What constitutes community?

November 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

Dallas lovers around the world are mourning the very real death of J.R. Ewing. The man who played the part, Larry Hagman, died on Friday from throat cancer in the Texas city that gave the iconic television show its name.

I was not one of the legions of fans who for thirteen years turned on their televisions, banned non-advocates to the depths of the cellar or at least the kitchen, and settled down to watch the shenanigans play out at Southfork Ranch. I did not know what Southfork was until fifteen years later when my mother-in-law swooned at the prospect of going to Dallas. I had thought she would be interested in seeing the book depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. She was sombre as we toured that excellent museum but as we neared the ranch on the outskirts of Dallas she became alive, positively girl-like in her glee.

It was not that I was dismissive of the series it’s just because I was, in those days, part of another worldwide community, Expatland, and the countries in which we lived either did not have television at all, or were not privy to the delights of Dallas.

The national grief over Hagman’s death, the questions swirling the web about the viability of a resurrected Dallas without J.R., an article about the Disneyfication of churches and another on the judge who has sentenced a young man to attend church for ten years in lieu of jail time, have led me to wonder about community.

Community, or the perceived lack thereof, is an ongoing discussion within the expatriate blogsphere. How to feel engaged with both other expats and within the local population is an oft-asked question, particularly by those new to global living.

Perhaps we should apply the same question, slightly reworded, to our own neighbourhoods back home where, I am lead to believe by some, we feel disconnected by long commutes whether to work or school, fearful of rapists, paedophiles and gun-toting baddies on our streets which mean our children don’t play on them, and just too busy with our virtual lives that we miss real life trundling along under our noses.

If the, some might say, cynical approach of religious institutions are anything to go by, they have the answer. Build mega-plexes, or in the case of Lakewood Church in Houston refurbish an old sport’s arena, where attendees can relax in comfortable padded seats furnished with drinks holders. They can enjoy the show on giant screens strategically placed on either side of a stage looking remarkably unlike an altar, and free of religious symbolism that may tweak sensitivities.

Churches may consider themselves ‘mega’ when they have “a sustained weekly attendance of at least 2,000 people” says Nancy Sarnoff in the Houston Chronicle. The established, as well as the wannabe, mega-churches of America have asked the question, “How do we reach the unchurched?”

With the help of canny architects, now specialising in structures for the edification of the punters rather than the glorification of man at the helm of their chosen faith, predominantly Protestant, religious centres are springing up both in cities and their outlying suburbs.  Cavernous buildings offer sound and light extravaganzas, with a few hallelujahs and the odd line of a pertinent scripture, in what used to be known as the nave of the church. On offer too are walls lined with game consoles, foosball areas and cafeterias for those hungry for physical sustenance. Some of these religious institutions nestle in acres of landscaped gardens complete with Frisbee-throwing fields, volleyball courts and fishing ponds.

And it’s working. Communities are being built through these megachurches. But are these communities becoming blinded to those who possibly do not feel the need for such fervent and public veneration? Are they marginalising non-members? Are these massive conglomerates of piousness becoming so big that they take on the mantel of government? If Mitt Romney was to be believed, though as the outcome of the US presidential election showed he wasn’t, religious institutions were to take up the slack as far as caring for those less fortunate. Something the church has historically done anyway. Not however at the expense of government wherein the social safety net does come with certain caveats, religious attendance not being one of them.

So we come to the judge who apparently truly could not see his sentencing of a 17 year old youth, convicted of vehicular manslaughter, to church attendance for ten years as a violation of the separation of church and state. Judge Norman did not mandate which church should be attended but when challenged on his ruling he said, “I think Jesus can help anybody.”

Part of me understands Judge Norman’s reasoning. We all need to feel a part of something hence, sadly, the global proliferation of gangs in underprivileged neighbourhoods, but should the judiciary be defining religion as the linchpin of that belonging.

I’m all for a sense of community but less for mandating Communion. I have decided I shall become a part of the Dallas community and join the worldwide web, expatriate as well as repatriate, of soap opera enthusiasts.

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