Have We Become Bedford Falls Without George Bailey?

James Stewart and Henry Travers in the 1946 movie 'It's a Wonderful Life.'I know it’s a sentimental movie and I know that its view of angels isn’t biblical and I know that the anthropology of the film is problematic. Nevertheless, I get the sense that the whole country is becoming Bedford Falls without George Bailey and, beside the obvious reason (sin), I’m not sure why that is.

In the film, which is probably playing on a television set near you right now, James Stewart plays a good-hearted banker, George Bailey, who becomes despondent and attempts suicide because he thinks his bank is ruined. He is rescued by an angel named Clarence and given a vision of what his town (Bedford Falls) would be without him and the bank.

It’s a dark vision. It’s a Hobbesian vision of life. The town has become vicious. The friendly local pub has become the sort of place one visits when one is looking for a fight or to get drunk. There’s no joy. There’s no fellowship. Life in town is hard and bitter. It’s the sort of place I imagine Sodom to have been. It’s the sort of town that was wiped out in the flood. It’s a town where the providence of God has allowed human nature to run its (fallen) course without the ordinary restraint.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m a Calvinist of a particularly dark sort. I’m not terribly surprised by gross wickedness (especially my own). I am surprised, however, by its scale these days. Consider, for instance, the rise and complete victory of the gambling culture. Time was when few people knew what a “point spread” was or what “over/under” meant (I confess the latter is still a mystery to me). Today it seems that just about everyone is expected to know what these expressions mean when it comes to sports and gambling. This sort of thing has always occurred but it didn’t occur in public, in the media, to the degree it occurs now. In Southern California it seems that the only place to see a musical act is in a local casino. Unless one lived in Atlantic City or Las Vegas, it wasn’t long ago that most of us couldn’t say the phrase “local casino.” Today just about everyone has a local casino. For a time Las Vegas became a family vacation spot! The powers that be (don’t ask who those cats are) have decided that the “Disney in the Desert” thing wasn’t working so now it’s “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

This is only one example and you could doubtless multiply examples (just turn on the TV or take a look at the web). I’m not decrying sin per se but a coarsening of the culture. There seems to be generally a lifting of restraint. Yes, I know that acting one way and thinking another is the definition of hypocrisy, but when it comes to civil life, I’m in favor of hypocrisy. Do I really want to see what’s in the hearts of all those folk streaming past on the sidewalk? Well, today I can by reading their “tats.” I don’t need to see that. I don’t need to hear about someone’s infidelity as I wait for a plane in an increasingly filthy airport. Television shows that once could not have been broadcast now air just after dinner.

How did it happen? Well, to be sure, America was never exactly Beford Falls. There have always been hard, brutal, urban cityscapes. Think of immigrants to New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The huddled masses yearning to breathe free remained huddled in tenements for several decades. Nevertheless, I think things might once have been a little closer to Bedford Falls than they are now.

One partial explanation for the shift is increased urbanization. More of us are living closer together than in earlier periods of American life. I’m not necessarily touting Wendell Berry’s neo-agrarian program (partly because I’m still ignorant about it) but perhaps we need to spread out again? Is that even possible? My family has roots in depression-era Kansas farms. I loved spending time on the farm but I’m not romantic about rural life. It was hard. It remains difficult for single-family farms to exist. That reality has pushed people away from rural communities and into cities.

Still, there is something to be said for re-thinking suburbia. Being a suburbanite, I’m aware that the suburbs have been the subject of criticism for a number of years by those who want us all to live closer together. Some of those criticisms make sense. It’s reasonable to ask whether we really want to keep building suburbs farther and farther out of town and creating longer commutes? Does driving a mile to the grocery store create more anonymity than community? Would folk act as they do if they had to face their neighbors? Could it be that the way we live has helped to create the climate of depersonalization? Further, the suburbs aren’t always what we’ve been told they are. I’m not always sure that the first priority of the critics of the suburbs is freedom. I get the sense that they have a vision for society wherein individuals aren’t necessarily free to make what they deem to be the best choices for themselves and their families. If I have to choose between grand visions (and the social control that always accompanies them) and a little traffic between the city and the suburbs, I’ll choose the latter.

I like the Three Points of Synod Kalamazoo (1924) and I favor the substance of the doctrine of “common grace,” even if I don’t care for the term. Darryl Hart once said in the hall that we used to speak of providence. We confess that things and people are not as bad as they could be because God restrains our wickedness. Could we be in or entering into a time when providence is exercising less restraint on said wickedness? I don’t know and we shouldn’t speculate about the meaning of providence—our Lord warns against just that sort of thing—but I do wonder.

Here’s a related post and another and a related category of posts.

[This post first appeared in 2007 on the HB and is revised and updated]

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