Urban Theology (13) The New Jerusalem

In the final section of chapter 7 ‘From John of Patmos to Jesus’ in his book Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world, David Smith turns to the book of Revelation and John’s deeply subversive vision of the future.

A comment to start: if the current global financial crisis has shown us anything, it is that what we assume is stable and fixed and certain is, in reality, anything but. Our ‘Western way of life’ and all its many assumptions about the why things should be, is looking decidedly shaky. And it is only major shocks to the system that make us begin to re-imagine different possibilities, different ways of being. At the moment the entire post WWII European project is up for grabs – and some would say the very structure of the capitalist system that has underpinned it.

So to David Smith – who suggests John’s Revelation offers a different imaginative world to the readers. A shock to the status quo, a dramatic visual text enabling them to reimagine the unimaginable – a different world to the dominant, all-powerful, military and economic might of the eternal city – Rome.

He quotes Richard Bauckham, Revelation is

“the most powerful piece of resistance literature from the period of the early Empire”

Smith identifies three ways the Apocalypse achieves this subversive purpose:

1) It provides an alternative Christian imagination to that of Empire. John is soaked in visual imagery and dramatic symbolism – an imagination with an almighty God at its heart, ruling the world.

2) It tells the alternative subversive story of the nations – in contrast to the myth of Rome [Babylon], the whore. Rome is built on suppression of the nations. Pax Romana is exposed as a convenient story behind which lies political and economic exploitation. The true story of the nations is a future where every culture is respected under teh Lordship of the crucified and risen Christ (5:9-10; 7:9; 21:24).

3) John tells of an alternative future: of a city that is yet to come, a utopian vision of the New Jerusalem. This vision lies in utter contrast Babylon [Rome] and the destruction of the Rome and its empire is a perquisite for the arrival of the heavenly city.

And the basis for this alternative vision is the resurrection of the crucified Lamb (1:17-18), an event which of course has already happened.

So a big point: this future vision is

a culmination of a process by which, from Pentecost onwards, the alternative city of God has been under construction, built on the foundations laid in the salvation of the world brought about by Christ.

This is inaugurated eschatology – although ‘not yet’ visible, the future is present and changes the meaning of the here and now.

And coming back to the urban theme – this future vision is of a giant city. And Smith proposes a form of continuity theology here – a city in which all of human art, culture, politics, work and activity that has contributed to establishing this new age of justice, carries over into the heavenly city.

A city in which urban life and nature live in harmony. A city of healing and beauty. A perfected vision, that no urban planner has been able to create, however utopian the dreams.

A city in which there is no temple (no church) – in other words where God is all in all and where there is no sacred / secular divide.

What implications all this theology has for our modern urban world is the question to which Smith turns in the last chapter.

Any strike you before we get there?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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