catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 17 :: 2007.09.21 — 2007.10.05


A four-letter word

“Community” isn’t a four-letter word. Or is it? I’ve noticed that the people around me (especially the Jon Stewart-watching ones) are starting to roll their eyes whenever the word is mentioned. In my particular Reformed, ahem, community, this reaction used to be reserved for overused words like “discern” and “engage”, but now people are starting to do it whenever something about community comes up.

I’ve heard people say things like, “We went to a hummous-tasting party Friday and really had some community with the people there,” and “I’m tired of sitting at home watching Grey’s Anatomy by myself…I need to find some community.” Eye-roll action after both examples.

What is interesting about “community” used in these contexts is that it’s moved from being a noun used to refer to a specific group of people in a specific context to a noun that is vague and generic. In other words, people aren’t saying, “We went into the community to welcome the newcomers,” they’re saying, “We went to the newcomers’ house to offer them some community.”

At the college where I went to school and currently work, the word “community” (both vague and specific versions of it) is used a lot. A quick search on the institution’s website for the word “community” brings up at least 660 unique hits. It’s used to explain the current rule regarding open house in the dorms—limiting access to floors of the opposite sex is said to foster floor community. The word is also used to describe the kind of atmosphere among professors—one of “intentional scholarly community”. The Greek word for “community”, koinonia, is the name for one of the school’s intentional community living houses.

A former professor of mine recently remarked that we have a special knack for taking perfectly good words and squeezing all the life out of them. Words only get so much mileage out of them, and at the speed we’re going with “community”, we’re going to have to get a new one soon.

And yet the problem with the word “community” may not be entirely wrapped up with the frequency with which it is used. There’s something about how it is used—in institutional rhetoric and in everyday conversations—that feeds the eye-rolling reaction.

Most people won’t deny how good and important the thing to which the word “community” refers actually is. There’s nothing like going to the farmer’s market and enjoying local culture, gathering with a group of friends around a bonfire at the beach or yukking it up over coffee and scones at a professor’s house. When you’re in the middle of these situations, you’re suddenly hit with the sense that you’re not alone, and it is good.

When people gather and groups form to create or enjoy or worship, the best times are almost always the spontaneous ones. Too much “intentionality” can ruin that. In fact, putting excessive effort into making something like “community” happen may betray the truth that this vague happy-warm feeling/idea has become an idol to us. We want something that resembles unity because the feeling of we’re-in-this-together-ness is great. But when we program it, formulate it and foster it, things can go awry.

Perhaps the dream of community begins to break down when we assume that everyone wants the same level of community. Jesus prayed for it in John 17, we’ve experienced it—why wouldn’t everybody want it?

For starters, if you’re dealing with today’s irony-loving, iPod-listening twenty-somethings, you shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t want to leave their comfort zones, join hands and sing songs about love and togetherness. This generation was born with a sixth sense that discerns even the faintest whiff of pretense or fluff.

And then there’s the issue of that stubborn independent spirit bred in most young Americans by the prophets of positive thinking. Even if your “community” movement does gather some steam, some will inevitably begin to feel oppressed by it, especially if you talk about it all the time. The “community”, once a revolutionary concept, becomes the status quo, and its leaders become a bit too comfortable with their power (please refer to your Russian history textbook for more on this one).

The word “community” is not only bandied around too much, it’s too often wielded as an instrument of power. If you’re not for “community”, then you’re clearly a spiteful person who deserves loneliness and isolation. What’s really going on here is that certain people may not be for the certain version of “community” the status quo maintains.

At my alma mater, this brand of “community” may be a distorted vision of unity that can’t be achieved at an educational institution that works tirelessly to keep “faith” and “reason” in balance. The school may have a history of ethnic and religious homogeneity, but within that history is a long line of dissenters, people whose radical ideas have transformed the school and the church with which it is affiliated.

The dissenting voices could have given in to the subtle (or blatant) manipulation of those in power, doing what was “good” for the “community”, but they didn’t because they knew better. They knew that the school’s academic environment could never thrive without questions, tension, arguments, progress and occasional dis-unity. Without that kind of environment, the college would only churn out uniform thinkers and cliché users.

Just an idea: for Lent next year, try giving up the use of the word “community” and see what happens. It may not do a thing, but there’s also the possibility that wonderful, true, revolutionary communion will spring up everywhere.

If we keep on using “community”, thinking about it every bit as much as we thought about the quality of contemporary Christian music when we were in high school, something big and terrible will happen: a return to individualism. Enough people are already rolling their eyes and inserting their earbuds when they hear the word.

To rescue the concept of love and connectedness, we’re going to have to be a bit more creative about how we talk about it. Oh yeah, and we’re going to have to live it too.

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