Urban Lessons: Why cities will kill your soul.


paul-philly-skyline-2I just completed my first trimester of seminary (round 2). I took a class class on Urban Christianity that, while it may not sound like a difficult and comprehensive graduate course, really was demanding at every level. So much so, in fact, it has really changed a lot of the ways I’ve thought about the city and how humans relate to it (especially Christians).

The class really caught me at just the right time. To a certain extent, even before coming to this class, I “got” it. I had imbibed enough Tim Keller and Church Planting material to understand the centrality of the city in the story of the Bible. Further, my church is now my fourth urban church plant, I go to church and live, literally, in “Center City” Philadelphia, and I work in the midst of the brokenness of the city, seeing the extremes of its beauty and brokenness in ways that few people do in their everyday lives.

And yet, especially due to the rural roots of “certain people” extremely close to me (haha), I felt I needed to engage in this class to develop a far more nuanced view of the city. And I think I got that. Over a few posts over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned through this time. I think some of these things are lessons that all of us cool urban twentysomethings could do well to internalize.

Lesson: Cities are Not the End-All-Be-All. In fact, they can destroy our souls.

Over the past few months, I had to really spend significant time thinking through the inherent culture and ethos of cities, And in the end, I’ve had to take them off the pedestal I had them on previously. This is for two broad reasons.

The first is personal. I’ve seen that the DNA of cities necessarily makes them the kinds of places that, in fact, play to and justify some of my biggest weaknesses. My social anxiety that leads to a desire to be in front of people rather than among them is, in this context, easily seen as a “gift” to be encouraged rather than a danger to my soul.

Further, my easily distractible, compulsive behaviors integrate all-too beautifully into the non-stop rigorous pace of urban living, and rarely attract rebuke. And lastly, my own insecurity that leads to a need for human affirmation is easily “fulfilled” in cities, as there’s a greater concentration of people that can build me up and make me feel “worthy” of love and relationship. Yes, yes, I know this not okay. I’m working on it.

My second disillusionment with the city is universal. As I stared into the depths of the soul of the city, I saw that, no matter how beautiful and wonderful it is, no matter how key it is to the story of Redemption, there are parts of the human soul that are simply unable to flourish there.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Every livable space has benefits and drawbacks, each of which speaks to and against certain aspects of the human self. And this is no less true for cities. The soul needs rest, it needs nature; it needs to see beauty that is not simply from human hands–this humbles us and brings out a more universal sense of awe.The flourishing human soul needs space and solitude (but not loneliness, of course).

These are human needs that simply cannot be achieved in cities. Parks conceived in the minds of humans and designed for human use don’t quite fully do it. Even urban-dwellers need to escape the urban world now and then. Cities simply cannot–by design–speak to every stirring and longing and need of the human heart. The consumeristic nature of urban environments is designed to create a lack of contentment and a consistent desire for more.

Every once and a while, we need to clear our heads of all this. Before this class, I had, without even thinking, simply bought in to the belief that cities are inherently somehow “better” than other type of livable environments. Worse, I bought into the subtle assumption that cities are closer to the heart of God than rural and suburban environments.

This is so harmful to our souls and is a wrong picture of God’s priorities. For those that care about injustice, governmental and societal neglect, poverty and hurting families–all those things we know are God’s priorities and are present in cities–we often forget that they are present in rural areas just as much as in cities. Further, as more urban areas become wealthier and whiter again, it’s pushing out lower income minorities out to the suburbs.

Cities are not the only place to pursue and work for justice. They are not the only places where stunning beauty and excitement exist. They are not the only places where Christians need to be and people need to love.

And yet, cities are absolutely essential to the life and flourishing of the entire world. And there are ways in which to live in them that don’t play into these dynamics. I love them, and you should too. And that will be the subject of my text posts.

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4 thoughts on “Urban Lessons: Why cities will kill your soul.

  1. Paul, thanks for the post. It’s good to challenge folks like me (and you) who have become somewhat of city-philes. With that said, having just returned from Italy for my wonderful honeymoon, I am powerfully reminded of how Europe seems to have done such a dramatically better job of city planning and how our obsession with suburbs in the US actually makes finding and accessing unadulterated nature more difficult. For instance, (I think I’ve mentioned this before in a related thread) I lived for a semester in Freiburg, Germany, a medium sized city (pop ~230K). I could literally jog from a fairly dense urban environment to dirt trails in the black forest in about 15 minutes. So I could have gone from a church meeting full of people to true solitude in the woods in a matter of minutes, with only the sound of cuckoo birds (they really do sound like the eponymous clocks, I kid you not). Where can you find that in the US? In Boston, which gets it right more than most places, I’d still have to get in a car and drive for 15 minutes to get to anything even close. BTW – in Philly, you really do have access to I think what you are looking for in the Wissahickon. It’s pretty untouched for an urban park. So I guess my challenge is that, if you really look, you can find what you are seeking IN your city. In other words, I don’t think it’s a fair complaint against cities that they exclude us from nature, especially your city, but rather a complaint about how in the US we design (or how “design” happens from the lack of planning) our cities.

    Secondly, I’m not sure that the first issue you raise about your personality is necessarily exclusive to cities. I think in a fairly vibrant suburb, the same issue can arise fairly easily. Especially if there is a strong church community you are engaged in. Certainly, there is more density, and more can be reached on foot, more interactions happen on your street, etc., so there is some scale from cities. But much of this still exists in suburbs and can keep you distracted from 5 till bed. (Rural is obviously a fairly different thing, although even there, community still exists and you can be busy in the middle of it).

    I agree with some of your closing comments (the poor being pushed out of cities, suburban and rural places still needing love and investment, etc.), but it seems I do take issue with your knocks against the city. You know me, I like healthy debate. 🙂

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    • the point is well taken, and know that one of the other “lessons” I’ll write about is how we can and must find those types of spaces and rhythms in urban spaces. But, perhaps in this post I hit the nature thing too hard. The deep soul-needs i think go neglected in cities goes beyond just seeing trees and such. I’m still trying to find out the best words to use, but it’s the very culture and purpose of cities that I am referring to. Everything from pace, size, openness, concentration if things and people, culture, development, how induce expressed, how those suffering express their pain, what’s valued most highly, the types of relationships formed and time spent within them, emphasis on appearance and style, consumerism, the type and emphasis of work and occupations, etc. Many (or most) if these things are BOTH the cities greatest assets and attractions (especially for me), but they definitely come with their own set of liabilities for the human soul. Rural and suburban spaces also have their own very real set of liabilities. They are not inherently “better” on any way. Just different. is that clearer? would you say that Europe experiences those dynamics differently as well? I hadn’t even thought of the International dimension. The next “lesson” I write about will touch on the lack of history and specific identity in suburbs as one of their liabilities, but if we are comparing American cities to European ones, I anticipate American cities having even less culture, history, and identity than European ones, which opens up a whole other world of comparisons and evaluations that I do not feel equipped to do 🙂

      thanks for the always, always insightful comment.

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    • oh, and know that when I refer to green and nature and rural areas, I have my girlfriend’s family farm on my mind, which is several hundred acres in mountains surrounding it. Hardly Fairmount or the Wissahickon, and hardly a fair comparison, I know.

      And please know that i still absolutely adore cities, and would have no problem if I live the rest of my life in one. I am just trying to live in them more realistically and healthily. call it over-compensation, but I just needed to go through this process of taking cities of their pedestal a little, haha.

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  2. Excellent Paul. In terms of humanity, the only real difference between the cities and the country is the density of populations. Both have their positives and weaknesses. I especially liked: “Cities are not the only place to pursue and work for justice. They are not the only places where stunning beauty and excitement exist. They are not the only places where Christians need to be and people need to love.” I’ve lived in the country most of my life and in nearly every newspaper you’ll find stories about political corruption, sexual immorality, and greed. Cities always seem to be the cultural hub of societies, information dispensers, and transportation connectors.

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