A Short Story: City of Churches by Donald Barthelme

Our differences make us worthy.

City of Churches is a short story that was first published in 1972. It is about a city in which every building is a church. People are living in churches, there are restaurants and barbers inside churches and the city is famous for them. The story follows Cecelia and Mr. Phillips as the protagonists. Mr. Phillips works in the real estate business and Cecelia is new in the city, thinking of starting a car-rental service, and is looking for housing. She is not religious and isn't sure if she will fit in the city. Mr. Phillips on the other hand, is religious and fits in the city just fine. The city goes hand in hand with religion. Everything is connected to churches and people are attached to their religion. As an example when Cecelia says that she is not religious, Mr. Phillips says that she is not religious right now and at one point Mr. Phillips asks Cecelia what her denomination is, to which she responds that she can will her dreams. People of the city also move as a community and often share houses. Cecelia doesn't like this and insists that she needs her place, preferably a place that is not in a church. In the end, while they are looking for a place, the doors of the churches open up and a young man comes, saying that everyone has a car in the city and nobody would rent a car. Hearing this, Cecelia says she will leave the city. Mr. Phillips tries to convince her to stay, saying they want her. Apparently, in their perfect city, they are discontented and only if they reach more perfection, in the form of a young lady who rents cars, they would be happy again. Yet, in the end, we don't know if Cecelia will stay or not, we only know that she will dream of what the residents of the city are afraid of, what they wouldn't approve of.

The story has many elements regarding religion. It is used as a driving force of the closeness of the community of the story. Cecelia is different from them and will probably not fit in. She doesn't share their ideals regarding religion and is not as dependent on others as them. She wants to be her person. She dreams she thinks, she criticizes... She says that she won't change, she will think about what is unthinkable to the community, and she will reject their ideas. She is too different from them. Yet, even if she is a threat, they want her because they need her. Their lives are perfect, everyone shares the same beliefs, same ideas. Still, it is not enough. They need Cecelia maybe because of her independence and ideas, they need something different. Maybe they want to change her into one of their own, maybe they think that she will become part of their community, and that way the community will feel like they are right in their ways, and they will feel triumphant. We don't know what will happen next. The only thing I know is that there is more to the story than that. On the outside the story looks like a criticism of religion. Yet, I think this is not the only thing the author tried to tell us. The city is religious, that is for sure. Yet, their way of believing is absurd. I am sure many people would the idea of a barber shop inside of a church odd, insulting even. The residents of the city live like this, however. It looks like they wanted a perfect system. Religion connects people so it must be an amazing base for this perfect system, right? Still, when they tried to be perfect, it felt like they lost the essence of the religion. It is not their belief anymore, it is the way they live and in the process, they lose their tolerance regarding other people and their individualistic thoughts.

I think the thing we should be against isn't any kind of belief or religion after reading this story, I don't think that was the aim of the author. I think this dystopian city of the churches is a story that advises us to be our person, advices us to defend our own opinions no matter what and to have high tolerance for other people's thoughts. In the end, never forget: Our differences make us worthy.


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