From a Garden to the City?

There is a considerable movement within evangelical churches to focus ministry efforts on urban areas. Many churches are encouraging their congregations to move into cities and to work to transform and redeem cities. Dr. Tim Keller summed up the underlying concept well in his article, “A Biblical Theology of the City,” “[w]e began in a garden but will end in a city; God’s purpose for humanity is urban!” Carl Trueman took a somewhat different approach in an article over at Reformation 21 about the current urban focus. Here is an excerpt from his article:

One thing Paul and I did discuss was the current nonsense about cities being special which so dominates the popular evangelical imagination. Not that cities are not important: as areas where there are the highest concentrations of human beings, they are inevitably significant as mission fields. Rather, we were thinking of the “from a Garden to a City” hermeneutic which jumps from scripture to giving modern urban sprawl some kind of special eschatological significance. Was there ever a thinner hermeneutical foundation upon which so much has been built? OK, there probably has been, but this is still a whopper.

The prioritizing of the city is arguably a much neglected aspect of the modern hermeneutical horizon. Failure to recognize this has surely helped a rather unself-conscious approach to the city and the Bible. Indeed, it seems to have facilitated a kind of trite reification of “the city” and a rather overbearing emphasis on its theological (as opposed to sociological) significance. The Industrial Revolution is important in this regard: as industry lifted productivity out of the confines of the seasons and the soil and decisively shunted economic strength away from the rural pathways to the urban factories and offices, the superiority of the city to the countryside became a given of both Right and Left, to the Gradgrinds and to the Marxes. As the former worshipped efficiency and the pragmatics of material production, so the latter invested the urban proletariat with ultimate historical significance, a twist on Hegel’s “Last Man.”

This superiority of the urban at an economic level has been reinforced with a veritable arsenal of cultural weapons, from the linguistic (e.g., city life is often described as “authentic” while that in the suburbs is “artificial”) to the ethnic (city folk are seen as quick, sharp, savvy, sophisticated; country folk as slow, thick, simple–think accents, whether Mississippi or Gloucestershire). One could easily make the case for the existence of an urbanism which parallels Edward Said’s orientalism. Now the church is apparently on the bandwagon: missions to the city have a cool, hip status; missions to the bumpkins and the yokels (that’s English for “redneck”) not being quite so sexy. The secular aesthetic receives biblical sanction through baptism by a dodgy hermeneutic.

It is a real, practical, pastoral shame that influential churches are jumping on this urban-aesthetic bandwagon. Not that cities are not important. As I said, they are important because they contain lots of people. And, of course, almost by definition, big influential churches are in the cities because of the concentration of resources. But the suburbs are important too (and not simply for the faux urbanites who commute from thence for their urban church experience on a Sunday); and the countryside has its reached and its unreached. They may not be as cool in secular terms, and I would certainly not want to portray them as superior to or more authentic than the city in a way that some do (let’s not forget that as Marx romanticised the industrial proletariat, so the Fascists romanticised the feudal countryside); but it would be good to see the obsession with cities as some kind of eschatologically unique or superior entity disappearing from the trendy reformed discourse, to be replaced by much less contentiously significant biblical categories: those who see the cross as foolishness or an offence, and those who see it as the power of God unto salvation. It would also be good to see suburban and rural pastors being given their due as well.

So let’s cut the pretentious gibberish about urban this and urban that and move back to more biblical, less self-serving and ultimately real categories. Yes, we need to understand cities to communicate with city people. The same applies to the suburbs and to the countryside. But that is a technical matter, not a theological one. People are still people wherever you find them. As the late great theologian Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band once sang, “I’m the urban spaceman, baby, here comes the twist—I don’t exist.”

One thought on “From a Garden to the City?

  1. Jennie says:

    “The secular aesthetic receives biblical sanction through baptism by a dodgy hermeneutic.”

    I want a t-shirt with an ‘urban spaceman’ on it.

    Keep up the great work Rachel!

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