I love the feel of an old T-shirt. I had a Hulk Hogan shirt from the 1980s that was already well-loved when I bought it from a thrift store in middle school. It amazingly never got a hole, but by the time I parted ways with it after college, my sunscreen had a higher SPF than this T-shirt, which you could see through.
I used to see a T-shirt as simply my childhood clothing of choice when I didn’t have to follow my school dress code, but the more I’ve traveled and lived abroad, the T-shirt has become a defining symbol of our global, interconnected world and, strangely enough, a metaphor for our church.
Since the publication of Thomas L. Friedman’s book The World Is Flat (2005), people have often used the “flatness” of our world as a metaphor for the ease with which we can now both communicate and compete with people all over the world.
While people often focus on how we now can video-chat with loved ones around the world or on how work that was previously done in the United States by professionals can now be outsourced to India or other countries, few things illustrate the flatness of our world and a catholicity of connections more than the simple T-shirt.
In much of Africa, most clothing is the same mass-produced stuff that we wear in the United States. In fact, much of it was first worn in America. After clothing has been produced in a factory in Asia or Latin America, then used in the United States and donated to a second-hand shop there, it often ends up in a developing country.
African markets are full of T-shirts from American high school sports teams and, it seems, all the universities that played in March Madness.
Not surprisingly, I often see shirts from my alma mater, Notre Dame, which has legions of T-shirt-wearing fans and a bookstore that appears to carry more apparel than books. Globalization has seemed particularly real to me, however, when I’ve spotted men in Tanzania wearing shirts from my hometown youth soccer league and from my tiny Catholic high school in Iowa.
In a country where people don’t keep dogs as pets and where there is no booming Irish population or anyone named Keith, it can be entertaining to see people wearing T-shirts identifying them as “World’s Biggest Poodle Fan” and “Keith’s Me, I’m Irish.” I once saw a young man who could not have been more than 18 years old sporting a T-shirt emblazoned “Proud Grandfather of a Michigan State Graduate.”
Just as globalization has lowered the prices of so many of the products we rely on, used clothing here is very affordable. While some shirts seem out of place, spending less on clothing enables families to spend more in other areas.
At the same time, the simple T-shirt can also represent some negative elements of our flat world. Mass-produced used clothing has made clothing very cheap, though it also employs far fewer people than if clothes were locally made.
T-shirts are also evidence of a disposable society and a culture of waste. Go to any consignment store, and you will find many T-shirts that were worn only once or maybe not at all, including the ubiquitous family reunion T-shirt. As an experienced thrift-store shopper myself, I can attest that no one wants to buy another family’s reunion shirt. (Of course, that doesn’t stop people from donating them and consignment stores from trying to sell them.)
I find the humble T-shirt to be also a good symbol for our universal and increasingly “flat” church. Feeding the global glut of T-shirts is a desire to represent or remember a very particular group or event, like the homecoming powder puff game at Lincoln High School in 2013. Similarly, the root of the big-C Church is a very small-c community of people praying together.
While there has always been a movement of materials in order to produce things, like a T-shirt, the scope of trade has expanded dramatically in recent decades. Analogously, even our creed states the catholic—that is, universal—nature of our church, but the flatness of information, communication and migration offer our church new opportunities and new challenges.
Just as a T-shirt held over from childhood will no longer fit the same way, and it would be silly to try to wear it, we as a church will also need to adapt to our increasingly flat world.