Religion & Liberty Online

Rod Dreher on Community, Calling, and Life with Limits

little-way-ruthi-lemingIn his forthcoming book, author and journalist Rod Dreher chronicles his journey back to his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, in “the wake of his younger sister Ruthie’s death.”

After spending time in St. Francisville during the final months of his sister’s life, Dreher, who left his hometown as a teenager and bounced around from city to city in the years proceeding, was struck by the support and generosity his sister received from the community.

In a column written shortly after Dreher’s decision to move back, David Brooks summarized the key drivers of Dreher’s homecoming:

They wanted to be enmeshed in a tight community. They wanted to be around Ruthie’s daughters, and they wanted their kids to be able to go deer hunting with Mike. They wanted to be where the family had been for five generations and participate in the rituals ranging from Mardi Gras to L.S.U. football. They decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community.

The book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, sets out to further explain this experience and, in the process, emphasize the importance of community. Dreher, who writes regularly at The American Conservative, is well known for his communitarian views, yet despite falling short at times on the role of the market in shaping community life, he is not overly eager to push us into a Wendell-Berry cookie cutter, recognizing that technology does have its benefits, even in community life. In a recent back-and-forth with Acton’s very own Jordan Ballor, Dreher noted that “the localism and the kind of conservatism I favor will in many cases only be feasible through the Internet.”

Finding a “balance” or “fusion” or “integration” in this wide overlap between and across economic mobility and stable community life is a tricky thing for us to understand and respond to. Based on what I’ve heard and read thus far, I trust that Dreher’s latest work will offer plenty of good meat for us to chew on when it comes to processing this and challenging our various perspectives.

In the latest Acculturated podcast, Dreher discusses the book with Ben Domenech and Abby Schachter, offering some strong challenges to modern America’s often distorted approach to flourishing. Toward the end of the discussion, Domenech asks what advice Dreher would give to a young person struggling to preserve some sense of community while contemplating things like vocation, career, and basic economic wherewithal.

Dreher’s response hits just the right notes, explaining how there’s no single path to the features he’s elevating. For Dreher, it ultimately comes down to active obedience, discernment, and attention to both individual calling and our basic human need for community:

I don’t think there is a pat formula for this sort of thing. In my sister’s case, she always knew that she was born to stay here. This is the place that made her happy, St. Francisville. Me, I had to get out of here and prove myself in the world in order to be able to come back, and, as readers of the book will see, there was a lot of tension between my sister and me over this. She had a lot of resentment against me for leaving town and leaving the family. She took it as a personal rejection and we were never able to fully resolve that before she died, and that’s one of my deepest regrets in life.

I’ve tried to tell her daughter, Hannah, who is 19—Hannah is also as restless as I was—I’ve told her, don’t ever feel guilty that you have to stay here to do what the family wants you to do, because maybe God has a call on your life to go elsewhere: to New York to New Orleans to Paris, or maybe just down the road to Baton Rouge. The fact is, each of us has a call on his or her life and that’s what you should listen to.

On the other hand, do not accept what we might call in religious terms “the false Gospel of American prosperity”—the idea that life is meant to be limitless, that you are exactly what you choose and that you can freely choose and choose and choose and there are no ultimate limits on the way you live. We can’t live that way. Death will come for all of us…

…I would simply say to young people who are getting ready to make these choices themselves as they go out in life, do what you’re called to do, look deep inside your heart, pray if you pray, and do what you feel led to do, but never ever forget that we are all dependent on each other. We are dependent on God and we are dependent on each other. The day will come in your life when you will need your neighbor and you’re going to need your family. Always keep that in mind.

Listen to the full podcast here.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.