Or enduring the living nightmare?

The phrase ‘living the dream’ belongs to the United States – the land of opportunity and optimism. Philadelphia is where it all began: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first Congress, the birth of American democracy. Those who signed knew they might be signing their death warrant – after all, this was an act of treachery against King and country. Blood was shed, lives torn apart, families shredded by people taking different sides on the matters of the day – matters considered to be life and death issues.

It isn’t great being a Brit while listening to the story of American independence. But, it is a salutary reminder that a new country needs a single narrative to give it meaning and direction. Now I understand why American rhetoric is always full of repeated mantras of ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘justice’, ‘equality’, and so on. These were people who threw off the authority structures of monarchy and church, replacing them with representative democracy and a structural separation between church and state. You can see it in the architecture of Philadelphia: no dominant church spire or tower – City Hall is where all roads meet.

I think I knew this in my head – I have read alot about America and it’s cultures – but I hadn’t ‘felt’ it until coming here while England burns at a distance. This is a country that reads it’s own story alongside that of the exodus, the conquest of the Promised Land, the place of freedom won and self-made achievement lauded. (Of course, this leaves out the more uncomfortable prophetic injunctions of the Promised Land deal…)

I once did a lecture on ‘Space, place and pace’ (I know… tacky title) in which I explored how the three types of architecture in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, say something about that country’s search for identity, for a history that explains and legitimises who they now are, for a sense of place in a complex world in which Kazakhstan is a baby country. This search is integral to every person and every community: we can’t escape it. This week, however, it is the narrative of the USA that preoccupies my imagination.

If the Exodus and Conquest provide the ‘story’ (and evokes the ‘dream’) that shapes the self-understanding of the USA, what is the story that shapes England today (a ‘nightmare’?)?

There is something almost naive about the youthful enthusiasm of America when compared to the tired cynicism of England (and much of Europe). We have had too many wars, too many religious conflicts, too much pain and suffering, too much being let down by unfulfilled promises. It is surely not accidental that English humour is so self-deprecating, ironic, cynical. Or surprising that we love to be negative, ‘can’t do’, unadventurous, small-minded and unrealistic about our real place in the world? The Empire has long gone, but you wouldn’t believe it…

In his excellent book The English, Jeremy Paxman points out that to be Irish, Welsh or Scottish is also to be ‘Not English’… whereas it is meaningless for an Englishman to define himself as ‘not Scottish’. We don’t actually know who we are. My own family has Irish, Welsh, Manx, English… and probably French, German, Viking and (odds on) Genghis Khan.

This is what makes the English Defence league so ridiculous. What assumed ‘Englishness’ do they think they a defending? What is the story they think gives our history – and therefore our future – meaning?

The demise of Christendom in England has taken with it a shared narrative, reinforced in our language and symbols, our folk stories and sense of destiny. We now know what we were, but no longer know who are. Which means we cannot purposefully move into a shared understanding of our future. We have lost more than we ever thought mattered. And, like when the Soviet Empire collapsed, the framework disappeared and the was nothing to take it’s place; so corruption walked in and bought the place up. Didn’t Jesus once say something about clearing demons out and leaving a vacuum?

So, what are the narratives that people think will give us a future common ‘idea’? The churches have one – coloured by the freedom of service of a God who first served us. This narrative is rooted in the simple conviction that all human meaning and ethics begin with the nature of every person being in the ‘image of God’.

I am not hearing too many alternatives today. But I am reading Nigel Rooms’ new book, The Faith of the English (SPCK, 2011)…

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Location:Philadelphia, USA