Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (New Atlantis Books)
Encounter Books, 2014
304 pp., 25.99
Stranger in a Strange Land: Collin Hansen
Why Place Matters
This is a guest column by Collin Hansen, editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. With John Woodbridge, he co-authored A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan). He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
For the first time I live in a place that would miss me if I left.
The place I was raised either expected me to leave or at least never bothered to make a compelling case for me to stay, despite the literal roots my family had planted for generations in the land on which we lived. Then I lived for more than a decade outside a major northern metropolis, drawn like many others for school and then for work. I met my wife there. I loved our friends. But without family in the area my ties to the place eventually frayed. My wife and I longed to live somewhere people knew us for something more than our alma mater or jobs. We looked forward to a life interrupted by the birthday parties, holidays, and unscheduled conversations that we had sacrificed to work long hours and advance our careers.
In the last three places I lived, people were happy for me when I left. But today I could not leave before initiating many painful conversations with friends and family who count on us. There is a new kind of unease, however, that I've discovered by finally planting myself in one place. You grow close with people suffering the same restlessness you felt somewhere else. They leave for love. They leave for leisure. They leave for life in the great unknown. Love of place is in the eye of the beholder. My home is just another place to my neighbor suffocated by family, familiarity, and formality. Love of place limits our freedom to explore all the other places and find somewhere superior.
"We embrace freedom because we believe fervently in the fullest breadth of individual human possibility, and share a deep conviction that no one's horizons in life should be dictated by the conditions of his or her birth," writes Wilfred M. McClay, co-editor of the new volume Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. "Nothing is more quintessentially American than that conviction."
McClay, his fellow editor Ted V. McAllister, and the 14 other contributors to this new volume agree only that place is a matter of central importance. From there they explore the diverse ramifications of place making on urbanism, architecture, poverty, politics, ethnicity, mobility, policy, history, and more. Each essay, in arguing from a different angle why place matters, endeavors to overcome the inherent American reluctance to prioritize place over opportunity, freedom, and individualism, among other values. These essayists may lament how seemingly every interstate exit looks basically the same no matter where you travel in the United States. But plenty of other Americans find this familiarity reassuring, maybe even a sign of freedom and progress. In a nation of immigrants, you'll always struggle to convince Americans to voluntarily choose limits on their ambitions by committing to stay and care for one particular place. "For so many of our ancestors," observes McAllister, associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, "place was just another word for hopelessness."
To their credit, these essayists—among them academics of various disciplines, editors, nonprofit executives, and poets—do not advocate some kind of thin nostalgia. As evident in McAllister's comments, they recognize real problems in our communities and the downside of historic restraints. They know a simple appeal to loyalty cannot make our places the kind where you'd actually want to live. They deploy varied experiences and skills to project a hopeful future where love of place corrects our modern tendencies to seek escape from responsibility and accountability.
Mark T. Mitchell's essay stands out for its blend of history, philosophy, and practicality as he considers the "cosmopolitan temptation." He helped me understand that cosmopolitanism is not just an attitude you find in cities, where citizens identify more with a global monoculture than with their particular place. Thanks to new media, you don't need to be culturally sophisticated to be "cosmopolitan." His insights apply just as accurately to my rural South Dakota community as to the affluent suburb outside New York City where my wife and I lived for a year.
"Autonomous choice, unencumbered by either authority or tradition, is the reigning orthodoxy of our day," writes Mitchell, chairman of the Department of Government at Patrick Henry College. "This elevation of individual choice is predicated on a nominalist conception of reality, for the greatest latitude of choice is afforded when the constraints erected by nature are destroyed or at least ignored."
This is the set of circumstances that enabled me to write this essay from a trendy downtown coffee shop while watching Spain succumb to the Netherlands in the World Cup. But it also threw me into an existential crisis when, several years ago, I realized that for all my advantages in life—all the opportunities denied to my grandparents that I eventually enjoyed with their encouragement—I could not match their simple happiness. I realized I would never find the happiness they enjoyed until I voluntarily chose the restraints of family and community. So I did the best I could: we moved to my wife's hometown.
Christian theology will always constrain me from recommending that everyone follow my chosen path. Before he ascended, Jesus told his disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19a). Unless someone had left his place to preach the gospel among my family, I would not know Jesus. He may yet call me to yield to a different calling and take the gospel where it needs to be heard. Jesus himself was a prophet without honor in his hometown (Matt. 13:57), the Son of Man with no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20). He left his eternal home on our behalf and took the very form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). As citizens of heaven we now eagerly await his return (Phil. 3:20). Hebrews 13:14 qualifies any Christian's allegiance to a place on earth: "For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come."
If I thought most American evangelicals claimed these valid reasons to not pin their hope on a particular city, country, or community, then I could perhaps understand our reluctance to think carefully about why place matters. But I suspect my story is more common, that we've often confused autonomous choice with common sense. I suspect we lament the lack of community in our churches without understanding that limits actually free us to serve and give when we don't feel like it. And I suspect we sometimes seek political, theological, or personal compatibility—whether in schools, churches, or online—to replace the more diverse and challenging relationships that develop within families and neighborhoods over time.
But I don't want to become one more polemicist claiming I can prescribe the solution to our problems with modernity. Such a totalizing agenda would actually run counter to the very values that respect for places ought to engender. I respect the modest vision of "humane localism" cast by Mitchell. "In short," he writes, "humane localism is rooted in respect, not in homogeneity; in love of one's place, not hatred of other places; and in the realization that human flourishing is best realized in the company of friends and neighbors sharing a common place in the world."
So how do you share that place? No one life-change can guarantee it, because sin follows us wherever we move. But you can make some simple adjustments. Move into a house with a front porch. Resist the urge to retreat in front of the tv. Invite your neighbors to dinner. Volunteer in your church and another organization dedicated to civic well-being. Limit your commute time. Avoid activities that require you to shuttle your kids across the city each day. Settle somewhere people have known you across various stages of life, maybe even somewhere they knew your parents or grandparents. Make regular errands where you see familiar faces. Seek unpaid adult involvement—whether family or friends—in your children's lives. Weigh the economic advantages of taking a new job against the human cost of upheaval to your church, school, and family life. Stay put if at all possible. And if God calls you to go, make a home of this new place by following this same time-tested wisdom wherever you can.
This lifestyle probably won't make you famous, but it just might make people want to attend your funeral.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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