America is a Franchise Operation – Further Thoughts on a Particular God

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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.

10 comments:

  1. I wonder if this is not what it means to live a sacramental life? To refuse to be submerged by the general, invoking the Holy Spirit in blessing as we go. Jesus said the very hairs of our head are numbered.

  2. I like that description, Michael. By the way, on the hairs, some of us don’t have to count as high as we used to. 🙂

  3. I did a double take last night when I saw my blog on your blogroll. I must say I am very honored and surprised. Thanks you for that. Once I figure out my own blogroll I’ll add you to mine. God bless, and do continue the great posts.

  4. Fr. bless,

    Another point for the above is that ‘particularity’ is, it would seem, the very definition of the word ‘Holy.’ Since the Hebrew for holy (Qadosh) means “Set apart (to the LORD),” it seems that one little word (3 letters in Hebrew!) underlines everything you’ve said. (ie how can something be especially “set apart to the LORD” if everything is?)

    Do you suppose (I’m musing here, for your consideration) that the advent of “everything’s holy…whenever, wherever you like it” is a result of the whole enlightenment/egalitarian movement? Not only do we see the abolition of monarchies, but also Church hierarchies and also particular holy things (eg reformation iconoclasm, anticlericalism), the progeny of which can be seen in what you’ve described. Just a thought.

    pray for me, a sinner.
    -Lucas

  5. Lucas,

    Indeed, I think that’s part of the history of this sort of thought. Strangely, when everybody can vote, a majority of people don’t. When everything is holy, most things or nothing is holy. It’s a paradox and yet the observation is true.

    The first is a slogan “Everything is holy” and is true. But in practice doesn’t work.

    On the otherhand, the paradox does work (as it so often does). Once I know what Holy is, I learn that it is everywhere.

    After I first became Orthodox, there is a sort of habit formed of greeting icons with the sign of the cross and a bow. If you’re a priest these can become quite numerous.

    One day, I unthinkingly greeted my wife at home with the sign of the cross and a bow. I certainly intended to venerate her, though this was not the proper form (at present – I’ll wait until she is later canonized). But I also realized that it was indeed one of the ways I saw her (as a holy person). It was a small mistake that was true.

    It’s so much better to accidentally show reverence for your wife in a churchly manner, than to never reverence her at all in any manner. She has become one of my favorite icons.

  6. In New Mexico, one can get a McDonald’s double cheeseburger with green chile.

    Anyway, I like what you say. It is preceisely what St. Paul says about how to live in this world though we are crucified with Christ: “redeem the time.”

  7. What is the difference between a ‘franchised culture’ here in the US and a similarly unconscious and dominating ‘traditional culture’ – be it Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, etc.? What is the difference between the American layout of various chain stores, and the traditional layout of a brasserie in France, a bazaar in the Arab world, etc.?

    Is this observation one of America, or of the human condition?

  8. I think my experience of American franschised culture, which I cannot compare with others as well (though, frankly, I did not find English village culture to be as yet all that franchised) – is the mass culture – the fact that no matter where you go what you find is the same, such that distance and place begin to lose any relevance. I spent two weeks in England, for instance, and found most of the villages and pubs to be rather unique. Most of our mall culture could occur almost anywhere. I don’t mean to exaggerate too much. Forgive if I have.

    I ceratinly do not think it is a comment on the human condition so much as the growing modern condition, of which America is merely a leading edge.

  9. It is not that everything is holy, in a fallen world that is not true, but everything can be restored by the Grace of God. We must here, as well, resist the temptation to generalize His Grace. It is specific and we are each responsible to transmit whatever Grace we have received from Him. It is, more often than not, physical acts that transmit the Grace. Fr. Stephen’s greeting of his wife. The acts of daily living done with an awareness God’s presence. Simple things done well and in humility. Taking time to pay attention to the people, the human beings, around you. How hard this is for me. It is so much easier to “theologize”. Jesus is fully God and fully man. When we generalize we are forgetting the fully man part.

  10. I also didn’t mean to be too sharp. I have simply thought that ‘local’ happens to a different degree when travel is easier. Popping down to the shops in England would be a 10-15 minute walk, and a 10-15 minute drive in the US. The distances are different, but the time and effort about the same. Regional culture moves from town to county to metro area to state to… what we call in the US a ‘region’ (Northeast, Upper Midwest, Great Plains, the West, the Northwest, Southern California, etc.). When we travel, we look to go places that we recognize, that we can ‘see’. So, we stop at TGI Friday’s, McDonald’s, Barnes & Noble, etc.

    Similar things are happening because of the ease of communication, inlcuding television. How we perceive culture, the good life, the way things are “supposed to be” is formed by media and our increased interactions with each other. We begin to ‘recognize’ things in different ways. The speed of fashion has sped up, but it is the same in every culture.

    There are real dangers in maintaining one’s values and passing it on to the next generation, especially when the majority culture does not share one’s values or taste. But, that was true in the first centuries of Christianity, and under the Turks and Mongols and Poles and Austrians and Communists. It was also true for the non-Orthodox in Russia and the Roman Empire.

    There are also real dangers because of the power of modern culture to effect the results it wants. It’s like the old question about what the difference was between the attempted holocausts by Hitler and Ataturk – Hitler was better organized and mechanized. The goal was the same, but the means were ‘better’. Modern culture may be doing much the same as all majority cultures do to minority opinions, but it is more comprehensive, pervasive, and effective in realizing its goals. God help us.

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