Belmont Pastors and Fishtown Churches
OK, so I am finally getting through the stack of reading that accumulated during the school year, and finally read a book that was all the buzz about five months ago. The good news is that you can finally get it at your local library, and the price is already dropping at your local bookstore. So if you missed it when it came out, you’re in luck. The book is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (Cox & Murray, 2012).
This book is not a Christian book, but a cultural analysis of my own dominant culture, and, frankly the best of its kind that I have read since D. A. Carson’s Gagging of God. I still recommend that you read Carson’s book: it is more comprehensive and packs in a lot of background analysis that is not in Coming Apart. But read Coming Apart, too, because the evolution of culture described in the Gagging of God has not stopped. The America in which we live today is not Clinton’s America, much less Reagan’s America, and most certainly is not JKF’s America (the starting point of Murray’s study). America has changed and is changing (as anyone who pauses to lift his head above the fury of the presidential campaign ads can clearly see). We live in a country that is “coming apart,” not so much in the sense of being morally adrift (though that’s part of it), but one that is breaking very painfully into classes that cannot understand one another—classes represented in Murray’s book by the two fabricated communities of Belmont and Fishtown.
It is impossible to reduce 350 pages to a blog entry, but what impressed me most significantly for the purposes of those who read this blog is the fact is that many seminary-trained pastors train in bubbles with Belmont values on marriage, industry, honesty, and religiosity for ministerial careers in bubbles with Fishtown values on the same topics. And they sometimes fail in Fishtown and have no idea why (hint: it’s not a problem solved by using smaller words, finding musical concord, or crafting out more culturally appropriate sermon illustrations). The problem runs far deeper, and I think Murray has plumbed some of those depths. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the American population, who live rather obliviously in their situations either in Belmont and Fishtown bubbles, will find the book terribly dull and may even resent it (for reasons, incidentally, found right in the book). But if you want to understand how your culture thinks, the book is an eye-opener and a mind-stretcher.
Mark, would you care to offer more than the parenthetical hint in your last paragraph? I’ve read Murray’s book, I both grew up and trained in Belmont, and now I’m an outreach pastor of sorts to lifelong Fishtown residents. I use smaller words (NIrV) and try to craft culturally appropriate sermon illustrations, and I read Murray for insights that might spawn other means of reaching across the cultural divide. I’m not sure I got anything else: the main thing I got out of Murray was that marriage is dying out in Fishtown—and I already knew that from experience. I have pressed home 1 Cor 6:9 to immoral couples (I did it yesterday evening on a Fishtown porch, in fact), and that’s most of what I know to do.
I got a little more help from “When Helping Hurts,” written by men at the Chalmers Center at Covenant Theological Seminary. But if you’ve got more wisdom to share I’m eager to hear.
Mark, I think what most impressed me the “bubble thickness” quiz and its import for seminary education. We all tend to think that everyone is pretty much like us–same IQ, same values, same language, same logic. And when I can’t get through to our audience, we assume they must be obstinate. First we get frustrated, then become sarcastically pedantic, “dumbing things down” to accommodate. And the harder we try the more frustrated we become because they just don’t “get it,” not realizing that they’re thinking the same thing: “He just doesn’t get it.”
The reality is that a “Fishtown” culture is as foreign to many American seminarians as, say, a Sub-Saharan culture might be. But we don’t realize it because, after all, the Fishtown residents live in OUR culture. And seminaries have trouble preparing students for Fishtown because (1) sometimes the professors themselves don’t understand Fishtown and, (2) even if they do, they can’t create a Fishtown culture for students to tinker with.
If nothing else, Murray convinced me that aspiring pastors should aspire, outside of class, to make their “bubble thickness” scores as high as possible before plunging into vocational ministry.
Just ordered it. Thanks for highlighting this.
Peter Robinson, host of Uncommon Knowledge for the Hoover Institution, interviewed Murray on this book. It is very interesting, and the format allows Murray to explain the ideas found in the book in good detail. The interview can be found here:
Sounds like a great read and I am definitely going to check out that interview!