Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanisation and the Christian Faith ( a refelction on a bit of a diversion)

I spent the day at the Laidlaw library in West Auckland.  They have several of the books I am wanting to read for study leave. I had read a blurb on the book "Sidewalks In The Kingdom: New Urbanisation and The Christian Faith' By Eric Jacobsen (2003, Brazos Press) and though that it might have something to say about the topic I am looking at and in a round about way it did. But at the end of the book and the end of the day I have to admit it was really rather a distraction.

Jacobsen is writing as both a theologian and pastor and an advocate of the New Urbanisation movement. He has a lot to say about how our theology affects how we view, engage with and look at future planning for how we live in an urban environment. As such it is a good read. However I didn't find it answered many of my question on New Monasticism.

The book starts by exploring the post world war two trend in North American and yes even NZ cities to sprawl in to suburbia and the effect that this has on those living in suburbia and on cities themselves. Jacobsen does seem to come at the idea of suburban sprawl from a negative perspective and possibly there is some merit in what he has to say. He quotes James Howard Kunstler

" If anything, there appears to be an inverse relationship between our growing obsession with the home as a totem object and the disintegration of families that has become the chief social phenomenon of our time. We worship this idealized container for family life, and yet it turns out that family cannot be sustained without the larger containers of community life"

He then talks of three false idols that are pervasive and anything but liberating for the modern city dweller. Individualism, Independence and freedom (rather than liberty). Jacobsen points to the way in which USA and most of western society have embraced car culture and how city living (much to its detriment ) has been shaped round everyone owning a car.

He also points at how government in the US and on reflection I'd say here in New Zealand have legislated in a way to promote suburban sprawl, through subsidising roading rather than public transport, failing to provide adequate public and high density housing, and in NZ the building trade is a major contributor to the economy, and zoning, that while starting out to solve problems of incompatible use of land has caused a separation of housing from jobs and commerce, resulting in a fragmented cityscape and lifestyle. He maintains that suburban sprawl is not desirable or sustainable. again quoting James Kunstler.

"the Idea of a modest dwelling all our own. Isolated from the problems of other people, has been our reigning metaphor for the good life for a long time. It must now be seen for what it really is an antisocial view of existence. I don't believe that we can afford to keep pertending that life is a never ending episode of 'litle house on the prairie'. We are going to have to develop a different notion of the good life and create a physical form that accommodates it"  

Again this echoes Tom Sine's affirmation that there is a need for society and for the church to look at new sustainable ways of living.

Jacobsen then gives a good overview of the place of cities in biblical thinking. From been seen as places of sin in he genesis story through the establishment of Jerusalem as both the place for YHWH worship to the new Jerusalem as John's vision of the future kingdom of God.

 He then suggests that there have been two streams or tribes within Christianity that have not been helpful in Christians viewing and understanding urban life. What he calls Private Christianity, which he equates primarily with evangelicalism, that focuses on personal evangelism and private holiness and sees the city as something to rescue people from. Social issues are primarily dealt with on an individual level. He sees that many have simply picked up the individualism of the culture and imported it directly into the church and their theology.

The other group he calls Public Christians. Those who have seen the Kingdom of God as something that is to be bought to earth on a systemic level. They have looked at establishing institutions in the city to meet the need of the poor but have in many cases been seen to loose their christian distinctive. He maintains that many of them are involved in mainline denominations and have at a national level lost the confidence of their grassroots private Christian congregations. He sums up these groups unhelpful approach to the city as  either "populating Jerusalem or forcing the Kingdom'.

In my humble opinion Jacobsen does not go far enough at looking at a possible third way that will be helpful for Christians both in their urban and suburban settings (lets face it the suburbs are where most of us live and we need to find a way to live out our christian faith in that environment as well as influence possible future urban renewal). New Monasticsm from my reading so far seems to be able to hold the desire for personal salvation and holiness and social action together well.

There is an interessting section in the book on postmodernity. That period at the end of modernity where we are not sure what is coming next. Jacobsen suggests that we live with both hypermodernity, simply going faster to try and maintain the modernity project and what Albert Borgmann calls Postmodern realism. Borgmann suggest that this is a response to life that calls for three movements. Focal realism: learning a new skill and relating to a real object (daily exercise, the culture of the table, music etc.) Patient Vigor:  developing a moral virtue as a habitual skill, acquired gradually and maintained through exercise. Thirdly, Communal celebration: communities gathering to celebrate some aspect of their shared identity. It is interesting but as I read this I could see something of how New Monasticism was rediscovering ancient skills of the faith and making them a part of their daily lives and building community round them.

Lastly Jacobsen expounds the vision and need for new Urbanisation round a discussion of his six mark of a city: public space, Mixed-use zoning, local economy, beauty and quality in the built environment, critical mass and the presence of strangers. He looks as each of these as important for the thrival of cities and the building of community.

I found his chapter on architecture rather challenging and poignant. He sees that shopping precincts are hardly buildings in the historic sense rather (again quoting Kunstler, who has a wonderful turn of phrase) "they are merchandise distribution machines that come in boxes that resemble buildings".

He points to the three reasons why corporations are not investing in beautiful buildings. Public ownership, Consumer values (efficiency above all other virtues) and change in venue for advertising (building no longer are part of the advertising plan. Why spend millions of great buildings when you can spend it on 30 second slots in the Superbowl).

Jaconbsen challenges the move to globalisation and suggests strongly that investment in the local economy rather than national and international chain stores actually pays off with relationships back to the community.

All in all Jacobsen's book is food for thought about how we live and how our cities are structured. I feel he does layout the shortcomings of suburbia and our car culture and while having some good material to contribute on where to for here he leaves me still with my questions on how to do Christian living in the urban/suburban environment unanswered. Christian communities and churches I hope are just that places of hope of a different way of living in our Urban and suburban settings... for that to happen there is great need for reform and renewal.

1 comment:

  1. Douglas Coupland's neologisms:

    The Emperor's New Mall: (page 71 - 'Generation X')

    The popular notion that shopping malls exist on the insides only and have no exterior. The suspension of visual belief engendered by this notion allows shoppers to pretend that the large, cement blocks thrust into their environment do not, in fact, exist.