Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Beaver Falls Manifesto: Part 1

One of my employees/friends the other day chided me on having too many dreams. He had been speaking about his cheese obsession (2lbs per week, if I remember correctly). One thing about this area is that because of the hilly terrain, we have a lot of dairies, but no local artisan cheese. In fact, the closest I've seen is either Kraft (who knows where that comes from) or Cabot (Vermont, not exactly across the street). Part of the reason, of course, is the current low demand for local creameries and the ridiculous government intolerance of raw milk. He didn't chide me for the dream of good, local, dependable, and healthy milk, cream, and cheese; I daresay he may even enjoy the thought. He chided me, rather, for having the dreams of a local, independent market (too complex to describe at this time); a local ceramics industry (like the former Beaver Falls/Mayer China company--PA soil is basically all clay as it is); a local, sustainable timber industry (complete with draft horses); more coffeeshops (each with complete microroasting capabilities); and many more things (I can't think of others because I'm tired, not for lack of ideas). The health of any society is it's lack of dependence for necessities (and luxuries) on places far away. A city (or set of cities placed along a river) should be able to provide food, shelter, companionship/recreation, and clothing (the four foundations of culture) from within itself and its surrounding rural areas. The rural areas should be able to receive plenty of manure nutrients, cultural opportunities, and companionship from their dependents, the cities. This sort of urbanist-agrarian thought is what leads to a placed idea for Beaver Falls. It is one thing to be jonesed about an idea, but the practice is where we see if being more concerned about neighbors we can see, rather than GDP, is what makes the world a better place. So, here is the start of the Beaver Falls Manifesto--something I hope to expand in the future as a groundwork for rejuvenation here at home. So far, it will seem a series of disjointed propositions. My apologies for that, I'll give it a slicker look and feel when I can.

I. Beaver Falls (and the surrounding area, it should be assumed from here on out) is worthy of care and pride. The land, sky, and river around it have been created by God who calls us to exercise culture in beautification, production, and conservation of that place. To that end (as well as humans do that task), the cultural expression of the city was founded and itself is worthy of care and pride. It is currently marred by human greed, sloth, and covetousness; but God has called his people, the Church, to be leaders is restoring this world (and all its parts) to their original created purpose and glory.

II. Beaver Falls will never have a chance to attain to that purpose and glory if it (that is, the people who live in/near it and the people who "govern" it) continues its self-destructive behavior of wasteful consumption; production of cheap, disposable goods; and economic/agricultural/cultural dependence on non-local sources. Many seem to view Beaver Falls as incapable of being "better" (whatever that means) than Chippewa, Cranberry, or Pittsburgh because of its present state. However, economic indicators can no longer be the primary means of judgement: health, both human and non-human, must be the deciding factor. Can the way we live here now be sustained into the indefinite future without giving up local independece, knowledge, neighborliness, and "crisis-nimbleness"? If not, why not?

III. A future-orientation is absolutely essential to the rebuilding of this area. If we continue to run by the short-term profit motive, we will exhaust our soil, our air, our water, our animals, and ourselves before future generations can receive the gifts of soil, air, water, animals, and selfhood that has been passed down to us by previous generations. A gift-outlook, one that recognizes that with anything not absolutely owned (and only God owns anything absolutely) responsible care and "acting worthy of the gift" (that is, gratitude in its full sense), is essential for both short-term and long-term prosperity.

IV. Ownership is also necessary. A sense that what we have been given with continue with us through multiple generations is necessary for proper care of anything. Nothing, in the end, is disposable; someone always cleans up. This is not absolute ownership, but neither is it mooching. The principle of usufruct (something should be more valuable health-wise after leaving our care) should be fully enforced as a cultural mandate (not a government one, for it is a cultural concern not definable by the powers that be). Home ownership should be especially encouraged, for it roots a family in a neighborhood where real change is possible. If neighbors are healthy (in the varied ways that can be understood--the word 'salvation' comes from a word meaning health), then we are healthy and safe. Also, the principle of neighborhood increases practical wisdom in ownership, plus adds the benefit of more hands to help in case of emergency and everyday issues that accompany any cultural, human product (such as decay and "human error").

More to Come...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Remembering Old Friends

The world is not the same as it was when I was in high school. It is strange to me to consider that some friends have departed forever, some have disappeared, some stay close--but none geographically, and some have started families.

I've never been good at communicating with those I see infrequently. My neighbors hear from me quite often, as do my geographically-close friends. However, my extended family, friends from Omaha, and others I've met along the way may hear sporadic news, but often there is nary a sound.

That world, the one that existed from 1996-2000, was assumed to be the world. However, as one friend who proceeded me to college said, when you go away you can never come back in the same way. So many close friendships around me disintegrated because people came back "different" from college. Disintegrated not in necessarily a dramatic or hurtful way, rather communication lines ceased and folks drifted apart. I was determined to not let that happen to me. But communication did fail and friends became out of sight, out of mind.

So it was especially poignant to me to see that one person I was extremely close to, but had lost all contact with, was married and had a child. This lady helped me through a dark passage of my life--a time in which my neediness outweighed my ability to give (all the time, though, considering myself to be very humble and self-sacrificial). It was years later that I realized my drain on her, and how unfair that was, but also how it has changed me and effected me in the years since. I am a stronger person because of that friendship, no matter how selfish I was in it. In many ways, the qualities that she brought to the friendship were ones that I found magnified in my wife (whom I'm didn't know at the time of this friendship). One of the difference, of course, is that Bethany is not afraid to give me a (metaphorical) swift kick in the butt so that my selfish tendencies don't overexert themselves. But my friend served as a prescient model for whom God had for me in marriage.

Those we consider indispensible may, in the end, be only momentary players in our lives.

The key, though, is to not let these moments become too inward focussed. In a way, it hurts that I have not been as important in old friends' lives as I thought I would be. But, the same is true I'm sure from their perspective. Life goes on. That is why it cannot be just about me, why my life has to have a broader perspective than my own horizon. That is why I need a story, which I didn't have in high school, to anchor me to reality. The story, as I've come to understand it, encompasses all the small and large things of individual lives and also the seemingly big "world-historical" movements and figures. It connects us to the past, the present, and the future, so that when I am gone awaiting resurrection, the life of the world and my friends and my family goes on. My part in this drama is small and seemingly insignificant, but rooted in the larger story of God's work in the world, it takes on meaning and significance that I could never have dreamed of when I was pouring my soul out (constantly) to my friend back in high school. That story, and all that it contains, is the only connection that will ultimately last between people.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Church and Place

As can probably be seen from the last two posts, I think that the concept of place, or rootedness in a long-lasting local community, has not been sufficiently taken into account with our major abstract and abstracting institutions. Like higher education, the church too has made its identity (not to mention its money) on the belief that every place is the same and so none of them matter.

This has recently become especially poignant to me as my local assembly is losing its pastor of some seven years. His leaving, while completely justified, obviously will be somewhat of a shock to recover from. He has done a good job and is beloved by many. He will be greatly missed, but like all the pastors before him, will eventually be replaced by another. The difficulty is that, in many of the churches I have been a part of, the focus is not on the place where God has called us to live and work, but rather on "the preaching". I, and others in the congregation, am expecting a fairly significant drop-off in attendance numbers to happen following his departure. Many folks go to church to be "fed", but not to feed or learn to feed others outside of the faith. They may even travel far distances, even though many churches in their area could use their gifts and talents to bring healing to their places.

I have named it "The Cult of the Pastor". Part of growing up, whether physically or 'spiritually', is going past the point where you need a teacher. This does not mean that there is no learning going on, but the formal structures of education are meant for children. Part of educational history is that the time of "adolescence" was invented in recent history to prolong young adults from entering into full membership of their communities and society at large. Self-education is a dying art, even among people long out of school. This is especially true, it seems, in Christian circles. How many times has it been said, "My pastor says/believes/teaches thus and so..."? Very little critical thought is expended by many Christians, especially in how to apply God's Word to their everyday lives and their places. We attach ourselves to a teacher, who is supposed to do the learning for us and pour it into our empty heads. Just as that is the road to political tyranny, so religious tyranny cannot be far behind. Unwitting tyrants, often seeing that their "people need them," are worse than usurpers who aren't liked by the people they bully and oppress. Pastors leave or retire, places stay around.

This is not to denigrate the office of eldership or the pastorate. With the level of immaturity that the church suffers, these offices are necessary, but they need--more than ever--to be committed to what they are ordained for. These offices are to prepare the saints, that is the common Christian, for "the work of the ministry" (Ephesians 4). And our work is intimately connected to where we are.

In our attempt to escape earth, whether through the Rapture or the transmigration of the soul (otherwise known as "going to heaven when you die"), we have forgotten that God calls us to bring healing to his good-created world. Instead, ministry--pastoral and laity--has become almost exclusively about "salvation" (escape), with possible a little charity tacked on because it seems like the right thing to do. This has led to an empty evangelism, devoid of real, earthly help and real, earthy discipleship. Polishing the brass on a sinking ship has always been and always will be a stupid idea.

What, though, if we reclaimed a robust doctrine of creation and of covenant? One that postulates that God enjoys the world he has created and wishes to see it made whole again under the vice-gerency of humankind? Or that God called Abraham and his seed to set the world to rights? Since we can only act in a small-enough scale to actually effect healing instead of causing more problems (the deficiency of the industrial economy), we must act to set the world to rights in our own cities, neighborhoods, and communities. That the healing must start between the people of God is almost a no-brainer, but the pettiness and selfishness that infects the body of Christ (what a horrific thought) shows that we have a long way to go before we can pontificate on how the outside world should solve its problems.

More later...

Saturday, August 04, 2007

College and Place

Residential education is near bankruptcy. This could be said for many areas, but especially economically. Many colleges, especially Christian ones, are finding it harder and harder to keep up with the demands of maintenance, room allocation, and rising utilities. To raise tuition much higher, though, would effectively kill any chance of solvency--especially for schools with small endowments, or poorly managed ones. With the onslaught of online education, residential collegiate experience may cease to exist. Many are beginning to see that they can get the career training/higher salaries that college offers for a fraction of the price--and can stay close to friends/family, plus start working on their futures right from their very own computers at home (which, invariably, have faster connection speeds) or the local library. Hence the pride that some institutions furtively take in being called "party schools". The residential experience, by itself, does not offer enough any more for many to justify a $100k+ investment that will take years to pay off. Debt, in other words, is killing traditional higher education.

Residential colleges need, quickly, to rethink their very foundations. Since more and more are choosing to stay closer to home, or to save their room/board fees to rent an apartment where they want to live/work, I think it would be wise for residential institutions to put their best foot forward in this very instance: place.

Residential colleges, part of the Enlightenment fabric, have bought whole-heartedly into the idea that place does not matter. There is very little study of the places where colleges are located, since every place has been (for a long time) assumed to be just like any other place. Some institutions even perpetuate a hatred (usually implicit, sometimes not) of the place they are located--religious institutions, with their dualistic hatred of Creation, are particularly prone to this. Many offer majors in fields that have no economic footing in the surrounding area (within, say, 50 miles), implicitly offering the opportunity to "escape" the surrounding landscape. Why?

Part of the American heritage, for better or worse, is that when the going gets tough, the tough leave. Whether for reasons of economic or religious oppression, many have left their long-established homes for an American restart. This, of course, is not a bad thing: immigration, legal or otherwise, has been an important and formative part of U.S. history. However, when transplanting places, the dominant attitude has been to scorn any thought of the older place--note the perennial efforts of career politicians to limit any other languages than English in public discourse, despite the fact that the United States has no official language. Immigrants are often looked down upon for bringing some of their customs and culture with them, being viewed as "un-American" or being asked why they didn't just stay where they were, the assumption being that the smaller, more familial aspects of their culture is what was the problem, instead of overbearing political and religious (that is to say, abstract) systems.

This translates, very easily, into our own hatred of the local. The grass is greener elsewhere, so why not go there? It creates a perpetual homelessness, physically and spiritually. So why go to school to learn how to bring wisdom (that is what education is after all, right?) and healing to your place, when you could much more easily learn how to run the system that brings immediate gratification, even if your children will have to pick up the bill? (On another note, this may be why our culture is in the sexual/abortion state it is in: sex is immediately gratifying, children run the risk of never being gratifying, but instead end up like ourselves.

Internet education, for all the positive possibilities I think it has, plays right into this culture. Place, ultimately, is an unnecessary inconvenience easily overcome by the application of technology. In fact, the place you want can be easily created by developing an avatar, or a persona as a blogger. Residential colleges, especially Christian ones, have the possibility, not yet explored, to resist this dangerous and deathly cultural trend. These colleges can be about the health, well-being, and prosperity of the communities that surround them, both human and non-human. The residence halls can become places where human life flourishes, instead of diminishes in a drunken and pseudo-erotic stupor. The town-and-gown clashes must cease, with the (often) arrogant institutions of "higher" learning not working in a top-down way to "improve" the locale, but instead working with and, most urgently, for the local population to give educated answers to pressing local questions, whether they are scientific, artistic, or cultural/religious. This does not mean, however, that institutions should change their century-long alliance with the federal government to a just-as-corrupt-or-corruptible local government. Instead it means working with the actual people to bring education to all those around who would make the own lawns greener, instead of always coveting their neighbors. Do this, and higher education will live and possibly flourish in ways that are mutually beneficial to their communities, refuse this and in ten years (or less) we will see residential higher education become a dusty footnote in the educational history of America, read online and usually skimmed over.