Do we Really Need Small Towns?

This bit from my friend Jake Meador’s excellent piece on why we need small towns has lingered with me:

No, we don’t all have to move to small towns to find these communities. But small towns make that sort of community more plausible. Big cities run on transience and mobility. They are filled with rental housing and freeways designed to make movement over large areas easier. And they are supported by an economy that assumes people will switch careers and homes several times in the course of their lives.

In such a world, the memory of small-town life is an antidote to the frantic pace that defines the city and deadens the soul. But with small towns withering away, what will protect us from the hectic, hypermobile life of the city? In a world where so many of us are like Jayber—haunted by the pains inflicted upon us as well as our own sinful heart—where will we go to be healed and restored? How many of us will be given the time to slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions?

My own take on this is similar to what I think about cities and suburbs:  any theologically minded commentary on how we relate to a place, and how places form us, must be unremittingly ambivalent in its approach.  It is true that small towns can make “community more plausible,” as Jake puts it.  But “community” can also become downright hostile to outsiders and overly protective of its own. The recent Maryville horror story–and there is no other word for it–is simply that sort of debased protectiveness magnified to the extreme.  Loving one’s own has real dangers within it, when it is not mediated and transformed by more fundamental loves.  Small towns and cities strike me as equally conducive to virtue, even if their challenges take a very different form.  And yes, all this points to affirming Jake’s fundamental point that we need pastors to go to small towns now more than ever.  As a child of a town of three thousand people, I found Jesus there–and a whole lot else beside.

But then, if what Jake thinks small town life provides is an “antidote to the frantic pace of life that defines the city and deadens the soul,” then I suspect there are no such thing anymore–not with the internet, anyway, and the inescapable mental franticness that the distractions of Facebook and Twitter introduce.  It is doubtlessly the case that for most people in small town, Facebook provides additional texture to their embedded lives, rather than having the sort of globalizing effect that it does for other people.  Yet even so, using them on a smartphone–as nearly everyone these days does, it seems–invariably tears our attention in multiple directions.  It is not the “hectic, hypermobile life of the city” that we need to be concerned about but the online equivalent, which introduces placelessness as a way of life into every community no matter what the size.  We may be given the time to “slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions” (a perhaps very gracious nod to a recent work of mine?).  But few of us will take it.

It’s for this reason that I was happy to see Jake’s wrestling with the way in which the dislocatedness of his writing fits into small town life:

While it’s preferable to have a small town populated with remote workers like Dreher than no small towns at all, I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else. Speaking only for myself as a writer based in Lincoln, NE whose reading habits more closely resemble a resident of Washington DC or New York than my midwestern neighbors, I have real questions about the strength of a community shared by people who share a place but not an economy. My own experience of life in Lincoln suggests that cultivating deep community when people share a place but not an economy may be quite difficult.

The economic point here is a crucial one, as it goes much deeper than simply having a job that pays bills.  Our work entangles us in the world in our entirety, not in part, if we are to do it well.  Our work is a role, yes, but it is a role that we assume without fragmenting ourselves.  We invest ourselves in our work; our work pervades the entirety of our lives, forming our desires and establishing a scope for our interests.  The tension of living in a place and working elsewhere is not simply one of not having to leave our front doors in order to get to the office and so bumping elbows with our neighbors on the way.  Rather, it is a question about where our investments are and what it means to be in a place when such a fundamental mode of our existence takes all our concerns elsewhere.  We can deflate the “economy” so that it is only a transaction of money in exchange for some sort of service; but that may be to enter into a mode of working that lies at the heart of the alienation that many people feel in their lives, to give ourselves over to the very problem that the emphasis on place is meant to address.

Let me put the point differently, then:  if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from.  It is not enough to hand out Wendell Berry and consider the work of describing the interests of small-town life done, though Rod Dreher’s Little Way does this too, it seems.  If there is something distinctively good there, some sort of formation that can occur anywhere but which might be especially concentrated in the way of life that is wholly integrated into a small community, then we need writers willing to forgo the temptations of universalism that the internet presents and take up their pen and describe the granular, frequently petty and occasionally heroic forms of life that make small-town life uniquely indispensable.  It may take a form of writing that is as parochially concerned as the people it represents.  But if it is the case that the true wisdom is found within the limiting, narrow particulars of a small-town life, it is just within such parochialism that we will see the world properly.

Otherwise, I may be left wondering whether we really need small towns after all, or whether they too are simply one more place of ambivalence equivalent to all the rest.

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  • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

    Thanks for continuing to push this conversation out, Matthew. Very helpful to me. As I indicated on Facebook just now, I take this statement as a challenge and gladly accept it: “if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from.” :)

    Though my wife and I felt a particular calling to return to her small rural hometown, where we’ve settling for the past year, I’m probably mostly in agreement with your last wondering statement on whether or not small towns “are simply one more place of ambivalence equivalent to all the rest.”

    At least with respect to our local community, and the rural Midwest (i.e. the Corn Belt) more generally, I think they are perhaps equally ambivalent to, say, cities.

    Back over on Jake’s post which you responded to here, I commented a bit ago about the fact that many local labor options for men in our community are connected to large-scale industries where goods produced get whisked away from the local community+economy. I tend to think this has a similarly alienating effect on people.

    But tell ya what: This conversation thread across our blogs has really motivated me to pay closer attention to what’s going on here, and I think it’s helped me get over my year-long mope-fest about how hard it is living in a small town. Now I want to do something. So thanks to you, Jake, and Dreher for all that! :)

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