The Importance of Real Community
Permit me to let you in on one of the guilty pleasures of Linda and I: watching Blue Bloods
starring Tom Selleck. He and a host of other highly capable actors portray their characters in believable and compelling ways. Our favorite moment in each episode is Sunday dinner when the entire Reagan family gathers around the table at their old homestead. The conversation ranges from hilarious to tender to quarrelsome as they discuss events from the previous week. It honestly portrays family in a way few televised shows do today.
The Rare Family Gathering
First of all, consider how rare it is in our culture to see any family gather at least once a week for a meal together. Watch a couple of episodes and then ponder the depth of relationship necessary for any family to survive the oft painful barbs tossed back and forth in those conversations.
Secondly, each meal begins with a blessing. Now the Reagans are a staunchly Catholic family and their idea of a blessing might be a bit different than yours. But dig into your memory bank and try to locate another TV family with a similar approach to mealtime. It’s actually hugely refreshing.
Thirdly, if you watch regularly, you will soon recognize what is missing from each of those family gatherings. They are screen-free events. The attention of family members is never diverted from the conversation at hand (unless there is a genuine emergency). Everyone is engaged. Everyone is involved. And while the conversational content is often quite different from one meal to another everyone around the table remains focused on one another. During that brief period of time nothing is allowed to distract anyone from the reality that the people around the table are of the utmost importance.
The Price We Pay
I fear that is something we have lost in our current cultural moment. Now I realize just how fragmented family has become. Few families live close to one another. More often than not families are scattered far and wide. In such cases it is impossible for such family gatherings except during the holidays. What has vanished, however, is real. While that loss may be difficult to quantify, if we are honest, we would admit that the price we pay for that distance is too great.
In the place of real family, of real conversation, of real community, we have chosen (and chosen is the right word), something artificial, something that seems to satisfy, only because we have lost sight of the real thing. It’s kind of like the difference between Coke and Coke Zero. We know that too much sugar is bad for us but the artificial that replaces the real thing is never as fully satisfying.
In her compelling and troubling book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle makes this observation about the importance of real community. “We have come to a point at which it is near heresy to suggest that MySpace or Facebook or Second Life is not community. I have used the word myself and argued that these environments corresponded to [community]. I spoke too quickly. I used the word community for worlds of weak ties.”
“Communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Its members help each other in the most practical ways.” Another observer of communities suggests that in community we live side-by-side, face-to-face. That really can’t happen on a screen. As Turkel says, “screen communities are a world of weak ties.”
The consequences of our loss of genuine community are becoming increasingly apparent but we seem increasingly incapable or unwilling to do anything about that loss. The Bible has much to say about the importance of the Body, of community, so I would argue that we simply can’t ignore what is a very real problem. As challenging as building community might seem, there are things we can do to recover something so crucial to our personal and cultural well-being. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been pondering for a while.
A Social-Media Sabbatical?
First of all, why not take a social-media sabbatical? Chip Roy, a member of Congress (one of the most dysfunctional families in America) recently announced that he was, “suspending indefinitely [his] use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.” He went on to say, “I’m doing so not to make a political statement, but in hope that America can return to kitchen tables, churches, taverns, coffee shops, dance halls (it’s a Texas thing) – whatever it takes to look others in the eye and rebuild our communities and humanity.”
He then goes on to make some painful personal observations about his own obsession of social media and the negative impact it made on him as a leader and as a father. I would recommend his WSJ column of January 11, 2021. If you or I have something of genuine importance to share why not do it face to face around that kitchen or dining room table? And if friends and family live too far away for that kind of gathering why not make a call and actually talk to someone or at least send an email? Personally, staying in touch is a far better basis for real relationship and community than any Facebook post could ever be.
Read Widely and Well
Second, work to make conversation with you interesting and worthwhile. I know that there are times in life when it takes every bit of your energy to just keep your head above water; like any mother with preschool-aged children at home well knows. To the extent we can, however, we need to learn how to build a reservoir of knowledge, not information, to share with others. It must be knowledge that you have been slowly accumulating over time, knowledge over which you have pondered as Mary did when the shepherds showed up following the birth of Christ, knowledge that has taken residence not only in your head but in your heart.
To do that you have to read widely and well. At the end of this letter I’ve listed a number of books that you might find both interesting and helpful. Asking good questions and listening carefully to people’s responses to those questions is a must. The best conversations are those that flow in both directions. It also helps to have some things in common. If bird watching is not your thing you can learn something from those for whom that activity is their greatest joy. If there is nothing else to draw you together it isn’t likely, however, that the relationship will go deep but it is always worth giving it a shot.
Thirdly, as I noted in my last newsletter, if you are a follower of Christ you can’t ignore how that reality should shape your conversations. Remember what God says to Joshua about not letting the Word of the law depart from your mouth. There are good ways to engage others with the Word and there are poor ways to do so. But even as a winsome warrior you may find some relationships challenging. That was one lesson I learned while working on my doctorate at the University of Delaware. Sometimes people are simply resistant to any discussion that gets to “the heart of the matter”. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep trying.
A Book List
I know that all of you have full agendas as we move toward the first anniversary of the Covid lock-downs. However, if you are looking for ways to deepen your understanding of the world and your place in it here are a few recommendations from the last few years that you might consider.
Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity, Alisa Childers. This is a well-written book by someone who has taken the time to examine the escalating assault on historic Christianity that is currently underway in so many of our churches.
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K.A. Smith. Jesus wants not only our mind--and He does want that--He also wants our hearts. That is the core message of this thought provoking book on discipleship and how our discipleship can change the world.
The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George Whitefield, and the Surprising Relationship that Invented America, Randy Petersen. A fascinating look at a most unusual relationship.
When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan. In a time when genuine leadership seems to be so lacking among our political leaders this is a good reminder of what can be.
Praying With Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation, D.A. Carson. “God doesn’t demand hectic church programs and frenetic schedules; he only wants his people to know him more intimately.” This is an excellent book from one of our most winsome and thoughtful theologians.
If you love history here are two fascinating reads:
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, Nathaniel Philbrick. I think you can guess the topic of this book from its title. Well worth reading.
The Lion’s Gate: On the Lines of the Six Day War, Steven Pressfield. An interesting approach to telling one of the most remarkable stories of the 20th century.
Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher. You may not think of yourself as a dissident. It may be time to rethink that understanding of our current reality. We are living in a time of profound change that will not leave those who follow Christ untouched.
Two books by one of my favorite authors, Os Guiness.
Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat. This book won the 2019 Logos Bookstore Association Award for Christianity/Culture and was WORLD Magazine's Book of the Year in 2018.
Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. Guiness is honest about the problems we face in culture but encouraging about the power of the Gospel to transform people even in the darkest of times
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Eric Larson. As one marketing blurb describes it, “this book is an inspiring portrait of courage and leadership in a time of unprecedented crisis.” We all could use a little of that kind of leadership right now.
The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. This is a powerful work of fiction. Linda’s favorite book of 2020. It is the story of two sisters caught up in the German invasion of France. Painful at times to read but a powerful reminder of what we might one day be called upon to do.
Of course, I always have more but I think this list provides a pretty broad range of topics. Enjoy. Share with a friend. Discuss. Wash, rinse, repeat. And who knows, maybe real community will emerge in the process.