Collective Cultural Lament

A few months ago someone opened a bakery in my neighborhood and it’s been immensely popular ever since. It has an old-world artisan vibe and is employed by millennial hipsters who probably make minimum wage but can nonetheless wear $150 fedoras. Their pastries and bread are actually pretty good. Having been there a couple of times, I think their popularity is largely built upon an American angst for things that are handmade. You see, here in the US, local industries like bakeries were overrun by big businesses. On any given day, more people will buy their bread at a Walmart than at local bakeries, they just don’t exist anymore.

As a student of culture I am very interested in trends like these, specially when put in contrast with other cultures I’ve experienced. For example, in Europe, where I spent nearly a 1/3 of my life, I saw a completely different scenario. I lived in Greece for many years where local bakeries are still foundational to life and daily routine. Greek bakeries at 6am are abuzz with people buying bread for the morning. They will then go back in the evening and do the same–because the best bread is fresh bread. Bakeries are in almost every corner, and it’s only logical that you would go to the one closest to home. They then become gathering places where you can see and greet many of your neighbors. At my local bakery I was greeted in English every time I went in. The ladies behind the counter used that time to practice their English with me while I embarrassed myself with my Greek.

There are also traditions around bakeries. During Easter, many Greeks will bring their meals to the local bakery to be roasted in their ovens. American ovens that can fit entire turkeys (or lambs in this case) are not common in Greece. Bakeries therefore merge over into liturgical life. Many of the traditional Christmas and Easter cakes, cookies and pitas can be bought when in season. I always found it amazing how bakeries in Greece reinforced the spirit of the season. Bread making and faith seemed to go hand in hand and experienced collectively and congruently. With that being said, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t huge bakery chains in Greece. Bakeries are big business and there are a bunch at various different price points, but they all seem to be content at being true to their reason to exist.

Cultural angst is very interesting to me. It’s a longing for the things we’ve lost along the way. It’s as if our pursuit of progress blinded us to valuable ways of being, which we only seem to realize once they are lost. Gathering places like the bakery by my current house remind us that sometimes we need to go back to the basics. At these places, the public comes to lament and remember how we used to be. It’s beyond nostalgia, it is a sanctuary for all the things that are good about life. Whether it’s artisan bread, a haircut or a bespoke suit–bakers, barbers, tailors have largely been replaced by faster ways of being and manufacturing. Culturally, we as Americans seem to long for the basics, to slow down and connect with something meaningful. We, perhaps unintended, then create sanctuaries where we can publicly lament our loss of meaning while at the same time longing for hope and true connections.

Cultural lament is real and all around us! With that in mind, how are we participating in these public sanctuaries with the Gospel’s hopeful message?

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