a different thing altogether.)
Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, the wisdom of godly fathers is not accepted by the children. It wasn’t long before some of Noah’s descendants left the agrarian life and assembled in cities. Most notable among these descendants was Noah’s great, great grandson, Nimrod. He formed the first great empire after the flood. It was centered around several cities in the land of Shinar, which was in the “fertile crescent” of Mesopotamia. The head of Nimrod’s empire was the city of Babylon. It was not a godly city.
In Genesis 11 we find some interesting happenings in the land of Shinar. The descendants of Noah said, "Let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
Well, God was not happy with these people and their city. Spreading out abroad upon the face of the earth was exactly what He wanted them to be doing. In other words, He wanted them to live a decentralized, rural existence. But they were determined to do just the opposite.
Whenever and wherever rebellious mankind congregates, they want to build monuments to their own greatness. So they worked together to "build a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven." We all know the rest of the story. God "confounded their language." They could not communicate and were forced to give up their plan. Foolish creatures!
But wait a minute.... Is the industrialized culture we now live in much different from Babylon? I think not. In fact, I dare say the ungodly corporate-industrial civilization we live in, working out of the major cities and urban centers of the world, taking upon itself the attributes of God, is exalting itself above God more than Nimrod and his tower of Babel ever did. Curiously, this prideful expansion and exhibition of man’s sovereignty has been facilitated largely by the inexorable and amazing expansion of communication technology. It is through various forms of attention-grabbing modern communication that the worst of city culture is now communicated to the masses, even into the rural heartland of America. That’s something to think about, but I digress.
A little farther ahead in history we find Abraham and his nephew, Lot, looking over the plain of Jordan. Abraham tells Lot to choose the right hand or the left hand to dwell in. Whatever is left, Abraham would be content to dwell in. What part does Lot take? He takes the part with the best water and the richest soil. It also has cities. Then Abraham goes and lives his agrarian life while Lot goes and pitches his tent toward the city of Sodom.
Before long, Lot is seated in the gates of Sodom, which I understand to mean he was one of the leaders of the city. It appears that it was not so much the good land of the plain that appealed to Lot as much as the cities that were in the plain. Wicked cities. What is the final outcome? The cities of Sodom and Gomorra are justly destroyed. Lot, along with his wife and daughters, are rescued by angels. Mrs.Lot, so in love with her urban life, looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s two daughters don’t turn to salt, but it appears from their actions afterwards that they were heavily influenced by the ungodly city culture. Lot, a godly man by every account, made a foolish decision to leave the simple life of an agrarian herdsman and brought his family into the more "exciting" city. I suspect there were more "opportunities" there, more things to do, better entertainment. One can easily justify urban life on such grounds. But it was flat out wrong for Lot’s family to get involved in the culture of the city. That’s the way I read it. And I don’t think much has changed since then.
I like the way Howard King sums it up in "A Christian-Agrarian Critique of Technological Society"...
"The ancient walled city of the Bible had the most in common with the modern city. It was most often a center of apostasy, a base for imperialism, a treasure trove for plundering tyrants, a monument to human pride, vainglory and rebellion against God... The city provides no ideal for culture since it is opposed to biblical culture. Like Babel, the prototype, it has been erected in defiance of God’s design for a decentralized agrarian civilization."
The point is, good community can be found in a lot of places but the very best in community experiences, the kind of community experiences that are best for raising a family for the glory of God are, I believe, found within agrarian settings. Having said that, I’d like to give you five primary ingredients that are found in the best community experiences. They are: Time, Place, Proximity, Mutual Concerns, and Mutual Kindness.
By time, I mean years. The more the better. Generations are best.
By place, I mean a home where a family lives, on a section of land that the family has, over time (maybe even generations) cared for and grown to love.
Proximity is the state or quality of being near. A new kind of community has emerged in recent years with the advent of the internet. Such a community can be good. But it can never be a best form of community because there is little proximity. Virtual proximity just isn’t the same as physical proximity and never will be.
Mutual concerns arise out of a mutual worldview. Worldview boils down to fundamental ideas about what is right and wrong, good and bad. Worldview is at the root of religious belief. Generally speaking, rural folks share similar belief systems. They may not all agree on religious doctrines but they think alike on many core issues. One example of this becomes clear during a national election when the rural areas of the nation typically vote the same (i.e., the “red states”).
Mutual kindness is when people in the community interact by speaking, visiting, working, caring, sharing, and giving to each other in some way, to some degree, preferably on a daily basis.
This kind of best community was once the norm in most rural areas of America. It was also found in small rural towns and villages. But as agrarian culture has given way to modern, industrialized culture, the social fabric of rural communities has become more and more threadbare.
That being the case, those of us who call ourselves Christian agrarians are looking to find and help reweave the beautiful fabric of rural community. We want to raise our families, put down generational roots, be good neighbors, be salt and light. Instead of living “part time” in a community while driving to the city to a job every day, we dream of actually working full time at or nearer our homes, where we can be a more integral part of the comunity.
I believe there are Christian families searching for the ideal community—one in which all those qualities I’ve mentioned work together flawlessly. Of course, such a community doesn’t exist. I’m sure, though, that some areas of rural America experience better community than others. Perhaps among the close-knit Amish and Mennonite sects you will find the best examples of agrarian community.
Whatever the case, each family’s search for Christian-agrarian community will take them on a different journey. For myself, for now, I believe the best community I can find is right where I am. I have lived in this rural area of central New York State since 1973. Unfortunately, this place is no longer as rural as it was 33 years ago. It isn’t so much that more people have moved into the area (there is plenty of room for more people in rural America), it’s that more people with urban ideas have moved in and, sadly, there are far less real farmers. The price of land has climbed (always just out of reach for me) and New York State property taxes are criminally high.
Sometimes I think of moving to another state like Tennessee or Missouri or Kentucky. Maybe someday I will. But I probably will not. This is a beautiful area. And after so many years I’ve come to realize that I have become part of this community. I know so many people. I actually know (and like) my neighbors. We attend a nice country church. The experience of rural community that so many people in America do not know, and so many are searching for, can be found right where I am. I suspect it can be found in most any rural area. It won’t be perfect. But you can make it better.
In closing, I guess I would say to aspiring Christian agrarians, those who are looking for a place to live and put down roots. Find an area of the country that appeals to you and find a small, rural, Bible-believing community church to attend and get involved with. Probably the church where the old local farmers go would be a good place. You’ll find “salt of the earth” people there. You’ll find community there.