The image of local community has always been a clear, romantic ideal for me. I am picturing a country store in small town New England, beautifully depicted, in an op-ed in The New York Times last year by environmentalist Bill McKibben. The store owner was a veritable source of local knowledge and gossip. Or a small town high school in rural Pennsylvania where drama teacher Lou Volpe drew students together for more than 40 years in successful plays and musicals (see book Drama High, by Michael Sokolove).
The picture I am painting here might be somewhat sentimental, but it serves to illustrate a point I am trying to make: In our work and business and in our private lives, these traditional communities are disappearing. And, perhaps, without being entirely conscious of it, many of us feel worse off. Research has not only shown a sharp decline in communities[i], but also a lower sense of belonging.
A variety of reasons are offered for the decline of community. In the U.S., we see a sharpening of the political debate, a situation in which the rural and urban divide is associated with a widening political gap, emphasis on religious values, and lifestyle choices.[ii] Often blamed are technology and social media for enabling people to flee in their private cocoons. What we see, though, is an unmistakable decline in specialized bodies of knowledge that are explicitly shared between members of a community or profession, kept alive and updated.[iii] Instead, people seem to all inhabit their own truths.
Not having a live body of specialized knowledge can seriously unhinge the well-oiled social functioning of communities. Research on cultural transmission, for example, has shown that people often imitate successful models in their environment.[iv] And according to philosopher William Wimsatt, models can actually form scaffolds on which people build new knowledge and competencies. Without common ground and shared understanding—an alive body of knowledge—sharing personal achievements is difficult. Outside one’s tiny social circle, people may not grasp the nature of that achievement, or why it is any good. And without positive feedback, there might be growing trepidation on part of those who achieved something. There might be the fear of rejection, or lack of trust, thus effectively withholding the community from growing positive rapport. With some imagination, we may see how this depersonalization could contribute to struggles in our society today, such as burnout.
One mechanism at the interface of culture, psychology, and theology that can positively answer some of the issues associated with generative principles in our society is culture care. The concept of culture care was first recognized by Makoto Fujimura, an artist, and Director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary. In an essay in Image Journal Issue 80 (2014) and in his book Culture Care (2017), Fujimura summarizes culture care as applied generative thinking: “A well-nurtured culture becomes an environment in which people and creativity thrive”, and there are people taking this role on them so that: “reminders of beauty are present in even the harshest environments” (page 22).
What is striking about culture care is the interface between a body of knowledge and one’s surrounding community. I am reminded about the home of Jesus Christ that the Gospels depict. After having to leave Nazareth, which was his childhood home, Jesus moved to Capernaum. Located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was on the Via Maris trade route that connected Damascus in the north with Egypt in the South; caravans would come through the city, bringing people of many nationalities. Is this where Jesus developed his theology?
What is certain is that he met his disciples James, John, Peter, Andrew, and Matthew here, and that many of the miracles the Bible tells about were performed here. This interpretation of cultural immersion is underscored by another story, this time in Galatians and Corinthians: that of Paul and his journey to Arabia after his conversion to Christianity in Damascus. Paul chose to travel through Arabia after he was struggling with taxing problems that arose in his ministry. In Arabia he spent three years searching his soul, only to find then that Jesus and the Gospel were for all people.
Both Jesus and Paul stayed in their new environment for a considerable amount of time before moving again. They made their learnings a scaffold for others to build on. By staying put, Jesus and Paul learned to keep the body of knowledge shared by people in their community updated and alive. The common phrase that captures this key process is entrenchment: Staying around to care for shared skills and knowledge, and to make people’s achievements solidify and stick. Having your achievements recognized by others, giving people a scaffold to use this achievement in their own lives in a constructive and positive way, and witnessing this use around you, entrenches your initial achievement, making it stronger.
This is what our communities need: People to help keep alive local platforms of knowledge that allow everyone to share and grow in a healthy and caring way. Whether you are a local shopkeeper, a high school drama teacher, or a human resource manager, everyone can look beyond their private truth and build together with members of their community a sense of belonging for all.
[i] For example, see research by Robert D. Putnam, 2000
[ii] See, for example, Robert Wuthnow, 2018
[iii] See E. D. Hirsch Jr. in Democracy Journal, 2017
[iv] See various scholarship by Alex Mesoudi and Joseph Henrich
Symen A. Brouwers works as a researcher for the United Nations Children’s Fund in Eastern and Southern Africa. He received his PhD in Cross-Cultural Psychology from Tilburg University, the Netherlands, in 2008. He recognizes a prime connection between Cross-cultural Psychology and Christianity that emphasizes cultural care and stewardship and is keen to write about this.
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