In a class on culture I recently came across an article on the rise of the 19th century saloon in America. The article outlines how the saloon became a time and space separated from both work and family life, as a place for leisure, recreation, and community building. As I read through the article, I felt that the culture that was described as developing within the saloon had obvious connections with the ideas of Christian community and ecclesiology. Now you may be thinking, surely the church has nothing in common with places of revelry, debauchery, and drunkenness. However, examined closely, the social formation of the 19th century saloon in America has much of profit to say to us as the 21st century church.
The author of the article “The Rise of the Saloon,” Roy Rosenweig, describes the saloon as a place of commonality and hospitality, where hard-working citizens would gather for story-telling, singing, and other practices of solidarity. He suggests that saloon culture “reflected and reinforced a value system very much different from that which governed the dominant industrial, market, and social relations of that era” (142). The saloon represented an “internal democracy” where people could enter, despite class distinction on the outside, and receive equal treatment and respect – a general attitude of grace and reciprocity. This greatly differed from the dominant culture of the era – and that of today – in which labor, and even people, were seen as commodities or consumers. Individuality ruled the day on the outside, inspired by the industrialization of society. Behind the doors of the saloon, however, “all men were equal before the bottle.”
Communal practices such as “treating,” that is, buying a round for your buddies, represented a resistance to the individualistic, commodified mindset of the dominant culture. Rosenweig says, “These treating rituals embodied a resistance of sorts to the transformation of social relationships into ‘commodities’ – a means of preserving reciprocal modes of social interaction within a capitalist world” (144). Treating was a sign of sharing and hospitality, where everyone shared together in a common drink despite social status or labor hierarchy, breaking down the ideology of individualism that dominated social culture in the 1800s, and does perhaps even more today. The saloon was a community of equality and sharing, a small pocket of resistance to the fragmentary ways of American society.
Now, you may be thinking, this metaphor is a stretch. And I am certain that in many ways it is. Like any metaphor, it does not fit neatly and orderly – and understand I am not attempting to compare the church to the culture of bars and clubs that dominate contemporary urban nightlife. This said, however, I do think we can learn from this description of the 19th century saloon because it was able to accomplish something that we as the 12st century Church in America struggle and continually fail. When the early Church was established at Pentecost and grew within the dominant Roman Empire, it existed as a small pocket of resistance to the prevailing culture that swore allegiance to that empire.
As the church today, we tend to accommodate more than we resist the dominance of our contemporary “empire” of individualism, consumerism, competition, and nationalism. Our churches tend to look like social bodies within that American culture more so than distinguishing ourselves by our communal lives. We are not a community of resistance to the ways of the world, but perpetuate the social and class distinctions, the individualism, and the commercialism of our world. While the saloon was able to separate itself as an alternative community, we as the church have failed.
Perhaps, as the saloon culture was oriented around a common drink and a common practice of “treating,” we as the Church will orient our lives, our ethic of discipleship, and our holistic selves around the common food, drink, and practice of Communion. It is before the Table that all of us are equal. It is in this practice of sharing and hospitality that we break down social distinctions, and transform ourselves into the community of God – more than individual members but a true community that serves as a witness to the world that a different Way is possible.
Source: Roy Rosenweig, “The Rise of the Saloon,” Rethinking Popular Culture, ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson. (Berkeley: University of Californian Press, 1981), 121-156.