2016-06-30
During April's Independent Film Festival of Boston, a local arts function for which I volunteer, a friend of mine introduced me to a woman who had just arrived to town.

"We're losing Patton," my friend explained. "He is about to move to Colorado Springs." The woman's eyes widened.

"Why would you move there?" she asked, her disgust palpable.

"Well, I'm from there."

"But why move there?"

"It's home. There's family there. Good friends. We have a baby now. It makes sense."

"But aren't you scared you'll become some kind of televangelist?"

I tried to explain that she was thinking of Tulsa, or Southern California, or the Southeast, but it was no good. "No, no-Colorado Springs, that's where all the big televangelists are." I tried again, glossing the difference between, say, Compassion International, a Springs-based relief agency, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, a California-based televangelist empire. She shook her head. I came up with a reason to walk away.

Her Colorado Springs is not my Colorado Springs, but I understand why the shades of distinction are lost on her. They are hard to discern from afar. A recent Harper's magazine piece by Jeff Sharlet won't help, because its Colorado Springs is not my Colorado Springs, either.

The article, part of a feature on the "Christian Right's War on America," is an account of my nondenominational church ("America's most powerful megachurch"), New Life Church, and features interviews with my pastor and some dear friends. In the pages of Harper's, some of these loved ones are made to appear not just conservative, but narrow (there is a difference), and sometimes downright spooky.

The article emphasizes the city's conspicuous peculiarities: people believe in demons and talk to Jesus; a neo-conservative streak runs through the city; Bush is seen as a godsend; some folks have highly nationalist views of American history; evangelical ministries have transformed the region, and now evangelicals congregate there because, well, evangelicals congregate there. As David Brooks has argued, communities become more like themselves all the time, so just as Boulder's population of liberal mountain bikers has grown over time, so Colorado Springs' population of transplanted evangelicals has grown over time. Those observations are true of Colorado Springs, and I can't fault Sharlet for making them.

But the piece has kept me up nights and has been the subject of long conversations for days on end. Friends in Colorado Springs are aghast at what they consider to be a misrepresentation of their city, their theology, and their political-cultural affiliations. Friends in Boston are aghast that a place like Colorado Springs really exists, and that someone like me could be from there, and that, horror of horrors, someone like me could choose to return.

Return I will. This summer, my wife and I will pack up our cramped urban condo and leave the physical claustrophobia of Boston for the cultural claustrophobia of Colorado Springs.

What's it like to be "middled?"

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  • Actually, that's too easy, another Red-State/Blue-State distinction that works for the Op-Ed pages, but does not get us close enough access to reality. Boston's liberal elitism can feel just as frustratingly narrow and claustrophobic as anything in Evangelicaldom. And there's more to Colorado Springs, and more to the city's conservative religious element, than the media has ever took care to cover. For every arcane Bible study, there's a benevolence group caring for the city's poor. The churches may respond to Asian tsunamis and Middle Eastern wars by sending missionary teams, but they also send aid dollars and volunteer medical professionals. Christians in the area may, like millions of people in America, gravitate away from established neighborhoods toward new housing and shopping developments, but many others intentionally remain, or move into, the city's center. And recently, the megachurch has used its purported power for purposes that the readers of Harper's might applaud, namely in reminding evangelicals that social justice and environmental care are also moral values.

    I mean not only to defend the city. I mean to complicate automatically pejorative views, but, like many Colorado Springs Christians, I am sympathetic to concerns about the city's evangelical hegemony. I know the problems. I've lived the problems. I've been the problems.

    And now, I'm middled.

    This middle-ness is one of the key markers of my identity. While my wife and I lived in Colorado Springs in the first couple years of our marriage, we loved our Christian friends, but we were also desperate for contact with anyone who didn't fit into the evangelical mold. As a young, white, Christian couple, we had many dear friends, but not diverse friends. We finally started a citywide film society to broaden our relationships, and through those monthly screenings and discussions of films like Chinatown, Barton Fink, Vertigo, Annie Hall, and dozens more, we met people who forced us to think differently, speak differently, in order to cross the divide between them and us. It was good exercise. But after moving to Boston in 2001, we encountered the same problem in reverse. Suddenly, we were the only young, white Christian couple, with our interests, educations, reading lists, and aspirations. People here were warm and inviting, and they generously accepted us, but still we longed for the Christian community we had left behind.

    We were drawn to both communities, but our communities were not drawn to each other. We were middled.

    In Boston, whether I'm reading the Globe and the New York Times, watching the aftermath of the presidential election, or attending parties, I receive constant reminders that the watchful eye of the Left is glowering at my hometown. Likewise, friends back home call and email with wonderment at what they see as the hopeless turmoil of leftist politics: war protests, same-sex marriage amendments, overreaction to everything coming from the mouth of Larry Summers.

    Living on both sides of the divide, physically as well as mentally, I have acute knowledge of, and sympathy for, the way one side feels about the other. Both are incredulous, shocked, dismayed that the other could choose to think, believe, feel, behave that way.

    I understand their disagreement, for the same disagreement is happening inside me. The Right and Left, Red and Blue fault line is running right through me, and while I can locate specific separations, leaning left on this, right on that, and explain those separations to myself, as a citizen of polarized America, it is tortuous to make the twain meet.

    But the twain do meet-they collapse on top of people like me.

    Andy Crouch has argued that the way to change culture is to create more culture. For now, that's the best alternative to middle-ness I can imagine. Maybe my wife and I cannot bridge the divide in ourselves or in our culture(s), but we can push up against both sides. We can be who we are, where we are, and let our cultural confusion instead be a cultural modesty, a thoroughgoing ambivalence that is really a robust, knowing humility. Maybe we can find our way by loving both Colorado Springs and Boston, warts and all, never really leaving either, but making the middle our home.

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