There is No “There,” There

“There is no ‘there,’ there” famously wrote Gertrude Stein in Everybody’s Autobiography.  Gone from her hometown of Oakland for some time, she returned, looking for her childhood home.  The house was not there: Stein’s “there” was nowhere to be found.

Mark Edmundson[1] used Stein’s quote to highlight the vulnerability of his college students:

At a student party, about a fourth of the people have their cellphones locked to their ears. What are they doing? “They’re talking to their friends.” About? “About another party they might conceivably go to.” And naturally the simulation party is better than the one that they’re now at (and not at), though of course there will be people at that party on their cellphones, talking about other simulacrum gatherings, spiraling on into M.C. Escher infinity…

During a class one day Edmundson took a poll.  He asked his students, “How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?”  Between cells, texts, Macs, iPods, books, and an occasional glance at the teacher, some surpassed the level of 10.  Edmundson concludes, “Be everywhere now—that’s what the current technology invites, and that’s what my student’s aspire to do.”

Last week I was invited to be a consultant for a Christian college.  My task was to listen, to be an outside voice responding to what I saw in a day dedicated to training student leaders.  I am concerned about life’s distractions, a product of dichotomy, division, and disassociation rooted in the effects of Genesis 3.  My report stated that unity is the essence of community—functioning with one voice, in one direction, on one mission.  Distraction and fragmentation, both results of sin, force our minds in too many directions, mandate that we do too many things, and belong to too many organizations.  The myth of multitasking, born of our humanistic tendency toward omniscience and omnipresence, emphasizes diversity over unity, individuality over community.  The Hebraic concepts of shalom and sabbat suggest that our finite, fallen selves should focus on a few things instead of many things.

Simply put, we want to be God.  Our puny attempt to usurp Heaven’s throne was a grasping for authority not our own.  We want to be all things to all people.  We want to control all situations.  We want to be everywhere at once.  We want, we want, we want.  The prefix “omni-“ suggests “every” and “all,” the same spirit found in Edmundson’s students; the same spirit found in us all.

Is there a solution to our pompous belief that “every” and “all” belong to us?  What is the response to a world that desire’s to be everywhere, but finds there is “no ‘there,’ there?”  Humans are tied to one place at one time whether we like it or not.  Electron feeds are not atomic feet—flesh and bone resident here, at this moment in time, as I sit in my chair.

Peggy Noonan rightly complains to journalist friend who is a podcaster “that he seems to be speaking from No Place.”[2] In the educational world, Suzanne Kelly is correct that institutional foci and loci must be on “the embodiment of learning.”[3] In short, we must find a place.[4]

A “theology of place” includes everything from geography to property rights.  Where one calls “home” is rooted in all people.  This is because God has set the time and place for all people to live (Acts 17:26).  I believe disjointedness evidenced in our electronic world, a result of Genesis three, can be overcome by rootedness, the intention of Genesis one.

Dr. Mark Eckel has written a “theology of place” practicing his rootedness at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN

[1] http://chronicle.com/free/v54/i27/27b00701.htm

[2] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121874344365941765.html?mod=djemEditorialPage

[3] http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i46/46b02001.htm

[4] Ray Oldenbury.  1999. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. 3rd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo).

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