On ‘Small Towns’, Metaphorically Speaking

Back in my seminary days there was a story that was told on campus that took on a bit of a life of its own. Distilled to its barest plot, the story involved a young woman challenging her professor over what was to her a shocking interpretation of a passage of Scripture. She asked, “If that’s true, why have I never heard this before?” And his response, much to his later embarrassment, was simply “Some of us are from small towns.”

While this story doesn’t demonstrate paedagogy at its best, it carries a simple but deep truth: We only see as much as we open our eyes wide enough to see.

There is a great comfort in what we already see and know; having our beliefs and presuppositions challenged is never easy. Having our minds broadened is always a bit painful and involves loss. So it’s understandable that communities with strong values and beliefs tend not to encourage intellectual exploration beyond the group. As an ancient Orthodox Christian hymn which always made me cringe puts it, “Our open minds have left us bewildered and confused.” It’s a mindset that is all too common.

A common complaint in conservative circles is the perceived liberalism of university campuses. All too often for their liking, these communities see their bright and faithful youth go to college and come back with vastly different value systems. While it may be easy to see this as evidence of a liberal agenda on campuses, to me — much as I’ve said previously about the media — it’s to some degree universities simply doing their job. The whole point of a liberal arts education is to be exposed to ideas, to think through your presuppositions and beliefs, to have your mind stretched and challenged. In some contexts, like for the young woman in the anecdote with which I started this post, it could be hearing a non-dispensationalist interpretation of Revelation; in others it could be simply engaging people from different backgrounds, or seeing great Truth in a religious text other than their own, or even just experiencing life in a different place.

Of course, ‘small towns’ are not the purview of conservatives alone. Everyone — liberal and conservative — can tend to ‘silo’ their exposure, only reading news or books or listening to opinions that reinforce their own. A liberal ‘small town’ may be broad and diverse but no less ‘small’ than its conservative counterpart.

Really, I have no point in writing this other than that it’s been on my mind. At the end of the day, I don’t want to live in a small town. I want to expose myself to the breadth of voices in society as much as possible. After all, it’s a democratic society and we ultimately have the same goals within all our diversity.

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