Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Real World and The "Real World"

Well, it has been quite a while since I have blogged. (Blogged here anyway; if comments count, I've been a blogging fiend; but I've been MIA from the Street for too long.) Partly, I've been stressed out by the impending changes. There is a big part of me that deeply resonates with Benedictine stability and appreciates all the quotidian predictability of normal life. Not knowing where we will live in a few months tends to upset that a bit. So, I've been distracted by that, more than I thought; we also have put a lot of effort into getting the house ready for market. I've been goofing around, reading Harry Potter novels and a book about pizza (have I ever mentioned my recent obsession to make the perfect pizza crust?). Add to that my parents visiting, and being away on vacation visiting my in-laws and, well, I haven't been blogging much. That's not to say that I don't have a kit bag full of stuff to blog about, just that I haven't been able to summon up the energy or time to do so in the last week and a half. But my statcounter shows that there are a few hardy souls who check in faithfully to see if I've gotten around to posting anything, and so I am certainly willing to oblige.

I have noticed a rhetorical move made by any number of people in any number of contexts that really gets my goat. It is when someone disagrees with another person and deigns to tell him or her what is true "in the real world." "Well, that might sound nice, but in the real world..." I plan to have this be one of the "three forbidden Rs" in my classes when I teach (the others being "rights" and "religion" -- more about them and why another time). It seems plainly clear to me that talking about the "real world" and claiming that another is not "in" it, or isn't being responsible to it, or what have you, is little more than a power move designed to evade any actual criticism or analysis of the other's point. More than that, what counts as the "real world"? Let me illustrate with a story.

I was sitting in a conversation with a recent graduate of my seminary (I was a senior at the time). We were in a group talking about ministry and whatnot, and he said "seminary isn't in touch with the real world." I instantly bristled at the remark, thinking that he meant something like "why waste so much time on theology? We really need more practical things like counselling or nonprofit management." (To be fair, on reflection I believe that he was actually talking about the social hothouse atmosphere at the school, which -- I am led to believe -- tended to be occupied with pettiness and personality conflicts. If so, he has a point: if that's the real world, I'll eat my hat.)

But here's the funny thing: not three sentences later, this fellow said of a certain town "I wouldn't know what happens there; I never go west of Route 41." We were sitting and having this conversation in Evanston, the southern end of the North Shore region of Chicago, which features a staggering concentration of wealth and privilege virtually unknown in America apart from select areas on either coast, and almost entirely unknown on 99% of the rest of the planet. Route 41 forms an informal western border to this area. So at nearly the exact moment that this guy says that the seminary wasn't the "real world", he was careful to define what constituted his "real world". And friends, take my word for it: most of us wish we could live in his reality.

But what made it even more ironic (and infuriating) was that at the time I was living in a near south suburb of Chicago, four blocks outside of the city proper. It was an interesting place to live. When we moved in, the house two doors down was a crack house, and a fairly active one at that. Our next door neighbor was an aged lady that I never met, but after she passed away a middle class African American family moved in: finally, we thought, someone we could get to know and befriend. Which was fine until the husband started continually borrowing money, each time with a different excuse; but eventually I caught on that he was buying coke at the nearby apartment complex. He briefly went into rehab; I don't know what he's doing now, but his family sure went through tough times. The family on the other side of us consisted of a middle aged Latina woman and her three grown children. The woman herself was fine, and her kids were usually okay. One of them, though, had one or two children by his girlfriend, and she moved in. The problem was twofold: he still saw other women (and so sometimes one of them would be scaling out of an upper story window as his girlfriend came home), and that he drank and beat his girlfriend. On more than one occasion, the police came out to resolve a domestic dispute between them. Eventually they all moved out and a Mexican family moved in. Talking of the police, they were very vigilant, which was mostly good. Sometimes though it was hair-raising. One night during the summer, a traffic stop turned into a police chase which ended on our lawn. The driver was apprehended, but the passenger got out and ran through our yard and into the alley. I don't know if they found him, but they searched through our yard for a good long while looking for drugs or any evidence he may have left. Did I mention this was at 3 a.m.? The apartment complex I referred to above was known as a crime and drug haven, and the police hit it hard. Sleeping with the windows open at night was tough because all night long police cruisers would fly by at high speed, engines roaring, lights flashing. That was my "real world" at the time, and I was pretty insulted to hear someone talking about the "real world" and meaning only the tony, privileged North Shore.

(If I wanted to be particularly piquant in my criticism, I would say that this is part of the problem with my denomination, that our "real world" rarely extends beyond the Route 41s in life.)

But before I get all high and mighty about how I lived in the "real world" and he did not, I should hasten to my ultimate point: "real worlds" are not given, natural, obvious, common sense, or anything else pre-theoretical. "Real worlds" are social constructions which are shot through with presuppositions, theories, stories, and all other means of cultural production. They could be very different. So in a sense, I no more lived in the "real world" than did my friend, or the folks living in seminary. People in all of the "real worlds" -- whether the cloistered middle class exurb, the wealthy upper class suburb, the poverty-ridden urban ghetto, the professoriate, the student body, or any other "world" -- have real struggles and real lives. And we demean them when we claim that their world is not "real", especially when we contrast their world with ours.

A big part of the problem is that these worlds don't meet on a regular basis, which breeds fear, distance, and misunderstanding. Certainly as the church we have a strong rationale for working to overcome those boundaries and to expand peoples' worlds, to question the means we use to construct our worlds, and also to interrogate the cultural product of various "real worlds", especially our own. And, of course, as Christians we hold this "reality" in eschatological tension, as we have reason to hope that the real "real world" is not yet here (fully) but is yet to come.


Blogger Gaunilo said...

Hardy soul #1 reporting in! Welcome back, and I have to say I feel a little guilty for all the commenting time you put in at my place. But it made for some great conversation!

I'm pretty sure I know just about where you lived. We're not 4 blocks inside the city and we've seen a bit of that action, yessir we have.

The "real world" trope drives me bats too. Part of it honestly is a defensive reflex - the life of the long-term student is purported to be an insular, head in the clouds, responsibility-free mode of existence that's out of touch with "real life." There's an element of truth to it, certainly, but it conveniently ignores the fact that our educational system is set up to require this looong, debt-incurring apprenticeship to make any kind of contribution to human knowledge and inquiry. Not to mention the tepid valuation given to this enterprise afterward in terms of remuneration!

Anyway. You make an excellent point - excellent such that I don't have anything to add. May we be truly this aware of the reality of our neighbor - isn't that what the gospel is all about?

Oh, I do have one thing to add - let me know when you find the perfect pizza crust recipe.

Thursday, May 05, 2005 3:13:00 AM  
Blogger Jason said...


Glad to see you in the Street!

We lived in Blue Island, an all-American town: the meat was red, the Sox were White, and the collar was blue.

As you no doubt see by now, I've responded to much of what you say here in a post. Yeah, I agonize over the financial ramifications of doing this, too. I'm pretty sure I'll still be paying off my school bill when my daughter is in grad. school. A little Quixotic, no?

As for pizza, I have become something of a wood-burning stove partisan. In the south suburbs, the Country House does a good job (127th and Cal-Sag); I'm sure there are many more in Chicago. I am reading American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza by Peter Reinhart now, and it's been an enjoyable read. I am planning on trying out a Napoletana crust this weekend, maybe I'll blog about how it turns out.


Thursday, May 05, 2005 4:21:00 PM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...


I was thinking on the other end of town - in Evanston, around Seabury. S. Evanston gets pretty sketchy. Had you all wrong, then. That was a monster commute you had if you lived all the way on far south side!

Thursday, May 05, 2005 6:45:00 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...


Thursday, May 05, 2005 8:39:00 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

(I was just seeing whether I still remembered my blogger password.)

Anyway, west of 41? Please, I don't like to go west of Asbury St.!

I'm kidding!!!

As you said at the end, the real "real world" is the kingdom of God. People say, well yes, loving your enemies (or whatever) is a great ideal, but it doesn't work in the "real world." While recognizing that the kingdom of God is not yet fully here, I think basing our Christian practices on some kind of realism is faulty. As you said, "Real worlds are social constructions which are shot through with presuppositions, theories, stories, and all other means of cultural production." Who constructs these real worlds, who defines what is and is not real, what is or is not effective and thus what should or should not be practiced?

Jennifer - southern Evanston & proud

Thursday, May 05, 2005 8:57:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Right on! (About the realism -- I prefer "pragmatism" or something -- stuff, not the "nowhere west of Asbury" stuff! (-: )

Can you believe that it routinely took me between an hour and an hour and a half to drive 31 miles? My record is six hours one way, a bad snow storm with monstrous traffic; 5 miles an hour! Adding insult to injury, I had to turn around the next morning and come back for a class. Not coincidentally, I now live four blocks from work!

Friday, May 06, 2005 2:56:00 AM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

Having lived in Chicago for 6 years now, yes, sadly I can believe it took you that long. I can even believe the six hour story.

Friday, May 06, 2005 5:48:00 AM  

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