When I moved to southern California in the summer of 2007, I felt like I’d been there before. I had. When I was 11, my grandmother drove me, my brother, cousin, mother, and aunt from Colorado to Los Angeles to visit Disneyland. It was amazing.
But what I experienced as a transplant was more than nostalgia. I inexplicably felt at home in a way I hadn’t in previous moves. The freeways, the landscape, the climate: everything about the place felt familiar.
Robert Kaplan’s Earning The Rockies is helping me understand why. It’s because California is The West, and I, having grown up in Denver, am from The West. I just didn’t know it until California.
I was 31. I had lived in Kansas, Missouri, Northern Ireland, and New Jersey since leaving home in 1994. All of those locales had things about them that took getting used to: the unbroken horizon in the plains; the east coast traffic circle; the dense forests of the midwest. Nothing about relocating west in 2007 presented such an adaptation challenge. I felt like I knew the place from the day we unloaded our truck.
Kaplan’s central thesis is that the geography of the American content is inseperable from its politics and its identity as a world leader, even as, yes, an empire. It also seems to me that this country’s geography shapes us, it’s citizens, in ways we don’t fully understand. We are Western, Mid-western, Eastern, and Southern without realizing it (maybe the Southerners realize it–I’ve never lived there, but everyone Southern I know possesses a strong sense of regional identity).
Kaplan’s thesis must also hold for churches too, right? The institutional rigor of churches I’ve experienced in the Midwest and the East is a stark contrast to the relaxed and flexible posture of the churches in Colorado and its Western neighbors, and much of that has to do with the geography of the places that birthed those churches.
The Chicago church I serve now is older than the city that held the California congregation I served. It is and always has been a metropolitan institution. My previous church emerged on a citrus grove after WWII. That makes for very different kinds of churches with very diffeent sets of instincts.
I close this meandering reflection on geography with one of the more prescient observations from Earning The Rockies, about the global and geographic forces at work in this country’s past and future.
Much of this territory fills out the lower 48 only because the United States won a military and political contest with Mexico in the 19th century: to repeat, another morally ambiguous legacy that later helped the country right the world in two great wars in the century following. With Spanish language culture surging back, as it has been for decades now, traditional American Protestant culture is not only being made more nuanced by a new Global Cosmopolitan culture but by a specifically old world, Counter Reformation Catholic culture to the south, furthering America’s dissolution into the planetary maelstrom.