Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Finding Kingdom images in New York life

Recently, I ran across an entertaining article in this month’s issue of Smithsonian by critic and essayist Joan Acocella about why New Yorkers are the way they are (which many folks outside New York label as “rude”). Acocella suggests that New Yorkers only appear rude because, well, they’re just smarter than the general population. She goes on to to lay out some interesting reasons for this—and a few of them started me thinking about Kingdom life.

One of those factors had to do with how New Yorker’s public and private lives tend to merge:
. . . I think it’s also possible that New Yorkers just appear smarter, because they make less separation between private and public life. That is, they act on the street as they do in private. In the United States today, public behavior is ruled by a kind of compulsory cheer that people probably picked up from television and advertising and that coats their transactions in a smooth, shiny glaze, making them seem empty-headed. New Yorkers have not yet gotten the knack of this. That may be because so many of them grew up outside the United States, and also because they live so much of their lives in public, eating their lunches in parks, riding to work in subways. It’s hard to keep up the smiley face for that many hours a day.
In other words, Acocella says, “New Yorkers are more familiar” and that affects how they interact with each other. “While New Yorkers don’t mind correcting you,” continues Acocella, “they also want to help you.” Later in the article, Acocella also observes that “the special difficulties of New York—the small apartments, the struggle for a seat on the bus or a table at a restaurant—seem to breed a common cause”:
When New Yorkers see a stranger, they don’t think, “I don’t know you.” They think, “I know you. I know your problems—they’re the same as mine—and furthermore we have the same handbag.” So that’s how they treat you.
I think Acocella is on to something—and it has implications for how we tend to “do” church today. We Americans tend to separate our public and private lives, putting on the perpetual “everything-is-dandy” face even when we are struggling, stretched out thin, or dealing with hard issues. The fact that most of us live in sprawling suburbs that allow us to go years without talking to a neighbor both creates and perpetuates this “compulsory cheer.”

It’s no wonder then that this mask-life carries into church culture and life. In the way we “do” church today, it is not unusual for us to see those we gather with only a few hours a week. It’s not all that difficult to keep up the “smiley face.” I must admit, there is some attraction in this model because it’s safer. I don’t have to share with others if I don’t want to. I can keep my private problems private. Rubbing and bumping shoulders with others on a regular basis is a lot messier. But when I look at the early church in Acts, they seem to have more in common with New York than they do our current churches. They bumped and rubbed shoulders constantly, eating together, meeting together, helping each other. They knew each other’s problems—and they sold property and possessions to help solve those problems.

And, if Acocella is right that familiarity of constantly rubbing and bumping shoulders helps us look at strangers with a sense of common cause, then perhaps the absence of it in church life plays into the church culture surrounding evangelism. Too often evangelism reduces people to targets to be converted rather than fellow “we’re-in-this-boat-together” people to be loved and be loved by, to help and be helped by. Again, early church folks seem to have more in common with New Yorkers than the rest of us Americans; when they crossed paths with others, they thought: “I know you. I know your problems—they’re the same as mine.” (Not those early followers of Jesus didn’t fight against the tendency to isolate and separate amongst themselves—the letters written to those early believers certainly lets us know they were familiar with the problems facing us today.)

All this makes me believe even more that we followers of Jesus need to rethink what we mean by community. I can’t help thinking again of Mark Scandrette’s musing on this subject in Soul Graffiti:
I frequently hear people use the phrase "my community" to refer to a special group of people they have chosen to relate to. We sometimes speak of "community" as the illusive and idyllic sense of warmth and connectedness that we long for. But perhaps in actuality most of us have all the "community" we need: neighbors, coworkers, relatives, and friends. Our challenge is to learn to embrace, nurture, and cultivate these relationships to their fullest potential--to become the best kind of neighbor, daughter, uncle, colleague, or friend.
In my life, I’ve certainly found this way of living more muddled, disordered and messier than simply choosing a special group of people to relate to. But I’ve also begun to touch on this sense of familiarity, the pleasant surprise of finding myself encountering folks with an I-know-you sensation.

Of course, I’m pretty sure it isn’t an either/or. I know folks who are part of an institutional-style church and who also cultivate the relationships they encounter every day in their workplaces, neighborhoods and families. But I am still burdened by how so many of us aren’t living the way we are called and enabled to live. And I think the way we think about community and how meet and gather has something to do with that.

Heh, who’d of thought New York would have something to say about Kingdom living.

(Images: public domain images of New York via wikipedia and here and here)

3 comments:

Peter T Chattaway said...

My two favorite comments on New Yorkers and their "rudeness":

Someone once drew a cartoon that drew a contrast between a New Yorker and a Californian. The New Yorker says "F--- off" to a passer-by, but a thought balloon reveals that he's really thinking "Have a nice day." And the Californian says "Have a nice day!" to a passer-by, but a thought balloon reveals that he's really thinking, "F--- off."

David Letterman used to have (and might still have; I haven't watched the show in a while) a running gag about a man outside his building who always gives him the finger. On his second night back on the air after 9/11, Letterman tried to bring some humour back to the show (his first night back was pretty serious; there was no opening stand-up act, for example). And so he told a gag that went: "Today, the man outside the building gave me the finger ... and a hug."

josephmcbee said...

Great post. I love the parallels you draw between the article and the life of faith.

Carmen Andres said...

peter, roflol! heh, i lived in california for years and can vouch for that aspect of the cartoon. i'm gonna have to retell that one around and about :)

and, thanks jospeh!