The 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 girlfriend 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 promise, this is the most important thing you’ll read today. One of the many stunning facts: in this report:
“As a result of these trends, black men younger than 35 without a high school degree are now more likely in America to be imprisoned than employed in the labor market”
It’s been too long since we’ve had a political post hasn’t it? Last week, as part of my “Urban Lessons” mini-series, I wrote on how cities are perhaps the fountainheads of everything that ends up in suburban and rural areas. The things that take place in cities, it seems, always ends up flowing outward into the rest of the country, even if it takes decades or generations to do so.
I had that on my mind when watching this segment of The Rachel Maddow Show from Monday night’s episode. The segment is based off an excellent piece by Alexander Burns in Politico called “GOP big-city mayors vanish”. In it, Burns writes:
Largely unnoticed in Washington, urban Republican politicians have emerged over the last year as perhaps the nation’s most severely endangered political species, as the party has either failed to compete for high-profile mayor’s offices or has been soundly rebuffed by voters. It’s a significant setback that some Republicans view as an ominous sign for the GOP in a country growing steadily more urban and diverse.
Yesterday I started a brief little series going through some lessons I have learned from my first semester back in seminary. I first talked about how (at least in my mind) cities had to be taken off their pedestal. There are desires and needs of the human soul that can’t be met in cities. We need other types of livable environments as well.
And yet, through this semester I was re-grounded in my belief in the essential importance and centrality of urban settings. Above, you’ll find a video reflection I had to make in which I give my perspective on this question: Why should Christians engage in cities? In it, I speak about some of these dynamics that are in greater detail below. (Sorry for the poor video quality.)
I 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.
For my “Urban Christian” class, we’ve been looking into family life in urban areas. I was asked to comment on the challenges and benefits to raising kids in the city. Because it’s almost Halloween, I decided to use this incredibly cute picture as well.
Let’s face it, if you’re not already raising kids in the city (and probably even if you are), the idea of doing so can be terrifying. But, thinking about it, I wonder if this has less to do with the nature of cities themselves, and more to do with the lack of precedent many of us have when thinking through raising kids in the city.
This leads to two dynamics: fear of the unknown, and so concerns about safety, money, education, and child “corruption” by the wider culture arise because of the limited exposure most of us have to anyone that has done this before and come out the other side. This leads us to have to rely on stereotypes and caricatures of the city to inform our fears and concerns.
Let’s file this one under: Things I Never Thought I’d Say.
First, some realities.
America, almost since its founding, has had an Agrarian ideal spliced into its DNA that has thought more highly of the vision of the independent rural farmer–building himself up from nothing and sustaining his family by the work of his brow–over and above the idea of the dirty urban manufacturer, competing with others for the few jobs that are there.
Further, it’s pretty clear that during White Flight in the mid-1900s, whites took the association of “good, religious folk” with them to the suburbs (along with the support and attention of governments), leaving the cities to be seen as the cesspools of sin that deserved to rot away.
Along with this, the American Church (especially so, but this is definitely global) has tended to neglect cities, enjoying the safe numbers and comfort of the suburbs. In my opinion, this has helped ravage American faith, causing it to take on the aspects of the surrounding suburban culture, making it often isolating, consumerist, capitalistic, intellectual, based on convenience, behavior-driven, and not rooted to any sort of historical tradition or depth. (This does not extend to individuals per se, and it is a broad generalization, but it’s one that I think statistics would show is generally true.)
As I go through these seminary discussions and readings concerning the relationship between Christians and cities, two things are pretty certain for me. First, God loves cities and had/has great intentions for them. Second, things went horribly, completely, and utterly awry.
I have the privilege of taking these courses along with incredibly thoughtful people. They haven’t just taken wholesale this newly “rediscovered” urban emphasis of Christian faith. They get the reality that God and the Bible have an urban-centric feel to them, but they really want to fight for a conception of God’s work in the world that comes to bear upon every person in every type of place in the world–not just city-dwellers.
And so I’ve been wondering: is this “urban call” to Christians a general one, or does it only go out to a very specific type of person? Are the difficulties in cities so big, so intractable, and so unique that only certain types of Christians with certain types of giftings could find a place for Kingdom work?
But cities were not simply condemned because they were big or ill tuned for the industrial expansion that had seized them. What was wonderful and exciting about them–the spontaneity, the togetherness of community, the creativity that comes from getting along and not getting along, the endless characters populating the streets, the chaos–never found a natural place in the American soul. The frontier spirit that was so intrinsic to the psyche of the country, the creed of individualism and ruggedness and privacy, of staking out your own piece of land and building your own house, hardly lent itself to the culture and spirit of the city.
— Buzz Bissinger, A Prayer for the City
(see the other books I’m reading here)