Alan Jacobs cites the extraordinary example of New York City pastor Tim Keller as a good reason for Christians to move to cities if they want to influence the culture. Pastor Keller is indeed a terrific example of the good Christians can do if they embed themselves in a city, and live out a faithful presence. No argument at all from me there.
But to answer the question in the subject line, I would say, “It depends.” I’m not trying to be wishy-washy here, or self-serving, given that I have famously left the city to move to the country. I would say — and I believe The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming illustrates this — that it all depends on what you discern your calling is. I quote these lines of poetry from Charles Péguy in the book:
Thus God did not want
It wouldn’t have pleased him
To have only one voice in the concert.
I want to push back against people who say you should not leave the country for the city — that was my sister’s view — and against the view of people who say that you should leave the country for the city, which, broadly speaking, is the view of my class. The truth is, we are not all called to do the same thing, or, as I’ve learned, to do the same thing for all of one’s life. I had to leave the country as a young man, not only for my own health, but to fulfill what I believe was my divine calling to be a writer. The sojourn I took in the mid-1990s, trying to move back to Louisiana and failing, confirmed to me that God had a calling on my life, and it could only be accomplished away from here. Now, though, nearly 20 years later, I was able to see through my sister’s fidelity to her own calling here in the country, that He was calling me to do a new thing, outside of the city. What did it was being impressed — overwhelmed, actually — by the extraordinary good my sister Ruthie did living here in this little country town, and seeing in that a model of faithful presence that challenges my own ambitions, and the ambitions of many, many people like me.
This vision was expanded by my attending the funeral of my Great Uncle Jimmy, who was a common man of uncommon goodness and greatness. I came home from that a changed man by what I had seen and heard, and started Orthodox Holy Week in a far more prayerful state of mind because of him. All week I’ve been thinking about how much people need to know about the Ruthie Lemings and James Fletchers of this world, and how I am not necessarily in a position to do the things they did, but I am in a position to write about it, to tell others. This is how I can use the gift and the opportunities God has given me.
Are there Ruthie Lemings and James Fletchers in the city? Absolutely; Uncle Jimmy lived in one, actually, in industrial West Monroe. Goodness knows nothing of the city and country distinction — and neither, it should be said, does evil, though country people and city people sometimes flatter and delude themselves that those who live in the Other Place are more susceptible to wickedness than they are. My point is simply that for me, given my own personal and professional story, I have discovered, to my very great surprise, a calling back to the country. Because of the sort of person I am, I could not, or at least did not, “see” the Uncle Jimmys and Ruthies when I lived in the city, though they were no doubt all around me. It took leaving the city for me to be able to do this. Since Little Way was published, I have heard from so many readers who have written intense, heartfelt letters telling me how much this story about a little town and its people has changed their perspective on life and how to live it.
Will that “change the culture,” in the sense Alan means? Maybe. For all its terrific reviews, Little Way has not been embraced by TV media, which means its sales have been respectable, but modest. It’s disconcerting to me to hear and to read the incredible response from people who have actually read the book, and to see that the overall sales figures are not commensurate with that enthusiasm. A friend and reader out west wrote to me just yesterday to tell me not to worry about that:
My sense is that the folks who have read LW will be deeply affected by it, which means they in turn could deeply affect their families, communities, friends, etc. by how they embody those affections. In the same way that deep cultural change often takes a period of years, so too can it go in the realm of ideas, I think. In the same way you and I talked about how we Millennials shouldn’t expect to change the world in a wizz-pop-bang fashion, maybe the same is true of LW. Maybe the ideas embodied will take root gradually and will spread from there. My honest thought this morning is that what you have done with LW is of incalculable importance for a narcissistic society that struggles with all these ideas, but LW need not be the end of this sort of work. There needs to be a wave of these sorts of ideas, and more writers, artists, commentators, and the like now need to produce their own works to speak into this age much like LW is doing. From the reviews I’ve read, I think LW has emboldened people to start thinking and speaking about things like this more.
I hope my friend is right. If so, any positive change that comes out of Little Way will be because Ruthie did what God had for her to do, living in the country, and I did what God had for me to do in the city … and was therefore able to be in a position personally and professionally to bear witness to Ruthie’s deeds, and the deeds of her community. I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t moved to the city, and then moved back to the country.
My point, in terms of Christian vocation — which is what Alan brought up — is that God can use us in the country, He can use us in the suburbs, and He can use us in the city. Young Christians — and I was one once upon a time — love to think about doing the Big Thing to Change The World. This is to fall victim to what St. John Maximovitch called “the hypnosis of great deeds.” Excerpt:
There exists at the entrance to the spiritual realm a “hypnosis of great deeds”: one must either do some big thing or do nothing. And so people do nothing at all for God or for their souls! It is very strange — the more a man is devoted to the little things of life, the less he wishes to be honest or pure or faithful to God in those same little things. And, moreover, each one must adopt a correct attitude toward little things if one wishes to come near to the kingdom of heaven.
“Wishes to come near”… In this is summed up all the difficulties of the religious life. Often one wishes to enter into the kingdom of heaven quite unexpectedly, in some miraculous and magical way, or, by right — through some kind of great feat. But neither the one nor the other is the right way to find the higher world. One does not enter God’s presence in some wondrous manner while remaining indifferent on earth to the needs of the kingdom of God and its bright eternity, nor can one purchase the treasures of the kingdom of God by some kind of eternal act, however great that act might be. Yet good deeds, holy deeds are necessary for one to grow into a higher life, a bright will, a good desire, a heavenly psychology, a heart that is both pure and fair…
The important thing, it seems to me, is to realize that in each city, in each town, in each family, in each soul, is an entire universe worthy of God’s love and of our attention. The God who brought Peter to Rome to spread His word needs His people in the big city cathedrals, and the God who was born into a rural town called Nazareth He needs his people in the country mission churches. The God who called the pilgrim Abraham out of Ur and who had His people wander in the desert for a generation needs some of His people to be prepared to wander in His service, and the God who established His people in the Promised Land calls others to stay in place for His sake.
After all, it would not please God to have only one voice in the concert. Life is not about singing in unison, but in harmony.