February 25, 2024

Community Versus The Individual

The Peasants hand-painted style is arresting and distinctive.The Peasants hand-painted style is arresting and distinctive.

Alisa Ruddell wrote a masterful and in-depth review of the visually stunning animated film The Peasants for Christ and Pop Culture. The movie follows a woman named Jagna, whose promiscuity threatens the social fabric of her community in rural Poland around the turn of the last century. The use of the movie’s contemporary changes cast against the original book it was based upon provides fertile ground for illustrating changes in society.

Such leanings—of the past towards communal responsibilities, and of the present towards individual rights—are no surprise. The discrepancy convinced me that the movie should be watched and the book read in tandem, to prevent us from imagining our moral progress” over the past. We aren’t better than peasant communities which stigmatized rule-breakers: we just value mobility over accountability, and we have a different set of rules that makes heroes out of non-conformists and paints disruption as a virtue.

[…]

The greatest danger is the invisible one, which is often the flipside of what garners all the attention. Our culture is obsessed with individual freedom and terrified of losing it. In our blind spot is the life of communal connectedness and relational obligation which has been disintegrating for centuries, and which cannot exist without limiting personal freedom.

In college, I wrote a paper for a history class on the controversy over the preaching of Anne Hutchinson that pitted her against the Puritan establishment in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson had been a bold and effective preacher, but her leadership and attacks on the establishment threatened the unity of the fledgling colony, which relied on their faith traditions for cohesiveness in a hostile and unfamiliar environment. The controversy made rivals out of Hutchinson and John Winthrop, the governor of the colony. Eventually, after a trial, Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts Bay.

While the earlier sources that I cited in the paper almost uniformly sympathized with Winthrop and the need for the community to be united, the later sources sided with Hutchinson and the dictates of her conscience. The shift in thinking paralleled a change in a society that placed primary importance on the thriving of society as a whole and one in which the individual is the focus.

Ruddell writes about just how far this shift has gone.

This idea has made us victims of its success. Our chief danger now is the opposite: normalcy is a reproach. To be a maverick, to be queer, to be your true self,” to have your unique identity hallowed by society—this is the new normal. Traditional” has become a slur, and rebellion (once a tool of justice) is cherished for its own sake.

The analogy of the early New England settlement is admittedly imperfect. Hutchinson was a committed Christian who was compelled by her conscience to preach, whereas the protagonist of The Peasants, Jagna, seems to be driven mostly by her own desires. However, the comparison is sufficient to draw out some introspection around the changes in our moral reasoning and what we owe to our communities versus our desires for personal autonomy and individual freedom.

I don’t have any easy answers here. The balance between the macro-level considerations and those are the micro-level is a delicate dance. The shift in thinking towards the individual has had benefits for those who have long lacked them but have left our collective well-being sometimes wanting.


I recently resubscribed to Christ and Pop Culture precisely for this kind of commentary. While I don’t consider myself a pop culture aficionado by any means, I recognize the usefulness of our shared narratives in discussions around contemporary moral issues. This is particularly helpful in contemplating Christian beliefs against a backdrop of rapidly changing values. Analysis of art can build a bridge between two distinct cultures. You can check out subscription offers here.


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