My grandmother has the coolest name of anyone in America, guaranteed. Olena Sigurros Homfrieder Paulson Stager.
She’s probably also from the least cool place in America: Mountain, North Dakota. The population has never topped 220, and the size has never reached 0.15 square miles.
That is a provincial locale if there ever was one.
Gonna Die in a Small Town?
“Provincial”, of course, is usually a pejorative term. Backwater. Flyover country. Irrelevant.
I am reading a set of essays by someone who has been called provincial. He is also from North Dakota. As a novelist, Larry Woiwode lived for a time in New York City, but wrote about the North Dakota he felt connected to. Eventually he decided he needed to move back to North Dakota to learn whether the North Dakota he remembered, and the North Dakota that emerged in his fiction, was rooted in a semblance of facticity.
It was, and it wasn’t, as he says.
After living in New York, and in England, the most cosmopolitan Anglophone places on earth, ultimately his family re-settled in that provincial place.
Citizen of Nowhere?
“Cosmopolitan” is the strongest antonym of the adjective “provincial”. Originally “cosmopolitan” was a self-congratulatory word Enlightenment elites loved to have applied to them. It did not mean that they were Parisians or Londoners or Frankfurters. It meant that they were not citizens first and foremost of their own country. They were fundamentally citizens of the world. (Or technically of the cosmos.)
They abstracted themselves from the narrowness of their motherland. Even Paris was too provincial for such free thinkers. “Internationals” was still too constraining. They were supra-national. Cosmopolitan. They were enlightened, after all.
Wendell Berry has an essay in which he laments the academic institutionalization of agrarianism. Another way to say this is that he regrets the ism-ification of the agrarian intellectual movement. Somewhere along the way, the best agrarian writers and thinkers moved to places like Columbus, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. Places where they could get away from their provincial farming communities and the peculiar social and physical demands of such places. Places where they could think, write, and rub shoulders with … cosmopolitans.
Berry and Woiwode both say that the more distant you become from the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the dreadfully provincial places they’ve come to love, the more difficulty you have saying something truly valuable, unique, and believable. Why? Because you are not inhabiting a place that is utterly unique. You’re inhabiting, like those enlightened cosmopolitans, everywhere. Which is to say, you’re inhabiting nowhere.
Move Up in the World?
Tim Keller, a personal hero and inspiration, wants to see an emphasis placed on church planting in Global Cities. I get that. Maybe someday I’ll even do that. But for now I am in a smallish town. You probably are too. Should you move to the big city and plant a church? Maybe.
But maybe not.
And if not, embrace your small town. Delight in, and study closely, its provinciality. Don’t be bullied by the cosmopolitans. Instead, take heart and heed the words of Woiwode, Berry, and, last but not least, Chesterton:
“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men…In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized society groups come into existence founded upon sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery.”
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