Watching the revival, I was struck by the similarities between the fictitious community and my hometown of Hampshire, Illinois. The habits of Stars Hollow, the routines and community events, the different characters and how their lives interact are all heightened but not too far from my own experience of growing up in Hampshire. Both small towns are charming, the routines familiar, the populations overwhelmingly white.
Hampshire’s streets are named after founding fathers, local families, and trees. In Hampshire every neighbor knows your name, even borrowing cups of sugar without any pretense or irony. It’s quaint, but we like it. We have our rituals too. Every March, when the snow melts and the flowers bloom, Twid and Smiley open up the Chick-N-Dip, home of the world’s best broasted chicken and soft-serve ice cream. As the days get longer and warmer, the kids start getting anxious for summers full of camping trips, baseball games, the Coon Creek Country Days Festival. In the fall, as the trees turn orange, red, and yellow, the Hampshire Whip-Purs face off against the Genoa Cogs and other area football teams. Eventually autumn gives way to winter and Twid and Smiley close up the Chick-N-Dip until March.
The rituals and comforts of Small Town, America, are not necessarily unique to Hampshire or Stars Hollow. The town names, local heroes, and mascots may change but Small Town, America, is a national institution. Of the approximately twenty-thousand incorporated places in the country, nearly 85% of them have populations under ten-thousand people as of July 1, 2014, according to “Random Samplings: The Official Blog of the US Census Bureau” in a May 2015 post titled “Growth in Small Town America.” Many of these small towns are situated just outside of major cities in the suburbs of the regional Midwest and South in the “flyover states.”
Despite the numbers, there is an anxiety that our increasingly pluralistic society is somehow a threat to the ritualistic comforts of Small Town, America. According to the 2010 Census data Hampshire’s population nearly tripled from 2000. In 2000 the white population of Hampshire was 98.25% of the whole and 2014 estimates suggest that now approximately 78.8% of the community is white. The 2010 Census shows both the Asian and Black population of Hampshire growing by around 2400% each. The town has felt the shift in its demographics.
When the housing market crashed in 2008, whole building developments around town stalled and puttered out. Just down the block, dirt mounds a decade old stand where foundations were dug but homes never built. Lots of trade guys in Hampshire lost their businesses and jobs in the market crash. Many of the storefronts in downtown are still empty. In the years since, as our economy has recovered, the trade guys are finding themselves competing in the job market with guys who they used to employ. When I talked to a neighbor about his political involvement in this election cycle, he commented on these changes with uncomfortable honesty: “We have to protect the rights of white guys like us—Christians, the way things are going. I just don’t like where we’re headed.”Settling back into life in my hometown has brought these familiar rituals and anxieties into focus. Sundays in the summer the dads of the neighborhood nod at each other as they cut checkered patterns in the grass, we all grumble about snow in the dead of winter, we go to the neighbor kid’s music recitals, and we wave to each other and ask how our days are going. These daily habits and rituals of Small Town, America, make up a cultural liturgy. Seasons may change, but some things never will.
In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith writes that “we are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends” (40). His Cultural Liturgies Project makes the argument that humans are affective and embodied creatures who are “shaped, primed, and aimed” by competing rituals, habits, and practices toward a certain telos, an image of “The Good Life.” The practices we participate in subconsciously and consciously illuminate our ultimate desires and form our characters and actions to that end. To change these liturgies, an emotionally more compelling telos needs to replace the current image “The Good Life.”
The picturesque life of Small Town, America—whether it be Hampshire or Stars Hollow—is an obvious image of “The Good Life.” Here individuals are gathered into communities with festivals and sugar-borrowing neighbors. The worst crimes are teenagers stealing their parents’ cheap beer and distracted drivers going 40 mph down a residential street. The schools are good. The rituals meant to preserve the posterity of Small Town, America, are attended to with a religious devotion called “The American Dream.”
“I have seen that Dream all my life,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his award-winning book Between the World and Me,
It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our [black] bodies. (11)
It is easy amongst the cornfields an hour outside of Chicago to think stories of systemic racism are a problem for someone else to deal with or, worse, think those stories are overwrought or untrue. It is easy here to think that if one doesn’t participate in individual racism or see the effects of it, then systemic racism and privilege don’t exist, not realizing the cultural liturgies I practice aim me at an exclusive telos. The practices shaping me toward “The Dream” are a privilege. When the community is 98.25% white, the concept of race is not a consideration. The only time I have to think about my race is when external experiences and competing liturgies compel me to. As small towns change and begin to reflect the diversity of the rest of the United States, the foundations of “The Dream” begin to crack and expose an ugliness thought to exist only in caricatures of inner cities and even more rural areas.In the wake of the 2016 Election, it’s hard to go a day without hearing some people claim they feel abandoned and exiled. The rural, white, evangelical population feels left behind as the shade of their communities change, and so they voted to “protect the rights” they fear they will lose. Younger evangelicals feel aggressively ignored and unheard. These frustrations, illustrated by Saturday Night Live in the recent sketches “Black Jeopardy” with Tom Hanks and “Election Night Watch Party” with Dave Chappelle, are not novel to minority communities. As demographics of small towns shift, white evangelicals will respond in myriad ways. The prophet Jeremiah, writing to the exiled Israelites, and to those of us today feeling the threat of an existential exile or in the midst of one, can guide our response:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:5-9)
In the shadow of exile, the prophet commends the people to form new liturgies benefiting the community of their exile, to form new relationships and produce goods for the flourishing of their neighbor. But Jeremiah also warns against listening to false hopes and promises of security. The election of Donald Trump as President and the subsequent fear of his administration in many ways represent giving ear to those whom the Lord did not send.On October 5, 2016, Netflix converted 200 coffee shops around the country into Luke’s Diner. Participating locations were given T-shirts and branded aprons. They had life-size cutouts of Luke himself with a word bubble complaining about cell phones. Transforming the local coffee shops into pastiches of Luke’s Diner afforded fans of the show the opportunity to emotionally experience and embody life in Stars Hollow for a moment. The consistent lifestyle of Stars Hollow and the liturgies of stability in Small Town, America, are comforting. Nonetheless, they are a misplaced hope built on the foundations of a false promise that “some things never change.”
Creating new formative and positive practices in the reality of a pluralistic society requires a visceral vision greater than Stars Hollow. Liturgies benefiting whole communities, liturgies of reconciliation need to be motivated by a right hope in the image of the good life in the Kingdom of God. A purely egalitarian society is not compelling on its own under economic and cultural stress, but the Kingdom of God is. The vision of the Father building His Kingdom on the sure foundation of His Son’s broken body and spilt blood leads us to repentance. The hope that the Risen Christ will right every wrong and make all things new inspires new rituals. Knowing the Spirit is setting right what our actions broke allows us the confidence to repent of our anxieties and prejudices. As the Son reconciles us to the Father we are able to reconcile ourselves to our neighbors, to love them as Christ has loved us.
“An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his June 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” Lending your neighbor a cup of sugar is one thing, but setting aside our comforts and laying down our anxieties so our neighbors might be able to lay down theirs and find similar comforts is another thing completely. As the seasons change in Stars Hollow, Hampshire, and small towns across America, white evangelicals need a biblical vision of the Kingdom of God that grab us by our guts and give us new rituals and habits for the benefit of the communities where we live.