Carolyn and I recently had the opportunity to stay with some friendly folks in Durham, NC. I want to call attention to what they are doing because I think that it offers an strong alternative to the standard American dream that is pressed (or oppressed) onto most of us from the time we wake up till we lay our heads back down on our designer pillows.
When a culture grows paralyzingly disjointed, unable to provide a coherent vision of what a good life looks like, unreflective participation in the machinery leads one deeper into bankruptcy of the soul. The need for an alternative vision is heart-felt. Christians throughout history have lived in some fairly fragmented cultures and have recognized the need to resist the toxic influence of the “values” touted by the mainstream.
The television tells us that a good life is characterized by the ability to isolate ourselves with enough devices to keep all our bodily, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and sensual needs perpetually stimulated. The corporations that tell us what we need to buy have a vested interest in fragmenting genuine communities – people who would rather spend their time with family and friends (and haven’t cut themselves off yet) don’t buy into the income=happiness equation, nor do they buy as many lattes, Hummers, and flatscreen televisions to cover the dissatisfaction with life brewing in their bones. Our levels of consumption are perverse in and of themselves, our austentatious accumulation is a spiritual sickness.
In the face of this, there are people working at a grassroots level to provide an alternative vision of human life and live it out. Our new friends at the Rutba house are some of these. They can tell their story better than I can, but I want to point the finger in their direction because I think that what they are doing is nothing less than the hope of the Western world (or at least one version of it). The idea is pretty simple – live with other people in a neighborhood; commit to one another; gather to pray, eat, and work together; connect to the church; encourage, support, and love one another and the neighbors; share a toaster and microwave rather than owning your own; etc.
There are certainly ways that this can go awry, and we would be destructively naive to leap into community living with ideals and expectations prefabricated (read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together). But in the “real stuff” of everyday life in the company of others, there is the chance that we might be strengthened in faith by an alternative moral vision to the one being pushed by the ever-spewing outlets of commodified conformist pipe dreams.