Does God Really Love Cities More?


philly-coffee-reflection-buildingThe seminary program I’m in is one focused on urban centers, and to that end we end up reading writings by a crew of pastors and theologians and who want to give a theological emphasis to cities. I’m currently in a course in which we’re reading people like Tim Keller and Harvie Conn.

I bought in to all of this for a long time, but now I’m having some reservations (some of which I’ve mentioned before), which I want to offer up to you all and get your thoughts.

Urban “versus” Rural?

Ever since moving into cities, I’ve fallen in love with them. After hearing Tim Keller talk about them for the first time while in college, I totally bought into the centrality of cities into God’s ongoing mission.

And then….I met my now-fiancee, who grew up Mennonite on a 300-acre dairy farm in Western Pennsylvania. And it threw all my thoughts on this issue upside down.

I go out to her family farm, and there’s no way that I can say that God’s mission and presence is any less active, central, or needed in that area.

I’ve realized there is injustice and need. Most government benefits go to white rural Americans than minority ones. Rural poverty is as big an issue (and some would say more of one) than urban poverty. There is addiction, loneliness, brokenness, and injustice. Cities have no monopoly on that.

I’ve realized there is culture. I go there, and the aunts, uncles, and grandparents tell and retell the stories of generations of their family members going back hundreds of years. They have hymn-sings, folk festivals, and make art. There is education. Nearly all of my fiancee’s family members: siblings, aunts, uncles, parents, and cousins all have (or are pursuing) graduate degrees. Again, cities have no monopolies on this stuff.

In short, I see the practicality in centralizing urban centers in our missional work. I’m with Keller there. Power, culture, influence, etc. flow from cities to other areas. I get that. Cities are of strategic, practical importance. But of uniquely theological importance? I don’t know.

I have three concerns about how this conversation usually goes–even in our readings and lectures this week.

Racism & Colonialism

These discussions nearly always have the narrative that “we” are now “rediscovering” the importance of cities. And this is true, as along as we understand that the “we” is referring to white evangelicals.

When I first dove all-in to Keller’s stuff, I began talking a lot within that same narrative that “Christians left the cities because they thought cities were bad, and now the cities are in need of more Christians living, serving, and ministering there. And these are the prooftexts to motivate you…”

But I’ve only more recently had to come to terms with the fact that this is a “white lie”. Christians did not leave the city. Those with power and privilege (a.k.a. “whiteness”) left the cities, but there have been thousands (millions?) of Black and minority led ministries and churches that stayed and sustained cities while resources left the city and wrong-headed, militant political responses came in.

Therefore, I find it sort of disingenuous when all the white males we are reading/listening to want to try and give theological correctives to refocus our urban ministry, when the original problem was not theological, but sociological. Yes, the Gospel is ultimately the answer to cities having been neglected by white evangelicals, but it needs to do so by changing our engagement with power and privilege, not primarily by changing our theology of cities.

Prooftexting

Because this is an issue primarily about (and by) white evangelicals, these discussions/readings/lectures still seem to use the simplistic theological tools of evangelicalism, namely prooftexting.

Yes, “the story of redemption begins in a garden and ends in a city.” Yes, there is a convincing argument that Luke has some deeper meaning behind his use of the word “city”. Yes, the turning points of redemptive history in God’s primary witness to his work–Scripture–happens in, through, and around cities.

But (using the same way of reading the Bible), in the Exodus, God takes his people out of the city and takes them into the wilderness. When Israelites talk of their land, they talk about its dirt, natural resources, beauty, etc., not the human-made culture. The primary act of redemption–the Cross–very intentionally happens “outside the city”. In the “City of God” of Revelation, there’s still a river running through it and trees.

That’s not to argue for a rural primacy. It’s to highlight a problem for the Kellers of the world: why do we need to have a Bible verse to justify doing ministry anywhere? What is it inside of evangelicals that make them feel that they can only mobilize for that which they can have a Bible verse slapped onto their coffee mugs?

Geographical Complementarianism

Okay, this thought only came to me this past week, so it’s fresh. It’s also sort of weird and could be unnecessarily divisive. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to do that. Please be gracious. But when we turn this discussion about urban mission into a theological one, rather than simply a pragmatic one, I fear we fall into something I’m calling “Geographical Complementarianism”.

Just like gender complementarians want to say that both men and women are “equal”, but there is one that is the “head” and has a certain initiating responsibility in the mission of God, it feels like many of these “urban theologians” do the same with the urban/rural divide.

There is a long literary, theological, historical, aesthetic, and philosophical association of “the feminine” with the natural world, and cities with “the industrious masculine”. Could it be that all this emphasis on urban ministry is, in a sense, Geographical Patriarchy that wants to force otherwise equal entities into some hierarchical order?

Why can’t we be Geographical Egalitarians, who see the good gifts of both sides and understand they each have a unique and necessary role in the plan of God which requires each Christian to engage with God and discern where they might be called to be most obedient?

So what do you think? Where am I misreading these other thinkers? How are we perhaps saying the same thing, only differently?

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4 thoughts on “Does God Really Love Cities More?

  1. First thoughts:
    1) I think much of the “primacy of the city” narrative/theology is a result of a sort of urban snobbery that is far to easy to fall into. I think that suburbs are detrimental to our environment, culture, communities, etc., but that doesn’t mean the people there are any less important or worthy of love or consideration. While I think that suburban living is incredibly destructive, so is much about my life and the gospel is need in the suburbs, too.
    2) We, in the cities, tend to relegate rural areas as sort of “lesser suburbs”, rather than a unique environment. Thus, we tend to view it as a sort of naive wrong–they’re like the suburbanites, but they don’t know any better. Instead, rural life is life-giving and supplies the very stuff of life (food, fuel, fresh air, fresh water) to the rest of us.
    3) The story may start in a garden and end in a city, but the garden start is paradise. It is perfect and without sin.
    4) When the post-garden ruralty is created (requiring food to come from sweat and hard work, thorns, etc.), there is nobility in working the land. While the counterpoint could be Cain’s sacrifice of grain (considering his failure to be in working the land, rather than tending animals (and I’m aware this would probably be a misinterpretation of the story)), tending the animals is also rural work. The shepherd is a celebrated image of the Lord.
    5) I don’t know how the volume of references compares, but there is plenty of rural (or *pastoral*) imagery and exaltation in the Bible. See the many pastoral parables in Matthew (sowing, talents, treasure hid in a field, mustard seed).

    I think 1 & 2 are the result of pride and wanting to be see the way we’ve chosen to live as the right way to live, coupled with an ignorance of rural life. I think people like Tim Keller are trying to build a theological and christian sociological basis assuring Christians that living in a city is okay, and even good! However, when they exclude or diminish the dignity and importance of rural life in the Kingdom, I think they do it a disservice. This, coupled with our societal disinterest/disdain for rural people, causes the idea that the city is all that matters.

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  2. This is really interesting Paul – thanks for sharing. I think the “started in a garden, ends in a city” mentality is helpful for privileged suburban Christians who view cities as little more than big, bad, mission fields and not robust and vibrant places that are actually worth living. It’s important to counteract that attitude, but not at the expense of rural areas.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on suburbia, as I’m still trying to reconcile my affection for my hometown with everything I now know about how destructive suburbs can be.

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  3. I just want you to know that you were not alone in the tension you were feeling about the biblical-theological lens of Conn (and Keller) being skewed toward the city. (We talked a bit about this on day one of the intensive also.) What about the pastors working hard in the suburbs? And those who go out in the middle of nowhere to serve those in the far-flung, lonely places of this country (and others)? God loves rural and small town settings! And, as was pointed out in class, if we’re truthful, most of us involved in urban ministry want to be there because it’s cool. So as we learned from our lecture, the priority of the city that we see in the Bible really does have to do with the practical reality of it. Trade routes led to cities. Cities were places of influence, governance, and social services. And vulnerable populations generally move through the city. Human flourishing and justice were embodied in these places of high density populations. As the city goes, so goes the region. But again, that is a sociological truth. I would propose that a “theology of the suburbs” and a “theology of the small country town” is the same as the theology of the city. It is all the theology of the earth–a theology of culture-making, no matter where God has called us to live, no matter where God has called us to engage the world.

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  4. In many ways, your post resonates with thoughts that I too have had regarding the theology of the city. Especially as starting new churches in cities has become increasingly “hip.” Many who don’t seem to be a great fit or who know next to nothing about city life show up thinking that within a few months they’ll have started the next Redeemer. They are led by a shallow city theology that they’ve downloaded from a Keller book or sermon, and often times do more harm than good to long term residents.

    When I think about those like Conn, Bakke, or even Keller — who’ve developed much of this theology — I do still feel a strong appreciation despite the outcome I mentioned above. I believe that their theologies were more about getting largely majority culture evangelicals to stop turning their backs on and dismissing the city, and less about finding a Bible verse slogan. Their enthusiasm was needed to begin to push the concern of the predominantly white church back in the direction of the city at all, which if the church is to find any kind of unity across diversity, was necessary.

    However, I do think that it’s now time to begin to give a more full picture of what it looks like for the church to be faithful in every type of space people inhabit. It is also imperative for churches of the majority culture who are reawakening to the city to become more aware of the fact that God never left the city and many faithful ethnic churches have continued to do God’s work.

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