catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 16 :: 2005.09.09 — 2005.09.22


Fleeing community

There are eighty-one Baptist churches in Jackson, Tennessee, at least according to the Yellow Pages. Five or six years ago, when I was researching moving down here, there were seventy-some. It seemed like a lot, since the midwestern town I was moving from had no more than three Baptist churches?allowing for the population difference, I wouldn?t have expected the number of Baptist churches in Jackson to exceed fifteen. Instead, the actual number is more than five times that.

Part of the reason for the abundance of Baptists probably stems from the Bible Belt mentality that going to church is something people are expected to do?we were surprised, trying to fit in here, that one of the first questions people asked upon meeting us was, ?What church do you go to?? And of course, historically, Southerners have been drawn to Baptist churches, especially since the 1840s, when Southern congregations took umbrage against the American Baptist Convention?s policy of not allowing slaveowners to serve as missionaries and decided to form their own Baptist convention that would be friendlier toward certain Southern institutions.

But while Southern history and culture may provide some explanation as to why such a high percentage of Jackson?s 194 churches are Baptist, I imagine the main reason Jackson residents are faced with the choice of 81 Baptist options is that it?s easier to start a brand new church than to struggle to live in community. Unless I?m completely mistaken, many of these churches were born out of weeks or months of righteous indignation, until somebody finally erupted with the heartfelt cry, ?I can?t stand to worship with those people anymore.? The founding members of many of these churches called a pastor and put together a building fund because they deeply desired to maintain their spiritual purity far from the corrupting presence of the heretics at their old church who had voted to reduce the funding to the church?s daycare program, or maintained that the worship of our great God could be accomplished through the racket and crash of electric guitar and drums rather than the rich and soaring tones of an organ as the Lord intended, or advocated that the carpet for the church sanctuary be a secular, concupiscent, radical-homosexual-agenda pink rather than a soothing, blessed blue. Or because somebody pointed out there isn?t really a verse in the Bible that says Thou shalt not have a refreshing beer or a fruity umbrella drink every once in a while, not even in moderation; or suggested it might not actually be sinful for black people and white people to get married to each other; or made a largely positive comment or two related to the doctrine of predestination. If the trend continues, it?s not completely preposterous to think that in a few years Jackson will be home to thousands of tiny Baptist churches, each fiercely committed to its own programs and theological obsessions, delighted to be outside the inferior orbits of all the other tiny congregations: ?Good morning and welcome to the First Baptist Church of David Malone, where we do everything right.?

Obviously, this tendency to flee from community to a somewhat more lonely purity isn?t peculiar to Baptists. The promise of the Internet to bring people together in vibrant, connected communities doesn?t always seem to have lived up to the hype. It?s true that ferret fanciers throughout the world and people who want to move to South Carolina and secede from the United States now have the opportunity to gather together in a cyber space and share information about ferret care and the bright promise of secession, but many of the Internet communities I?ve had contact with seem to emphasize differences as much as shared interests. Cloaked in the anonymity of an online persona, many people feel released into attack mode, eschewing the softening social graces they?d use in face-to-face conversations, eviscerating anyone whose views on raising ferrets deviates from theirs. On political websites, entrenched leftists hurl invective at any DINO (Democrat in Name Only) who dares to suggest the party modify its rhetoric and policy stances to appeal to more people, secure, apparently, in the belief that, having lost the House, Senate, and White House, their path to victory lies in advocating positions that polls show the majority of Americans dislike. Which leads directly to another drawback of online communities?participating in even toxic discussions with people whose views are so similar to our own blinds us to the interests of the non-virtual people around us, our analog, off-line communities. It?s the eighty-one Baptist churches in Jackson, TN, but on a world-wide scale: ?Hello, and welcome to the First Baptist Blog of David Malone, where I?m always right.?

Nor should we forget that abandoning community is one of the great American traditions: remember the pilgrims, journeying across the ocean to a bitter Massachusetts winter in a desperate flight from a church that approved of Yule logs, feast days, and attractive clothing. Or Daniel Boone, feeling claustrophobic whenever somebody moves close enough to his wilderness home that he can see the smoke from their cookfire, pulling up camp and moving further West to where a man has room to breathe. Or Huckleberry Finn, at ease only when he?s floating down the middle of the Mississippi on a raft, declaring at the end of his narrative that he?s going to light out for the Territories to escape Aunt Sally?s intention to ?sivilize? him. Or Holden Caulfield, constantly on the run throughout The Catcher in the Rye, forever spotting phonies and dashing out of their presence, sustained by a vision of someday becoming a church of one, dedicated to a mission of saving children racing through rye fields to certain destruction. Or virtually every movie you?ve ever seen featuring a rogue cop/ FBI agent/ fighter pilot/ defense attorney/ pediatrician/ certified public accountant/ dog groomer who bucks the corrupt and/or staid system to pursue his own brand of justice/ medical care/ accountancy/ canine pulchritude.

Certainly my own attitude toward community is shaped by my culture?s celebration of the individual. I?m almost genetically contrary: I?m most likely to proclaim the values of hard work and individual initiative when I?m surrounded by liberals; around conservatives, I feel more inclined to trumpet society?s responsibility to offer care and opportunities to even the least of its citizens. Additionally, I don?t feel particularly adept in social situations. In several of his essays, Walker Percy made reference to the paradox of Johnny Carson?s statement that he?d rather appear on TV before millions of people than struggle to make one-on-one conversation at a cocktail party: my experience is that it?s less trouble for me to stand in front of a couple dozen people and talk about patterns in the American literary tradition than to make small talk even with people I?ve known for several years. It?s not fear so much as a sense of awkwardness and ineptitude, like trying, if you?re right-handed, to write an entire manuscript using your left hand. How much simpler, then, to sit in the back room of the house, the rest of the family scattered throughout the other rooms, and type a sentence, backspace, retype, until the thought you?ve been trying to express achieves the weight and coherence you almost never experience in speech.

As unnatural and confining as community might seem, however, trying to exist without any community at all is perilous. By aspiring to live a life unencumbered by a narrow-minded community?s scrutiny, free from the demands of any conscience but our own, we put ourselves in the position of King David, who was so removed from community judgment, it appears, that he was able to conduct a sexual relationship with the wife of a committed servant and contract out the death of guileless husband without feeling a single twinge of guilt. What?s remarkable about the David story isn?t that this hero of the faith committed adultery and murder but that a) Nathan had the intelligence and courage to reach out to the king with a prophetic message clothed in a story about sheep, and b) David was able to connect his sense of outrage over the rich man taking the poor man?s only lamb to his own actions and crumple to the floor in shame. Rather than viewing the king as someone who was above the law, Nathan put his own life in peril to remind David that he was a member of the community too, subject to the same boundaries and expectations as anyone else. And even though it would have been just as easy to get rid of Nathan as it was to get rid of Uriah, David humbled himself and acknowledged that what was wrong for other members of the community was just as wrong for the king.

It?s a reflection of the hardness of my own twisted heart that my primary argument for community is it may help restrain us from becoming egotistical, immoral monsters. Certainly I?ve known the grace of community?the blessed sense of being surrounded by people whose knowledge, love, and kindness far surpass yours; of being a part of a group that knows your cheap, embarrassing flaws and embraces you nevertheless; of making what you?re painfully aware are inadequate offerings of comfort and love only to find that your words or presence has eased someone?s burden. Yet I find myself more convinced by the negative case against fleeing community. When we bolt away from our imperfect communities in search of the promised land where there are no phonies and everybody always marvels at beauty of our insights and sincerity, we don?t need to be patient or forgiving or understanding. We don?t have to put up with people who aren?t as brilliant or efficient as we are; we don?t have to endure other people?s na?ve and/or unsettling political beliefs; we don?t have to be jolted out of our good moods by somebody else?s crying fit or bullied out of grey moments of introspection by someone else?s giddy news; we?re not held back by people who are just too thick to see the inspiring logic of our intricately reasoned opinions. And yet none of that compares to what we lose when we flee community: the ongoing process of our smugness, our short-sightedness, our fixation on ourselves, our arrogance, our stony hearts being eroded away.

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