Theology for an Urban World (1) two views of the city

This is the first post in series on a new book by David Smith Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World which addresses one of the great themes of the 21st Century – urbanisation. Over half the world’s population now live in cities and the effects of such rapid and intense urbanization reach far further.

Aerial view of Dublin

In the introduction, Smith outlines two popular theological responses to the city. Each one drawn from the biblical narrative that begins with a perfect garden and ends with a perfect city.

One dreams of an idyllic rescue from the city. A restoration of Eden. Where the city is a place to be endured now and again but not lived in.  In this framework, the city is a disaster, the burden of civililsation, a place of darkness. Some sociologists point to the link between the rise of great industrial cities and enslavement, forced labour, and destruction. The city is linked with Empire, wars, invasion and power and militarisation. Smith talks of profoundly anti-urban traditions in various disciplines (including theology) that see it as a ‘parasite’, a ‘vampire’, a ‘man-eater’. This is city as symptom of human voraciousness and pride.

He doesn’t mention this here, but as a huge fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, you see his anti-urban theology bubbling away barely hidden under the story line in all four books. Just think the mechanisation and destruction wrought by Saruman and the orcs, his betrayal of Fangorn Forest, their ugly destructive militarisation, the scouring of the idyllic Shire and the simple good life of the rural Hobbits  and so on … Tolkien didn’t like industrialisation and urbanisation. His books long for the past – for a utopian retreat from the ravaging effects of ‘civilisation’.

But there is another way to interpret the city. If you read the narrative backwards, the telos, the goal of the story of the Bible is the city of God.

The future – God’s future – is urban, and since the final image in the Bible is of a city whose proportions far exceed those of any existing megalopolis, the transition from rural innocence to urban civilization is granted the divine stamp of approval. p.23

And so in this framework the city can be interpreted as a place of creativity, life, vibrancy, culture, community, ideas, full of potential and leading to liberation.

And Smith brings in Augustine and his Two Cities. One dark and dysfunctional and of this world (Babylon) one full of light, hopeful and of the next world (the New Jerusalem).

The tension to be explored in this book is this promised urban future of God in which creation and civilisation are reconciled. This is no utopian retreat to a rural idyll. But a city in which humans dwell in harmony with their God and exercise their full God-given and restored image.

So what is your attitude to the city? Do you love the city and all it brings with it? Or do you avoid city life like the plague and certainly would not live there (joining the middle class ‘flight to the suburbs’)? Or somewhere inbetween?

3 thoughts on “Theology for an Urban World (1) two views of the city

  1. hey Patrick, I’m interested by this book. I’ve been thinking a lot about cities and what they might look like from a Christian point of view.

    I’ve heard Tim Keller talk (well on Youtube and other things) about the importance of going to the cities for the gospel and I have to say that it annoys me a bit.
    Not that it isn’t important of course, but is it any less important than reaching those rural communities out in the sticks for the gospel? Guess that I don’t trust that his worldview mightn’t have been skewed by ministering in New York….not sure why it annoys me. Perhaps because there is a danger of loosing sight that the city depends on the country for it’s survival or health? The vast majority of food eaten in Dublin tonight came from the country somewhere in the world. Maybe because we don’t really understand that country and city are in relationship?

    In my mind I imagine that we should be aiming for a garden city. Like Lisburn Garden CIty or Dublin Garden City. But the

  2. Hi Dave, sorry for the delay.
    David teaches a MA module at IBI. His breadth of reading is impressive and how he brings different disciplnes to bear on thinking about the city. I think it is a must read for thinking theologically about the city from a Christian viewpoint. I think as we go we will come back to your ‘reconciliation’ of garden and city.
    And I like his critical appraisal of the city – as fallen and ambivalent – as well as a place of great creativity and thought and ideas. I don’t know Keller’s urban theology well enough to say if it is too ‘uncritical’ of the dark side of the city – I do know about his gospel ecosystem in the city and have blogged through Generous Justice which has a holistic vision.
    Check out an interesting blog post by David Fitch on Keller and the city

  3. hey Patrick, I think I might search out that book sometime soon.

    I guess my problem with going after the cities (if you can phrase it like that) and trying to influence them for the gospel is the same one as when we go for the movers and shakers of the world and try to influence them so that they can be influential…it’s like if we get the most famous, well connected person we can to become a Christian (like a Bono) we can have most influence for Jesus so it’s wise to focus on reaching him
    The cities are where the power lies (or is perceived to lie) within countries – but is the Good News about trying to influence the powerful? It’s like the lost sheep mattered even though the good shepherd had 99 other sheep. If a church focuses all it’s energy and resources into the city at the expense of the rural maybe it’s a similar sort of thing..

    not sure, just some of the things I be thinking about!

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