I do not often read a book twice before reviewing it, but I did this one. The title is a little misleading. NOT FROM HERE: WHAT UNITES US, WHAT DIVIDES US, AND HOW WE CAN MOVE FORWARD (Chicago: Moody, 2019), lead me to think it was going to be a book about the clash of cultures in today’s America. It is that, but not really. It is more Brandon J. O’Brien’s memoir of being born and raised in rural northwestern Arkansas, attending graduate school in suburban Chicagoland, and finally settling in Manhattan, the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City. O’Brien’s life experience has enabled him to understand that most obvious cultural division in America, the urban/rural divide.
Americans traditionally characterize their world as being composed of two very distinct cultures, rural and urban, a false dichotomy that overlooks the fact that most Americans live in what are called the suburbs. This skewed picture of America can be seen in literature, television sitcoms, and advertising. It is a staple in political campaigns, when politicians promote the notion of a cultural war between “the America of the heartland [which] stands for traditional values and faith and neighborliness and the America of the coasts [which] stands for progressive (probably European) values and secularism and greed” (p. 14). Politicians in particular encourage this false dichotomy while at the same time insisting that Americans are all, or mostly all, members of the so-called middle class.
Rural Americans are pictured by their urban counterparts as unsophisticated, naive, poorly educated, lacking in social skills, and provincial to the extreme. Rural Americans in turn characterize urbanites as lost souls in search of true happiness and meaning for their lives that ultimately can only be found in the idyllic world of small towns and green pastures. O’Brien, who is a Christian writing for a Christian audience, wants to point out that Christians carry these characterizations over into the church. Where there should be unity within the Body of Christ, there is a culturally imposed diversity that hampers the mission of the Church and hinders true fellowship and joy within the family.
The truth is that we Christians are shaped in part by the cultural environment into which we are born and live. Being “born again” saves us from the burden of guilt we inherited as children of Adam and Eve, but it does not instantaneously change our personalities. We are products of our environment—geographic, cultural, social, economic, and so much more. There are aspects of our “B.C.” personality that will change for the better only through conscious and persistent effort.
Brandon O’Brien reflects on the cultural shock he experienced moving to suburban Chicagoland from northwestern Arkansas. He experienced the clash of Christian fundamentalism, a state of mind rather than a theology, and the more academically influenced evangelicalism. Later he moved his family to Manhattan where the cultural environment was largely secularized. Back in rural America the fundamentalist response to the influence of modern culture was “resistance and withdrawal.” In Manhattan the cultural war was already over when the O’Briens arrived, and the Christians had lost.
An important message that O’Brien wants to get across to his readers is that if Christians want to be salt and light in this postmodern world, if we want to, as our Lord has commanded us, witness to the Gospel in a hostile cultural world, we must not withdraw from the world. We must not expend our energy in pointless battles that cannot be won, and should not be fought. We must look to and learn from our extended family around the world living in culturally hostile environments. We must accept the reality that we do not live in one of those gilded ages of church history when the hills, valleys, and cities were alive with great revivals. We must acknowledge that much of what we identify as biblical Christianity is only excess Western cultural baggage. Secularization of culture has been a blessing in disguise for the preaching of the Gospel. As the late Francis Schaeffer taught, we must meet the lost where they are at. We must present the unaltered, simple good news that the tomb is empty. “He has risen; He has risen indeed!”
I think that NOT FROM AROUND HERE is an appropriate title for this book. We Christians are only temporary residents wherever we find ourselves in this world. We are only passing through, called like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to tell others of what we have seen and heard.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and live under the mercy.