When my family and I moved from Durham, NC to Oak Ridge, TN in 1989, I had all of the expectations of a child: new surroundings, new friends, a new community in which to work. It was inherently interesting to me.
Arriving as we did, at the beginning of December, among our first tasks as a family was the annual Christmas shopping (we had three small children at the time). One of our first forays into the commercial world of Christmas was to go to a toy store, a johor chain found nationwide. My wife, always well-prepared, had a list of items for purchase. She had also neatly divided the list so that we could split up and do the job in half the time.
Looking at my list, I commented out loud, “I wonder where these (some toy) are?”
My wife immediately said without looking up, “They’re over on aisle 6.”
I was astounded. “Beth, we’ve never set foot in this store in our lives. How do you know they’re on aisle 6?”
“They were there in the store in Durham. It’s the same everywhere.”
That’s when it hit me (for the first time): America is a franchise operation. Everywhere you go you are likely to have been there before. Traveling in England this past summer, the omnipresent McDonald’s and Burger Kings were (I’m ashamed to say) frequent stops on the way – guarantees that the teenagers would find something suitable on the menu.
This is a fact of our modern lives. Though we are particular persons who are called to relationship with a particular God, we are nonetheless surrounded by mass culture which does everything it can to eliminate particularity. Every McDonald’s hamburger should taste like every other McDonald’s hamburger.
Thus there is a temptation to live our lives in a franchised manner, as consumers of mass culture whose only worth is not in our particularity but in our wallets.
Reclaiming our value as persons in such a setting is a difficult task. Much of our askesis (spiritual discipline) is aimed in this direction. We fast, eating differently and intentionally, with reflection on the meanig of the day or season, thus refusing to become mere consumers.
We pray and offer thanks which transforms everything and anything into an offering to God, thus raising it to the level of a personal offering. Now this thing becomes something of great worth, no longer a product of our franchised culture but an offering of praise to God who made us all.
America is a franchise operation, in the midst of which we properly carry on subversive lives, redeeming the meaningless into the meaningful, drawing creation away from the empty abyss where mere consumerism would take it.
To stop on aisle 6 and to give thanks to the particular God for His particular blessings, changes that franchise, that aisle, and makes it like no other in the world.