A story in Florence, Italy recently caught the attention of many around the world. It was big news when public outcry caused Florentine city officials to backtrack from an agreement to let a McDonald’s open in the historic Piazza del Duomo, not far from Florence’s historic fifteenth-century cathedral.
It would harm the identity of the city, according to Florence’s mayor, to have a vendor like McDonald’s invade a place with such rich cultural history. And it’s easy to understand the sentiment. Florence’s rejection of the golden arches is a necessary stance to protect a valuable patrimony, even if such an act is becoming increasingly uncommon.
But why go after McDonald’s? The company even agreed to locally source half of its food and include table service, so what gives? The answer begins with a conversation I once had with a friend, a college track & field coach.
“Whenever you run—in practice or in a race—you need to be consistent,” I remember him telling his sprinters. “I want you to be a McDonald’s French Fry. They taste the same in Italy or China as they do in Texas.”
It’s good racing advice, but the french fry bit is true too, isn’t it? Florence, quite obviously, doesn’t want something you can get anywhere else in the world. Go to Florence to experience Florence, and leave the perfectly salted fries at home.
One of the hallmarks of the Golden Arches is knowing that no matter where you are on the planet, those exquisite fries will be there to greet you. It’s a convenient reality in a world full of convenient realities.
And yet, the ubiquity and sameness of McDonald’s, handy though it is, leaves a lot to be desired. After all, who wouldn’t rather have pasta in Florence, dumplings in Shanghai, or fall-off-the-bone BBQ in Texas?
How there could ever be such a wrestling match between fast food and authentic cuisine is a question for another day, but that dichotomy nevertheless points to a crucial trait written in our very humanity: the need for authentic culture, as well as the desire to engage in it.
The word culture comes from the Latin cultura or cultus, meaning “care” and “honoring,” and the French colere, meaning “tend, guard, cultivate, till.” Its root word, cult, despite the modern, pejorative association with crazy people, initially referred to a group of people who held a reverence and devotion to a person or thing.
Though many pockets of society still hold firm to a well-defined culture, our world is becoming less and less so. The world is becoming infected and overtaken by an “anti-culture,” if you will, as more parts of society depart from the regional and become universal. Why go to Seattle when Starbucks is two blocks away?
The culprit has been the seismic shift, since the dawn of industrialization, to a more mechanical, less unique approach to culture. Humanity’s tendency to seek “progress” at all costs in the form of technological advancement has not only created a more mechanized, ubiquitous, melting-pot culture, but has resulted in the spiritual life—things unseen—being pushed, rather violently, to the side.
Christopher Dawson noticed this correlation, and was under no illusion that such a thing was an accident. He once wrote:
If we accept the principle of social planning from the bottom upwards without regard for spiritual values we are left with a machine-made culture which differs from one country to another only in so far as the process of mechanization is more or less perfected.
He didn’t stop there, though:
To most people this is rather an appalling prospect, for the ordinary man does not regard the rationalization of life as the only good. On the contrary, men are often more attracted by the variety of life than by its rationality. Even if it were possible to solve all the material problems of life: poverty, unemployment and war and to construct a uniform scientifically-organized world order, neither the strongest nor the highest elements in human nature would find satisfaction in it.
No matter how much industrialization or convenience our world can produce, Dawson rightly notes, if we do that at the expense of God, we’ll still be left with a profoundly unhappy society. Do away with the transcendent, and all that’s left, necessarily, is a bland, boring culture full of people seeking material satisfaction.
It’s no wonder, then, why “hipster culture” has become so huge. Their chorus of “You’ve probably never heard of it” in describing the latest discovery of hole-in-the-wall music/food/drink/movies is an engagement in uniqueness, in something real with which to identify.
Hipsters are really onto something, too. It’s the instinctive yearning to encounter a distinct culture instead of the universalized blob of anti-culture, and we all could learn a valuable lesson from it.
Hipsters, at least the good ones, naturally abhor a universalized world where two or 200 miles make no difference in the material choices of a population. To hipsters it would be an abomination, likewise, to create a world in which all is the same, no matter where one resides.
But there still exists the problem with a lack of transcendence. By and large, though hipsters get right the niche idea of culture, they still largely get wrong the need for the classically understood transcendent God, either gravitating toward Eastern or New Age spiritualities or shirking the unseen altogether. As a result, hipsters tend to amount to little more than that same materialism.
The final answer, thus, is twofold. Fr. Connor Danstrom of the Three Dogs North podcast poses the idea, shared by Richard Weaver, that atheism is most rampant in cities because everything a person encounters is created and rarely natural. During his time fighting forest fires in Northern California, Fr. Danstrom noticed that those surrounded by natural beauty rarely espoused the atheistic worldview:
With all that beauty around you, I never ran into an atheist (in Northern California). I ran into a lot of unchurched people who didn’t know what they believed about God, but if you pressed them … they knew they didn’t make that. It’s in the urban center, where everything is man-made, where we think we made the world.
The urban, anti-transcendent attitude, as a result, tends to give people an impression that everything valuable must be created and innovated. But when one gets outside their normal purview—taking in Montana’s glaciers, the myriad of stars in the rural night sky, or the vastness of an ocean—it’s easy to see that humanity has, in fact, created very little.
If a machine-made culture with no concept of God is what humanity naturally abhors, then it necessarily desires a culture that blossoms forth as a byproduct of itself, with something like Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” as its guiding principle. It’s a natural, cultivated creation of a particular people, in a particular place, at a particular time in history. Dawson, in that vein, wrote, “In all ages the first creative works of culture are due to religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end,” implicitly noticing that true culture can only emerge when grounded in a higher, transcendent reality, foremost among them being the Christian worldview.
As the Psalmist writes, “God gives the desolate a home to dwell in … but the rebellious dwell in a parched land” (68:6). As Christians, we believe that God provides a place for those he loves—indeed, perhaps, like villages once built around a parish church—while also “making all things new” (Rev 21:5), both here on earth and in the life to come.
With that in mind, a culture that is constantly renewed, in a setting which God has formed with his own hands, and which gives him honor and glory for it all is culture in its truest form, whereas the anti-culture of McDonald’s and Starbucks, delicious though it may superficially seem, is nothing more than a parched land, leading us in the opposite direction from where we need to be going.
And so, I applaud the people of Florence, and those in any culture who vigorously seek to retain the patrimony that’s been passed down to them. Would that such cultures continue to blossom, for it’s only by them that our world will survive.
Editor’s note: In the image above, a McDonald’s restaurant in Milan, Italy, that was forced to close to make way for a Prada store in 2012.