This post was first published in August, 2010.
Today, I heard an interesting interview on the NPR program, Fresh Air with Todd S. Purdum, national editor of Vanity Fair, who has written a piece in the latest edition called, “Washington: We Have a Problem”.
For this article, Purdum spent a day at the White House with the president and his top aides, learning about the incredible challenges of governing in an age when “the modern-day presidency would be unrecognizable to previous chief executives — “thanks to the enormous bureaucracy, congressional paralysis, systematic corruption and disintegrating media.”
This post is not about that. Save your political points for another time, OK?
Today, I’m writing about something Purdum said in his interview about Congress, and how things have changed historically with regard to relationships between the members. Congress functions differently today, partly because the nature of the human connections between the members has changed.
Here’s part of what Todd Purdum said:
Several things are strikingly different. Fifty years ago or so, Congress met for six to nine months a year, and when it was in session, it met mostly five days a week. Most members brought their families to live in the Washington area, and their kids went to school here and they knew each other and socialized with each other on the weekends. Quite frequently members drove home to their districts together at the end of the session to save money in a carpool. There was also no air conditioning, so people weren’t holed up in their individual offices the way they are now.
That really began to change in the 1970s and then accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. And when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House in 1995, he urged members to keep their families back so they would have to go home every weekend if possible. That’s a necessity for campaigning and fundraising. But it has the effect of meaning members don’t really know each other. They haven’t spoken to each other in human ways. So it’s a lot easier to be nasty and say nasty things about someone you don’t know than to say nasty things about someone who you go to church with or see in the supermarket. or whose wife is friends with your wife or husband, and that’s something that’s, culturally, quite different.
A lot of younger members now live in their offices and take showers in the House gym. They don’t rent, even apartments, here. I talked to a friend of mine who works for a senior member from a Sunbelt state. He’s been in Congress for eight years. And my friend said that this member doesn’t really know anybody except the fellow Republicans in his home state delegation, and his neighbors on either side of his office building, but that, in terms of broad acquaintanceship with members of the House, he doesn’t really have any, and he’s been there for eight years.
Community in a Technological Age
The subject of community is huge in conversations about the church today. Perhaps these remarks about Congressional relationships can help us see why it is such a challenge in today’s environment.
What struck me in Purdum’s observations is the relationship between technology and the loss of human contact. It seems possible that the more we choose the efficiencies that new technologies afford us, the more separated we can become from one another.
For example, because members of Congress can so easily communicate and travel in efficient and cost effective ways over long distances these days, they don’t have to bring their families to Washington, settle down, or spend time with their fellow members as they were forced to do before. They are able to live in an insulated world of work, pursuing their own agendas and “taking care of business” while in the capitol, and then easily, almost magically be translated into a different world where they can see their families and go out on the stump in their home districts.
They can keep these worlds separate and work efficiently and productively across both worlds because of the technology available to them. Collegiality, on the other hand, is not immediately productive, and so it has become optional to the task at hand. Members of Congress need not speak to or relate to their colleagues in “human ways;” it’s all about getting results.
Life in today’s world, more than ever before, is about this — getting things done, controlling our environment so that we can create the results we want. As Os Guinness has written,
What counts in the rationalized world is efficiency, predictability, quantifiability, productivity, the substitution of technology for the human, and-from first to last-control over uncertainty.
The first thing that must be said about true community in the world we live in today — the kind of fellowship that the NT describes — the kind of relational unity and partnership in Christ that fulfills the “one another” instructions of the epistles — is this:
It may require that we take some steps away from and out of the secularized patterns of modern life that our technologies have produced.
Overall, I don’t think Christians have thought seriously enough about this.
Our preachers have pronounced fervent warnings against secularism—a philosophical worldview that leaves God out of the equation.
But haven’t we failed to fully appreciate the impact of secularization—the process that “flattens” the world and causes us to look more and more at life from a human point of view due to our increasing knowledge and skill?
The latter happens automatically, imperceptibly, and inevitably as we humans develop better and more efficient ways of doing our work and controlling the world through science and technology. We are grateful for the benefits advancements bring; we don’t always recognize the other side of the coin.
The secularization of modern civilization is partly due to our inability to adjust the ethical and spiritual interests of mankind to the rapid advance of the physical sciences. (Reinhold Niebuhr)
The modern church (particularly U.S. church-growth oriented evangelicalism) has tended to see methods as neutral. We’ll use whatever works to bring folks in and build the organization. After all, we have a mission to reach people and get them involved in the church, so why not use every means at our disposal? But talking like this betrays our preoccupation with technology. The technological mind thinks about means and ends.
On the other hand, life is simply life, with all its twists and turns, with all its meanderings and messes, its enigmas and loose ends. Relationships (messy too!) are formed through organic connections between people, and this happens in the context of real life situations.
I know a woman who decided, early in her life as a mother, that the family would never own an automatic dishwasher. She and her daughter would do the dishes together every night after the family ate supper. That would be their time together. They worked together. They served the family together. Together, they turned a bit of chaos into order. They talked sometimes, and sometimes they just cleaned dishes. Year after year after year. She decided against technology that would have made her life easier in order to build a relationship that made her family’s life richer.
Community is not created or manufactured but planted, cultivated, and grown. We choose to give time to simply live with others, interacting with them in the daily activities and experiences of life.
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, The Message)
It is not just a matter of belonging to the same organization, participating in the same program, playing on the same team, sitting in the same class, or attending the same event. It involves participating in “the life together,” the common life that is not divorced from but intimately engaged in the daily stuff of sitting down to eat a meal, taking a walk, mowing the lawn, cleaning house, picking up after the kids, changing diapers, borrowing and lending tools, visiting in the hospital, helping with school projects, baking cookies, pulling weeds in the garden, washing the dishes. It is unhurried conversations over coffee. It is having fun and laughing together. It’s being there when bad news comes. It is learning to speak words of affirmation and rebuke, confession and forgiveness. It is sitting silently together on the porch. It is friendship in Jesus.
We simply cannot experience community today unless we take some different approaches to life. To have these kinds of relationships, we must disengage from things, even good things, that work against our own human formation and the formation of human bonds with others.
If we want community, we may have to consider ways of changing our very style of living.