Brandon O’Brien’s Not From Around Here is an interesting and helpful book on the ways that place and the cultural currents and crosscurrents that move in, around, and through place can shape us for good or ill. He evaluates the suspicions and occasional conflicts that arise from the caught assumptions (i.e., “…our place makes its mark on us before we are able to question it” ((p. 27)).) of various cultural contexts in American life: rural, suburban, and urban. O’Brien is able to speak from personal experience as he has lived in Arkansas (his home state), Chicago, and, currently, Manhattan.
O’Brien lays out the problem nicely:
…there is plenty of data to confirm that Americans feel divided from one another based on their geography. According to Pew Research Center, 65 percent of urban dwellers and 70 percent of rural dwellers feel that “most people who live in different types of communities don’t understand the problems they face.” Nearly equal percentages of urban and rural people say “people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do” (pp. 13-14)
Within the church we find, according to O’Brien, both the reality of these same problems as well as the resources we need to overcome them:
We live in a historic moment in which Christians across America are divided by regional values rather than being united by Christian values; they feel neglected, wherever they live, when the realities of others elsewhere receive attention. We are basing our most important decisions on beliefs about others that aren’t founded in facts but in spin and hearsay. We need an exercise in empathy. We need to find common cause. And we need to emphasize our shared identity in Christ over our divided identity as citizens of different parts of the country. I’m writing from the firm conviction that no one else will do it. It has to be the church (pp. 20-21).
That’s well said. I agree. It has to be the church. And O’Brien’s grounding of the solution in “our shared identity in Christ” is key. Furthermore, his telling of the story is accessible, frequently charming in its anecdotal insights, and convicting.
O’Brien convincingly demonstrates that many of the assumptions that, say, rural Arkansans (his own upbringing) have about, say, Manhattanites (his current home) are simply untrue. He unpacks, for instance, the reality over and against the Southern assumption of New York rudeness by highlighting the hectic nature, the fast pace, and, most significantly, the lack of privacy that so dominates the daily lives of those who dwell in large cities. He further counters these faulty assumptions by speaking of instances of genuine kindness that he and his family have encountered in New York (i.e., the stranger who grabs the front of the stroller to help them get it up the subway stairs without being asked, the stranger who covers the cost of boat rental in Central Park for the O’Briens once Brandon realizes he did not bring any cash, etc.). As somebody who has personally come to really appreciate New York over the last number of years (through repeated mission trips to the area) I feel like I was kind of coming to understand this a bit already, but O’Brien really helped to flesh this idea out.
I did appreciate also his acknowledgment of the anti-rural bias among some urbanites.
By the early twentieth century, intellectuals in America were betraying a clear bias in favor of city life. Sociologist Edward Ross set out in 1905 to classify all human beings into “four types of intellect” and identify where in America the different types are most likely to be found. The lowest type of intellect “has few ideas.” They are rural people that congregate “about seaboard and lakeboard, in all the mountain regions, and on the great plains.” On the next rung up are folks who enjoy “safe, commonplace , profitable occupations.” They are kind but intellectually dull. They make up a quarter of the population and “predominate in the South.” The third type are principled and hardworking, make up about 20 percent of the population, and can be found from New England through the Midwest. The highest type is “marked by breadth and balance, clear perceptions, sound judgment, careful reasoning, and critical thinking.” They are the minority—making up just 1.5 percent of the population. They are found “here and there in cities” (pp. 78-79).
This kind of thinking persists in various forms and it exists even, O’Brien argues, in the church. One of the more telling insights was when he observed how some religious scholars simultaneously (a) extol the virtues of Christianity in the Global South and plead passionately for their voices to be heard and (b) denigrate rural American Christians as backward rubes and dumb fundamentalists. The problem with this is that many in the rural South of North America share certain “qualities…with the Global South” (p.91). Their worldviews in some significant ways overlap and so, ostensibly, we could learn from both.
I thought that was a brilliant point. I agree. Conservative Christians in the American South are indeed oftentimes drug out for a good thrashing by their supposed betters in the religious establishment when, in reality, rural Southern Christians are pretty much just like every other expression of the church in that they have certain strengths that should be celebrated and certain weaknesses that should be avoided. I appreciated this point a great deal.
I also appreciated O’Brien’s point that many Christian resources and promoted ministry models are actually based on suburban Christianity and that “both rural and urban pastors are often, if unconsciously, comparing themselves to models of ministry most common in the suburbs” (p.142). As a suburbanite who over the years has made an increasing number of forays into urban contexts for ministry efforts I can see how this is so. I think of many of the conferences I go to and how a certain degree of what is presented in those may not be immediately helpful or applicable to either a rural pastor or an inner city pastor. Again, I thought this was an astute point made by O’Brien and it helped me see how the dominant ministry resources available to us truly are skewed to one particular form of ministry in one particular context, namely, my own.
And this is one of the great points of Not From Around Here, it seems to me: we need to learn to see beyond ourselves and understand the wider picture, understand, that is, each other. We should learn to see the beauty and challenges and uniqueness and idiosyncrasies and opportunities inherent in each expression of the body of Christ as it resides in its very own particular context. O’Brien’s book helped me to think deeply about my own biases, my own assumptions, and my own suspicions.
I believe this book will help in combating the hardening of ecclesiological and missiological categories that calcify when we naively and presumptuously assume that our context is the context. This would be a great book to give believers in general but perhaps especially believers who are wanting to engage different cultural contexts than their own. And maybe more specifically, this would be a great book to give to a rural or suburban ministry or mission team about to make a foray into, say, New York or other large urban centers. I thought this particular insight was really strong:
Seeing things from someone else’s point of view is ultimately an act of repentance. It requires admitting that I didn’t see things completely before, and now I see them more clearly. And in light of the new information that I have, I’m going to think and behave differently. Christians should be prepared to spot these lapses in our perception. If we believe our human nature is so corrupted by sin and that we are prone to selfishness and self-absorption, then it’s no stretch to admit that we are also, therefore, prone to see what we want to see and to filter our experiences in terms of what’s best for us. We should welcome new information and the experiences of others that discipline and challenge our own experiences precisely because we are Christians. We should be grateful for the ministry of people who are unlike us, who can point out where we’ve misperceived reality and how we can make corrections. We should delight in repentance because it makes us more fully aware of God and ourselves and others (p. 155).
I enjoyed this book. It is not a difficult read and it is quite helpful and convicting. Check it out.