Worlds Away

It’s amazing what distance can do. We’ve pushed past railroads and telegraphs to highways, airports, and smartphones, thinking we can shrink the world into a computer the size of our hand, or reduce the map to just a few hours in a noisy flying bus. But the distance remains as great as ever.

My brother picked me up from a little Idaho town just days before Christmas. It’s stunning how small that place feels. It has a state university, a good hospital, multiple shopping centers, and over twenty thousand residents. My own town has just ten thousand people more, but it seems a dozen times larger.

I’ve spent the past four and half years living in that small Idaho town, and my time there is growing short. I look back now on years of regrets, and lessons learned, and friendships formed, and lots of learning, most of it off-campus. In some ways I’m already starting to say my goodbyes. But just as I’m ready to leave this temporary home, I find I’ve been there long enough that I finally seem to be acclimatizing; that I have gained enough distance from my own home that the differences between the two worlds are finally becoming clear and recognizable.

We drove two thousand miles through Idaho mountains, Wyoming blizzards, Denver traffic, and the pancake-flat lands around Amarillo, finally to leave the DFW metroplex, find some real trees, and cross back into East Texas. It was a long ride, fueled by Mitchell’s music, supplemented by a blues playlist I whipped together, and lots of caffeine. Perhaps those three long days, miles of conversation, and hours of listening helped increase the distance. When at last we parked on the street in front of the house, and Mom and Caleb were standing in the driveway, Moscow, Idaho seemed like a half-forgotten dream.

But as the days began to unfold, I felt like half a stranger. Everything about being back felt so natural, but the very naturalness of it was striking. I spent eighteen years being shaped by this town, by this county, by these people, before I ever set foot in Idaho, and half a decade at a faraway college can give you perspective, but it can’t change who you are. I belong here in ways I never could have articulated until I had gone to a place where I did not belong.

I said that Moscow felt small, despite being roughly the same size. But that’s only if you count population. Nacogdoches is seven times the land area of Moscow. Where Muscovites scrunch together in tall houses in neat rows along tight streets which edge up to the city limits and suddenly end, Nacogdochians spread out along wider roads, accumulate land around even trailers and rent houses, and leave unused acres between neighborhoods shrouded in forest or marshy creek bottoms. Around the Christmas table there was some discussion of a man one of my relatives saw hunting in the city limits. That’s illegal in both cities, but it’s possible in Nacogdoches.

But the difference between the two places doesn’t lie just in the setup of the two towns. These things are just pointers for an entirely different mentality, an entirely separate imagination when it comes to man’s relationship to nature. Towns in Moscow’s Palouse region are all tight, densely-populated little areas, and the rare exceptions are usually farm houses that are often miles apart. But in Deep East Texas, the lines between country and city are blurred, with most farm-to-market and county roads sporting several houses in every mile-long stretch, but often with woods on either side, or across the road, and acres of forest or pasture behind, and a thicket in between. Nacogdoches County never seems to depopulate entirely, but you don’t really have to interact with people if you don’t want to. In the Palouse, unless you live on those rare, secluded farmhouses, you are interacting with neighbors, drunk college kids, and traffic all the time. In the Palouse, man is an intrusion into the wilderness, and the wilderness an intrusion into the civilized world. The two are largely separated by the city limits. In Deep East Texas, the relationship is tighter, blurrier, more symbiotic.

This carries over into a dozen different fields. Because Nacogdoches and the surrounding environment is so spread out, cars are not merely optional, they are necessary. It would take me half an hour to walk from the center of town to the city limits in Moscow. I know because I do it on a weekly basis. It takes almost as long for me to walk from our house in Nac to the closest grocery store. I know because I tried it. Once. In such a world, even the most resource-conscious, ecologically-minded individual can’t honestly suggest we abandon cars. The idea is ludicrous. Our world depends on them. But in Moscow, some of the local hippies think it’s a brilliant idea. After all, the co-op is only a block and a half away.

Speaking of resources, this is also a different world when it comes to that. The agriculture of the Palouse is all crop farming, but Deep East Texas is almost entirely invested in livestock. Well, if you chickens as livestock. But this means that there are thousands, even millions of acres of heavily forested land that do little besides stand as privacy fences between our houses, and shelter wild animals. So what do we do with them? Well, we farm the trees. On a lot of the bigger properties in the area, some of the forest is clear-cut and replanted on a regular basis. But elsewhere, the woods are kept wild for hunters. And in a place where the population is so spread out, and the wilderness is always so close to civilization, there are a lot of hunters.

This does interesting things to conservation in our part of the world. All those hunters want to make sure there will be plenty of game next year, so a solid chunk of the movement to protect Texas wildlife, regulate hunting, and stop poaching, is actually driven by hunters. In addition, all those wealthy businessman who own all the land, including the ones whose lands contain oil and natural gas, are also the ones constantly replanting trees. The hippies might keep the wilderness wild on the Palouse, but in Deep East Texas, where wilderness runs right up to the roadside, and people actually live in the sticks, a lot of the movement to protect mother earth is actually driven by folks on the right.

I could go on about the difference between the lands we live in and how we inhabit them, and how that effects our culture. For example, there are no mountains in East Texas, but there are also very few flat places. Where Idaho seems to have tall mountains, flat plains, or else the regular little bumps, like the Palouse hills, we have a constant ripple of big, irregular hills, ridges, creek bottoms, and gentle slopes. And all the high spots are covered in trees. So the Palouse has plenty of high vantage points from which you can look out on wide-open spaces, consider the wilderness before you, or the little urban grid of civilization. But East Texas is just a maze of trees, earth, water, and the occasional house or strip of businesses.

But the differences go beyond the land. Demographics are also telling. As of 2010, Moscow was 90% white. Nacogdoches is barely 50%. Spanish is a curiosity on the Palouse, but in Nacogdoches there are signs in Spanish, businesses dominated by Spanish-speakers, and every ad has to end in “se habla español,” or you simply wont get enough customers. But this is also the Deep South, and the black population is sizable. And this year, that meant quite a lot.

On the Palouse, race issues are something for socially-conscious, cosmopolitan individuals who have traveled the seven-hours-minimum it takes to get to the nearest large city. In Nacogdoches, our grandparents remember Jim Crow, and some of the millennials have biracial kids. If you plan on going to the grocery store, the mall, or a restaurant, or if your kids are going to the public library, playing soccer, or attend any school, how you treat people of different races matters. A lot. “Multiculturalism” is not a pretty word for “look at all these varieties of Northern European and that one Asian guy, aren’t we diverse?” It means you better be fairly progressive, or you may end up offending just about every other person you run into around town.

This year was interesting in that department. Through Facebook, I heard that the Texas KKK was going to hold its rally in Nacogdoches. This provoked a lot of uproar. Some were angry that such “ignorance” (a really interesting term, by the way) still existed. Some were angry that these racists had chosen our town to defile with their hate speech. Some people thought it was just whites showing their true colors. Others were afraid it would ruin Nac’s reputation. And there were a sizable number of people who were not worried about either reputations or scoring political points, but quite simply loved our town and did not want to see parts of it abused, or any of it divided against itself. Within a couple of days, a counter-rally was organized. The day came, the rallies were held, nothing really happened, and life moved on.

Then Ferguson happened. It was astounding watching my white liberal Northwestern friends flip out over this. It was like watching someone get worked up over a disaster in a faraway country. It was all about awareness and how the comfortable rich white people in America really should do something, because don’t we know we’re letting very bad men oppress victims in a place we’re clearly too privileged and secure to care about?

But what if black people are people? And so are cops? Not just skin tones or occupations? Not just victims or oppressors? And what if this isn’t a story you heard on the news, but an issue you actually have to deal with in your town, with your family, with your neighbors? I don’t know that I really believed anything different about the issues involved, but everyone in that discussion got painted with a broad brush by many of my Northwestern friends, and tones got shrill, and somewhere amid the tweeting and instagramming and the Facebook posting, I stopped recognizing any world I knew, where actual racial diversity is an issue, and just saw another stick for the right and the left to beat one another up with.

And if I was disconcerted by that discussion while living in the Palouse, going home was truly strange. Here were people who remembered Jim Crow because they lived it. Here were people who remembered MLK because he was marching in this direction at one time. It wasn’t just mythology learned from TV. They actually had to respond to these guys, to talk to them face to face. Here there are people whose parents grew up in segregation, but who went to school themselves after integration. Affirmative action became cool by the time I was growing up, and we actually have a college in town with multiple races of people applying. The people here saw the evolution from institutional racism into a world where inequalities exist, but no laws can be pointed to, where we are all at least nominally progressive and integrated, but we now have to figure out how to live in a world shaped by two or three centuries of bad blood.

How do you do that? How do you do that when people have names, not just skin colors? How do you do that when confronted with the reality that every “race” has both good, honorable people, and “thugs,” and every type of person in between? Muscovite liberals stand at a distance, and what they see no doubt actually exists. But Nacogdochians live there, and the issues are not so simple, and are far, far more human.

I’m a Christian, and when individual or societal sins become an issue, it’s preachers, rather than pundits, I run to. And that marks another world of difference between Moscow and Nacogdoches. We are two and half hours from Houston, three and half from Dallas, and about two from Shreveport. This area is heavily populated, and it is deep in the Bible Belt. There are radio stations with preaching and teaching from morning until night, and even the famous preachers don’t live that far away. Another station will give you continuous praise and worship music, and those bands tour here. Drive north or south and you will run into a town with a Christian college or university, usually a Baptist one.

The Palouse is different. Idaho is on the fringe of the nation’s “Unchurched Belt.” Moscow has a Catholic church, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, one or two Baptists, a Church of Christ, a Lutheran, a Nazarene, and a handful of campus-oriented non-denominational churches. There is also a small complex of churches in my denomination that is very tight-knit, draws a lot of people from out of state, and totals upwards of a thousand people. They are by far the loudest presence. But add all those up, and it really isn’t much. The college is larger than the sum of all the churches, and many of those churches are fairly middle of the road or left-leaning. They are not exactly the up-in-arms, culture-warring religious right I grew up with. There is no radio station where you can listen to them constantly, and various atheist and humanist alliances are frequently more vocal, and the local Muslim community is just as visible as any of them.

It’s a world apart. Christianity dominates here, despite a major state university being smack dab in the middle of town. Every “ethnic group” seems dominated by church-goers. There are black churches, Spanish-language churches, white-dominated churches, and mixed-race community or campus churches. Big churches are counterbalanced by small churches, and for every mainstream Baptist church there is a tiny cult out in the woods. When we switched denominations, I didn’t even know that “Presbyterianism” existed, but the Nacogdoches area has quite a few Presbyterian and Reformed churches, from PCUSA to Cumberland Presbyterian to my own denomination. There are two Catholic churches in Moscow–one on campus and one off–but there are four in Nacogdoches. And that’s deceptive, because the entirety of Idaho is in the Diocese of Boise, but the diocese that encompasses Nacogoches could fit easily in one of the Diocese of Boise’s six deaneries.

We are quite simply more churched. Which is not to say we are godlier, or more holy. Where there are more people who profess, there is, after all, more opportunity for hypocrisy. But Christianity does pervade the culture in a way it simply does not on the Palouse. So when someone from the Palouse talks about fundamentalists or the religious right, they are talking about something small, and on the fringe, and in dialogue with many other points of view, including an almost-dominant secular world. But when a Nacogdochian talks about it, were are talking about what is almost the majority. The moderates of Moscow would be the left of Nacogdoches, or so it seems. And the humanists that sometimes dominate the U of I campus seem like the crazy fringe here in Nac.

There are other differences, too. Nac has a large population of wealthy people and large population of poor and working class people with almost no true “middle class.” The vast majority of Muscovites fall into that middle class, with their “poor” mostly being lower-middle and their “rich” being mostly upper-middle. So socio-economic distinctions seem to matter less there. Then again, a lot of Moscow’s middle class seems less down-to-earth than some wealthier Nacogdochians I have known.

Recreation is also different. Deep East Texas is filled with lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, and watering holes. Swimming, boating, and fishing is a way of life. We are also just a day’s drive from the Gulf Coast. Moscow is dominated by hills, the creeks are few, far between, and frequently small. The largest lake in the area is not much bigger than some cow ponds I have seen. The ocean is at least seven hours away, across mountains and desert. So hiking seems to replace swimming, and fishing or boating means going quite a ways out of town. Also, they have a winter with actual skiing. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Cuisine is different, too. The Palouse seems to be big on soups, and breads, and pastas. A lot of fairly bland, but servicable stuff. Spicy food is a curiosity. East Texas takes Mexican, homestyle cooking, soul food, Cajun, BBQ, and whatever else we can get our hands on and tosses it all together. I’ve seen a lot more picky eaters on the Palouse, but the pickings here are generally more diverse, frequently far spicier, and meat takes up a far larger portion of the plate. Seafood is also more common. And we have crawfish. Some Muscovites I’ve known had never heard of such a thing.

There are also different attitudes when it comes to occupations. Nac is friendlier to people in the oilfield, hosts a lot more truck drivers, and logging is still a thriving business. There are still a fair amount of farmers, academics, and people in service professions, just like Moscow, but Nac does seem to have a more traditional blue-collar tone. Which may add to the difference in the way Nacogdoches and Moscow seem to experience socio-economic distinctions.

All this came home in a big way during church last Sunday. Back among people who spoke with a drawl, ate Mexican food, and had all survived Houston traffic at some point in their lives, everything took on a different tone. Large chunks of Scripture spilled across a congregation where being Christian was commonplace, but believing and living these words meant everything. We partook in a Lord’s Supper that included wine in a place where many Christians were teetotalers. Afterwards, we had a fellowship meal, heavy on meat, including venison. When we left, we all drove, many of us out of town.

But more than anything, what I carried away that day was the realization that these people believed in a sovereign God who was a God of love. That love included every person, black or white, whether they spoke English, or Spanish–or something else–and regardless of whether they were rich or poor, regardless of whether or not their sins were the respectable kind that can be easily hidden or passed over in polite society. These people believed in a God who was coming to rescue every corner of Creation, from the deepest wilderness to the heart of Houston. They believed in a Christmas that meant salvation.

This is not to say that people on the Palouse did not believe in such things. But it was striking to me how much I could see it in the world and the faces that were familiar to me. It was striking that I found it so much easier to believe myself. In this part of the world, a part I had explored, and defined, and was familiar with, it just made sense, because it all fit together in a certain way.

When I was younger, I learned about “worldviews.” These were systems of belief or thought that separated Christian from secular humanist from Muslim. They were coherent, and shaped largely but what you were taught, and what you worshiped, if you worshiped. But one thing being so far from home taught me is that worldviews are far more complicated than a set of propositions you are taught to believe. They can’t be summed up easily in doctrinal statements or in party platforms. People are not so simple.

A worldview is messy. It can be shaped by how close together your houses are, how many people live out of town, and whether you can stand on top of a hill and see the world laid out before you. It can depend on whether “farmer” means “wheat and legumes” or “chickens and cattle.” “A hearty meal” means different things to different people, and “the fringe” is determined by the “mainstream.” How you spend a fine summer day may depend on how much water is in your region, and how far it is to the nearest city. Wealth and poverty are relative, and just as the rich and poor are defined differently in different towns, so they act differently in each unique circumstance. And national politics means different things to different parts of the nation.

At the end of the day, this doesn’t change what is absolutely true. People are people. They eat, drink, sleep, breathe, play, laugh, cry, marry, kill, forgive, hold grudges, age, and die.Good and evil are universal, right and wrong are universal, truth and falsehood are universal, beauty and ugliness are not simply social constructs, and the LORD alone is God. But it does mean that the world is far bigger than we can understand. We cannot pretend to take God’s perspective and stand outside our own definition of normal and our own understanding of how the world works. You and I can both subscribe to the Westminster Confession, and both vote along the same party lines, but as long as you live in your city, and I in mine, our worldviews may be nothing alike. We live in different contexts, and have a different story.

That is why generalizations can only take us so far. In the world of connectivity, easy travel, and easier communication, we can pretend the world is easily definable, but it’s not. A choice is never as simple as the politicians want to make it, a mystery is never so easy the academics can wrap their heads around it, and people are not so homogeneous that the philosophers and the psychologists can divide them up into categories and explain them away. We are made in God’s image, so we are creative, but we are creatures, so we are limited in strange and interesting ways.

At the end of the day, we can be humble and accept that, or we can try and force the entire world inside our heads, sit in the throne of God, and claim total objectivity–which is to say, total omniscience. We can pretend that the world is simple, that we understand it, and that the guy who disagrees with us is just pigheaded. But if we do, we will soon find ourselves either restricted to a very narrow corner of the world where we can remain sane, or adrift in an ocean that we do not understand, and that seems to have no place for us. The world is big, people are diverse, and universal truth has to touch down in places where limited people live, work, worship, mourn, and celebrate.

The details matter. Praise God for the details.