Sound Sense or Utopian Nonsense?
The Leaven Community, Part 1
At the busy corner of Summer Avenue and Sycamore View in Memphis stands a historic marker headlined, “Nashoba.” In a few brief sentences it recounts the story of Frances Wright’s failed socialist colony in the 1820s. Like most of the hundreds of utopian communities started in America, only a historical footnote remains to remind us that it ever existed.
From Anabaptist Dutch Mennonite communities in the 1660s to Hippie peace-love-dope communes in the 1960s, unnumbered social and religious radicals have founded utopian settlements in America. (Tennessee has been a happy hunting ground for them, from Nashoba in the 1820s to The Farm in the 1970s.)
The reasons for founding these settlements all differ. Secular settlements arise generally from some stripe of socialists or, more accurately, communists. Religious settlements usually revolve around a powerful personality who claims prophethood. Almost always they center their wildly varying beliefs on some heresy or misinterpretation of Scripture, from Anabaptist anarchism to Shaker celibacy.
DO CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN OR DOES MAN MAKE THE CLOTHES?
What these groups all share is Skinner’s presupposition that environment makes the man. Your problem is lack of education, poor lighting, or too many collards and not enough fatback—never sin. The world as is cannot be redeemed, indeed, bears responsibility for man’s corruption. However, apart from the world’s corruptions mankind can be perfected. Clearly, then, they can only reach perfection by withdrawing from the world to create a new and perfect community—perfect, that is, according to the Procrustean bed of their own peculiar ideology or theology.
The only other thing all these settlements have in common is their universal failure.
So why in the world would I find myself today advocating the formation of Christian and agrarian communities? Have I lost my mind, or is something else in the wind?
THE TIE THAT BINDS
Whether spoken or unspoken, every community is held together by a certain worldview, a culture embodying a set of ideas that every member accepts. This may be pretty low level stuff—we will all live together without smashing each other’s skulls, stepping on the grass, and stealing each other’s wives. It may be higher level—the Ten Commandments—but everybody abides by it.
The most enduring tie that binds is religion. (The word comes from a Latin root that means “to tie.”) Religion offers a transcendental basis for harmony, grounds that reach beyond space and time into the eternal. Indeed, the history of new church communities or colonies (versus communist or heretical utopian communities) has numbered quite a few successes, and many persist to this day. In North America Maryland, founded by Lord Baltimore as a refuge for Roman Catholics, and New England (for Puritans) spring immediately to mind, not to mention Mennonites and Amish settlements. On New Zealand’s South Island, Dunedin (Gaelic for Edinburgh) & Christ Church were founded as church colonies or with strong church support (Presbyterian and Anglican). In fact, the whole settlement of America, whether viewed from the English & Protestant standpoint or the Spanish and Roman Catholic, was continuously justified as a vast missionary endeavour to extend the kingdom of Christ and bring to the heathen the benefits of Christ’s rule.
TRANSCENDENCE IS NOT ENOUGH—OR, YOU MUST USE THE MEANS, MY FRIEND
While a transcendental idea may be necessary to bind a community together, that alone may not keep it alive. Some sects such as the Shakers are smothered by their own beliefs. (Then, too, choosing celibacy as the basis for community might not be the single best method to guarantee covenant continuity and longevity.) A community must also prove economically viable by itself. When not self-supporting it degenerates into an expensive farce, supported by those who never intend to live there. It’s just an expensive toy, mankind in a terrarium.
Nearly all utopian communities founder on communism. The Pilgrims nearly perished their first winter because they tried to practice communism. Go ahead, draw the obvious solution: communism is the death of community. Building a community requires a common interest, not common property.
Nor is “free enterprise communism” a solution—a sugar daddy like Robert Owen to pump money into utopia to keep it going. Sooner or later that always wears out, so there is no solution but reality: every member must support himself, contribute something to the community, and have his own individual stake at risk in the community’s success.
WHO NEEDS NEW COMMUNITIES?
We do. You and I. Humanity. I can’t lay out the whole case for the failure of modern society here, but I can explain something by example. (For a more thorough study, start by reading I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by 12 Southerners—but that’s only a start. I’ll Take My Stand, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977, orig. published 1930.) We—my family and I—left urban society for the country, literally for a farm. The environment—social and physical—we live in has changed completely, and we have changed in response to it. (Whoops! I’m sounding like Skinner now, but bear with me and maybe I’ll start talking sense again.) Life has not become “easier” in the sense of labouring less—rather the opposite. There’s much more physical work. There is the discipline of the soil on my soul. However, we escape the daily infection of the frantic, clawing, biting, scratching, angry shopping-mall world. That’s an infection, I’ll admit, I can’t throw off very well. And while it certainly can’t be true that God’s mighty and merciful work in creation is absent in an urban setting, it is true that I seem to miss it there. You know what I mean, that spontaneous response of praise bursting out of your soul when your eyes fall on the world around you:
- “O how wonderful art thou in thy works!”
- “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handy-work."
- “O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.”
- “The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.” (Ps. 66:2; 19:1; 104:24; 145:17)
These witnesses are not absent when we are surrounded by the works of men’s hands, buildings and malls and skyscrapers. But together with all the busy-ness of a civilisation that knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing”, they so distract me that a sane, peaceful Christian existence recedes into misty impossibility. Argue it good or bad, a society where more stuff is both the cure for everything and the supplanter of all human relations—a society that worships raw power and money while glorifying death and change for its own sake—a society that worships speed so wholly that it can never pause to ask where it is speeding—that society no longer satisfies me. In fact, it threatens to destroy me.
A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) wrote, “We Christians must simplify our lives or lose untold treasures on earth and in eternity. Modern civilisation is so complex as to make the devotional life all but impossible. The need for solitude and quietness was never greater than it is today.” And never so hard to find in the urban world, I might add.
You longtime readers know that I am not talking about monasticism, a withdrawal from the world into cowardly self-indulgence. That may satisfy you personally, but it also makes you as impotent, impertinent, and irrelevant to the real world as the Amish.
THE CHURCH OUR MODEL
Rather, we ought to take the church as our model, the community of the faithful, stubbornly in but not of the world we are leavening. Fleshly speaking, the church is a community in the world that changes the world by teaching and example. (Not fleshly speaking, the church is the community of the faithful indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit bringing all things into dominion to her Lord.) We change the world by teaching and example.
From the beginning the Church has created parallel institutions to replace the world’s corrupt institutions. In part at first, but eventually in the whole the Christian worldview reformed the Western world.
But how feckless to plump and argue for a world that you never get to live in! If it is right and true, why not just start living in it today? There are all sorts of ways to start doing this, from spending more time with your family to putting a ball peen hammer through your television screen. Most radical is to move to a community where there are other people who have not yet completely lost their minds, people who share your faith and culture.
DON’T CIRCLE THE WAGONS
Every day it becomes more and more difficult to avoid a “circle the wagons” mentality. Every day brings new and ever more insane attacks on morality and tradition. Think about the hyperbolic growth curve, for instance, of sodomy. In 1970 the word “homo” was hardly breathed. Today you’re liable to be arrested just for turning up your nose at sodomites, and liable to be sued if you don’t hire them or kiss their toes.
If you’re a traditional Southerner, like I am, the attack is even more violent. By definition you have become a drooling, violent, moronic, anti-intellectual racist—without ever moving a peg. But then, this isn’t much more shrill and hateful than the attack on just plain Christian folk everywhere.
However, “circling the wagons” would be a big mistake. More apt is the response of General Nathan Bedford Forrest at Parker’s Crossroads. Just when h had whipped one Yankee army and they were about to surrender, another army attacked his rear. An aide came running up and shouted, “General, we’re surrounded! What should we do?
Without a blink Forrest shot back, “Charge both ways!” That’s what we should do. What do we have to fear? Please explain to me what atomic bombs of social perfection and cultural achievement the modern world has to throw at us. Madonna? Psychoanalysis? Mapplethorpe? Ritalin & Prozac for the masses? Ted Kennedy? Timothy Leary? Deconstruction? Seinfeld? Rap music? Tech stocks? Partial birth abortion? The Federal Reserve system? Only braggadocio and the absence of any alternative keep it propped up. Let us raise, as Washington said, a standard to which the wise and just may repair.
Why would we want to establish new communities? To enjoy and establish for ourselves and our children a lifestyle independent of and different to the present world. Call it modernism or technofascism or simply insanity, I don’t want to live there anymore, and I want to leave something better to my children.
So, yes, all things considered I am advocating that people who share traditional Christian culture form communities—not as a method of retreat, but of rebuilding. Our job is to create parallel institutions and a parallel worldview that by its excellence and beauty will supplant the current culture and economy. Now, I am not numb to the dangers. The opportunities for stupendous pharisaical legalism abound here, so we must take great care not to end up worse off than we started. Here are a few practical considerations.
- Communities ought to be in rural areas or small towns, it seems. You can certainly try one in an urban setting. Let me know how that works.
- As much as possible, communities ought to grow organically, rather than centrally planned from the top down, adding one family at a time rather than a mass migration.
- The community must be open and not closed, must look and reach outward and not inward. Think of it as an advancing beachhead, not a besieged enclave.
- Individuals must be able to support themselves. Many will have to keep one foot in two worlds, to earn a living outside the community. (Long live the Internet and modern telecommunications!) That will enable them to get started and live within the new community. (I don’t see how anybody could move to a small farm and get it paying in less than three years, unless it was exceptional to start with.)
- Starry eyes ought to be de-starred. Rural life is physically challenging. Its monotony can deaden. You have to work at providing intellectual and artistic stimulation. Count the cost before laying the first brick.
- Individuals settling in new communities ought to want a lifestyle change. Move from the city to the country expecting to live as a mall-rat and you’ll just disappoint yourself and annoy the folks at Wal-Mart.
- Individuals in the community must be self-supporting, and communities economically viable. Members probably ought not depend on the new community alone for sustenance.
- The community must work like leaven in the local area and culture where it finds itself. Unless the members of the community cultivate social intercourse with their neighbours, they won’t transfer anything, and certainly not ideas. You can’t sit there like a scab on the land. You have to put down roots and mingle with your neighbours.
- Humility, humility, always humility. You’ll never make it in a rural locale if you show your neighbours that you’re a smart aleck know-it-all. You probably have more to learn from them than they do from you.
- Physical does matter. A community is physical. People ought to work and live conveniently close together. (Think of urban churches, where members might drive an hour or two just to get to church. Under those circumstances physical fellowship is practically impossible.)
- A community must have a transcendental center. It must self-consciously know what it is and what it stands for.
- A community must have continuity. There is no covenant without a covenant people. The culture must be self-consciously passing itself on to the next generation.
- But a community that is all rules and rigor without compromise or compassion will shatter shortly on its own tyranny. God is gracious, and has decreed freedom for us. In fact, he insists on it. I think Robert E. Lee’s single rule as president of Washington College sums it up best: “Make no unnecessary rules.”
WILL IT WORK?
Do I think such communities would live and thrive? Could people living together, building communities, really regain and reform anything? Well, if not they could sure have a good time trying. (I know I am, along with my whole wide family.)
The alternative is the counsel of despair: give up and let the barbarians take over.
Part 2: The Only Thing That Matters
Originally published January 2001