Worldviews and Locations

a review of The Myth of the American Dream

The concept of a “worldview” is extremely familiar to me. I first learned it in high school as apologetics, through a curriculum by David Noebel: ‌Understanding the Times : The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews. In it, I learned how secularism, Marxism/Leninism, and New Age thought are all bad, but the Biblical way of looking at the world was the best.

This train of thought continued until, in seminary, I read another book called Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives, on developing a “Christian worldview.” Those stories include consumerism, nationalism, and individualism, as well as secularism and New Age thought. I thought maybe this was getting somewhere, as I was challenged on things like consumerism and individualism, but the authors admit that most of their arguments best applied to USA culture. I am able to further confirm this when I later read a little book about hot climate cultures and cold climate cultures: Foreign to Familiar. This book was enlightening, and made sense to me, because I had some experience in both types of cultures (what, being on time isn’t a universal form of etiquette?!).

As I continued to think and read about my context within different geographical locations in the USA, and changing life situations, I discovered that I could go beyond the charges of nationalism, individualism, and consumerism. I found that my context is thick with additional cultural elements paraded as objective truth: militarism, capitalism, imperialism, and extreme forms of individualism, where liberty is championed above all.

“When I was young, it was so simple. I thought God was good. I thought God rewarded those who obeyed the rules. I thought my good news was accessible to everyone if only they had the ears to listen. I thought my country was a place where hard work was rewarded on a level playing field, no matter where you came from. Luckily, my life was complicated in beautiful ways that scraped at my very soul. I was plunged into a situation where I was confronted with my privilege and there was no way to wriggle out of it. Volunteering with, working with, and eventually living alongside people who had experienced forced migration help to shatter the unspoken norms I had built up in my mind — what I call the myth of the American dream, but which can also be called empire or dominant culture ideology.”1

Recently, I had the honor of reading an Advanced Copy of a book titled The Myth of the American Dream, by D.L. Mayfield, which, not surprisingly, articulates some other worldviews I had taken for granted. You might also call them narratives, values, or matrices: Autonomy, Affluence, Safety, and Power. The (US)American mythos says that full and complete autonomy is presupposed, that affluence, or even the appearance of affluence, is the most desirable, safety is highly valued, and power is a prize to be kept no matter the cost. All of these values are assumed by privileged folk in the USA; they are a given part of any story we might tell, but they are not a given for many others in the USA.

I’ve admired Mayfield’s way with words ever since I found her writing, seven years ago or so. Mayfield is a keen observer, and she articulates her observations with vivid stories from her own life that she paints with raw and gentle honesty and approachable language, asking hard questions along the way. As with her first book, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary, Mayfield also recounts many observations made about herself in her relationships with immigrants, and what she and her family have learned from being in community with them. I expected a high caliber of writing, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is one of the stories that sticks out in my mind:

“My husband had built a white cross that we had put in the trunk of our car, and we wrote down the name of the man who was killed decades before our own parents were alive: Alonzo Tucker. We tried to hammer the cross into the ground, to make a small, permanent, and stubborn marker of remembrance. I envisioned high schoolers on their way to track practice taking pictures and googling the name, learning the history they were walking past. But the gravel was hard and we didn’t have proper tools. We leaned the cross against the chain-link fence, said a prayer and left, spooked by the police cars patrolling the area. Had we done something wrong? I wondered.”

When I first picked up the book, I said to myself, “Yeah, this looks really good. It’s going to confirm all the things I’ve been thinking about and I can give it to people to illustrate these things.” Boy was I wrong, and do you know why? As literate in those narratives as I thought I was, as enlightened to worldviews, or even “woke” as I thought I was, I still found myself uncomfortable and confronted with my privilege when Mayfield asks questions and tells real-life stories about the values of Autonomy, Affluence, Safety, and Power. She doesn’t let us dwell in our discomfort, though. We can listen, we can lament, and we can find creative ways to disrupt the systems perpetuated by the (US)American mythos.

“A friend told me a story about a man in her mission organization. This man—let’s call him Carl—lived and worked in a low-income community that was mostly Spanish speaking. People were often sent to court for minor infractions like running a red light, and many of them faced steep fines and even jail time. Carl decided that he was going to start showing up with his friends when they were called to court. A tall White man, he would dress in a suit and bring a briefcase with him. He would say nothing at all; just his presence was enough for his friends’ cases to be dropped, dismissed, or the fines lowered. Carl knew he couldn’t overturn the entire criminal justice system—he couldn’t change how the system heavily policed the poor and dis-criminated against Black and Brown youth—all on his own. So he decided to work the system in his own way. Whenever he and his friends would leave court, Carl would open his briefcase and reveal what was inside: a bag of Doritos, which they would eat with relish.”

Now, I find myself wanting to give the book to others because it is uncomfortable AND inspiring. If you want to challenge some of your preconceived notions about living in the United States with relatable and poignant reflections, and think about how a disciple of Jesus might confront those notions, read this book.

  1. All quotations from The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Autonomy, Affluence, Safety, and Power, by D.L. Mayfield 

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