Nowhere can be a comfortable place. Just ask the designers of malls, shopping centers, and chain stores. To take the example of a chain store – they are designed so that anyone who arrives can easily find their way around. Jeans are always in the same place as are hoodies and shoes. Each place, while seemingly different, is nearly identical.
Last night, I went to a late movie, as I often do. I went to a different theater than the one I normally frequent though as the film I wanted to see was only playing there. I went to see A Most Wanted Man, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last film as a star, which was brilliant.
The theater was in a shopping center of a type that is popular around Denver. It mimics a town square with a bit of green space in the middle surrounded by familiar shops. Here is H&M, there is Dick’s Sporting Goods, and there is Gap. It imitates charm without really having any at all. There are many of these places around Denver – imitation town centers that are at the center of nowhere. If I had to tell my wife or some other kind soul where I was because my car was broken down, I would have no reference point because the reference points are so common.
As I got in my car after the film, on the radio was Corinne Bailey Rae song, “Put Your Records On.” One lyric stood out from the song. As I was driving out of the faux town center she sang, “You’re gonna find yourself somewhere, somehow.”
Somewhere. Somehow. This is often how people come to the Church – searching for sense of place and reference amidst the unrelenting pressure to consume and produce. Our very geography is being shaped by the desire of the market to fuel easy addiction to that which we don’t need and create pressure to rapidly consume that which we didn’t know we wanted.
In 1993 James Kunstler wrote the book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, in which he posits that suburbia has ceased to be a habitable environment because its geography is driven by consumption rather than community.
Too many of our churches have become part of that geography of nowhere – places that are driven by a consumer mentality rather than places of authentic community and adoration of God. The geography of nowhere is marked by its blandness and safety. It is non-threatening and built for the rewarding of consumer desire. It does not build up rather it contributes to a sense of dehumanizing competitive acquisition.
How many times have we heard of ways that we can market our church or make it more appealing? How many times have we heard that making church easier to understand or demanding less is the answer?
Ultimately the geography of nowhere is unsustainable because it doesn’t build virtue but undermines it. It fails because it doesn’t engender affection – for the place or the people around us. It asks nothing and offers less.
The Church can be that real place amidst a landscape of nowhere. People come to us weary of the maintenance of the fiction that they belong in a society marked by its utter inability to actually be a home for anyone. Whether it is pressure to consume, pressure to conform, pressure to be better or beautiful – our culture and landscape are producing malaise and deep angst and anger.
The Church provides a point of beauty and reference for those lost in bland turmoil.
An article is in the New York Times right now about the surge in the popularity of Mason Jars. It says, “Sales of…Ball brand jars, have doubled since 2001, and that overall sales for the company’s home-preserving products have jumped 25 percent in the past two years.” The article goes on to quote the CEO of Jarden Home Brands, “’The turning point in the recent history of the Mason jar was the start of the recession in 2008. “’People stay home,’” Mr. Scherzinger says of that time. “’They don’t go out as much. They kind of go back to what the core of their roots are.’”
While the sale of Mason jars may seem to have little to do with the Church – it is intimately tied to the longing of people to find the core of their roots. There is a yearning among people for authentic connection to their own history and to reconnect with that which made them. The Church offers a place to find a sense of place in the midst of nowhere and a sense of identity in the face of dehumanizing economic and social forces.
We offer connection to the deepest traditions of our civilization. The richness of architecture, music, and art are offered not as a way of rewarding consumptive desire but as a form of self-offering to the source of our hope and life. We offer Sacraments that find their root in Christ’s own commands. We find a story that is the story of the Church for millennia. We offer a community that gathers around a table and gathered around Christ as he fed five thousand. We offer hymns of praise that parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents sang. We offer the adoration of the magi, the praise of angels, and the courage of martyrs. We offer Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. We offer a chance to come and be transformed.
Those who call themselves spiritual but not religious mean something very simple – they long for the holy but can’t stand sanctimoniousness. They long for the real thing.
My prayer for the Church is that we have the courage to offer it – to offer a home for the broken and an oasis for the lost. My prayer is that we help people find within our walls those who are living something different, something authentic, something that feels real because it is. My hope is that we can help them find that somewhere, somehow.