I’ve been slowly reading a 1,000-page Columbia anthology titled The Top 500 Poems, a volume that sat untouched on my shelf for 20 years prior to last year’s retirement.
Today’s selection was Oliver Goldsmith’s (1730-1774) “The Deserted Village,” which should be required reading for all. Written when English country life was being ravaged by industrialization, Village is a paean to the values of hardworking, simple rural villagers and a prophetic description of the destruction of country values by the desire for endless wealth, deceptive luxury and voracious power.
One only has to read a few lines of Goldsmith to envision the empty storefronts of most small south Georgia towns: the boarded and shuttered dress shops, drug stores and movie theaters; the rotting farm houses; semi-collapsed barns, and rusting implements. This demonic process is still working its curse and few can resist the onslaught.
As I read Goldsmith’s portrait about land now untended, school houses abandoned, simple, humble pleasures ransacked for the long pomp of luxury I tried to resist becoming captive to nostalgia. The past probably wasn’t as rosy as Goldsmith would have it; the misty remembrance of virtue and simplicity is only part of the full story of the past.
But even allowing for the complexity of every age, one suspects that communal life was richer when people lived closer to each other and the soil. What used to be called farming is now called agribusiness. Family farms are almost non-existent; the capital required making farming impossible for most young adults. The mom-and-pop grocery, the drugstore with soda fountain, the local lumberyard, the small town bank, the local diner have been victimized by multinational corporations; shoppers need lunch and a GPS to navigate the maze of aisles in most stores on the edge of town. Schools have been consolidated to the point where teachers and students no longer work, worship, play or shop together.
Churches, too, are captivated by this rationalization of size and scale. A congregation in a small south Georgia town, receiving a large inheritance, spent every penny of it to build the finest playground and children’s center in the entire county. I admire the foresight of those church leaders and congratulate them for spending the money rather than creating an endowment fund, but I suspect that 6-12 smaller churches in that area will eventually close their doors, unable to keep pace with the money and attraction of that glittering building with its attractive ministry. As goes the local merchant, so goes the rural church.
Is progress inevitable? Was Darwin right that the fittest will survive? Should we embrace these consolidations of community, farm, factory and church? Is greater efficiency and economy of scale worth it?
Read Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” and ponder what has been lost – perhaps irretrievably – as we blindly claw our way toward fleeting luxury that cannot satisfy, dubious wealth that cannot save and insatiable power that cannot love.
Creede Hinshaw of Macon is a retired Methodist minister.