On Loving and Hating Places

There are a few more things that need to be said as we wrap up this week’s Crump-related fun. (And no, I did not watch last night’s debate so do not ask me about it. I was busy playing Football Manager and reading Anthony Esolen.)

There is a way of opposing the political establishment that really is nihilistic and conservatives have been very good at it in recent years. Indeed, there is almost certainly a strong link between the success of the professional malcontents on the right like Rush Limbaugh and the ascent of candidates like Crump. That is what we need to avoid now. Continue reading

Fear the Lifestyle that will Kill Body and Soul

I got a lot of responses to my recent Christianity Today article on vaccines, but one of the more arresting ones was from a mother who asked me what I would say to the parents of a child who had clearly been injured or killed by a vaccine. Would I just slap that mother or father on the back and say, “thanks for taking one for the team!” with a solemn nod?

In preparing to go to South Sudan as a medical missionary, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen if something happened to myself or my children while we’re on the field. My future team leader nearly lost his daughter to a mysterious tropical illness and lost his sight in one eye in the same week. There are real risks that our families face when we travel to a remote place for the sake of the Gospel, though many of these risks are unavoidable to any parent and they’re simply magnified in a malarial war zone. We all want to keep our children safe from physical dangers and most parents (even non-Christians) recognize that there are equal or greater spiritual and moral dangers present in every cultural milieu. Stepping out in faith often requires more direct confrontation with such dangers. How do we think about preparing for such dangers as a community of faith? Continue reading

The American Conservative’s Case Against the Suburbs

The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.

Reagan and Kirk (photo courtesy Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Center)

Suburban Critics?

In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principlesat least how that term is usually defined in the American political discoursefor they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.


Thomistic New Urbanism

The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.

Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental. Continue reading

Do we Really Need Small Towns?

This bit from my friend Jake Meador’s excellent piece on why we need small towns has lingered with me:

No, we don’t all have to move to small towns to find these communities. But small towns make that sort of community more plausible. Big cities run on transience and mobility. They are filled with rental housing and freeways designed to make movement over large areas easier. And they are supported by an economy that assumes people will switch careers and homes several times in the course of their lives.

In such a world, the memory of small-town life is an antidote to the frantic pace that defines the city and deadens the soul. But with small towns withering away, what will protect us from the hectic, hypermobile life of the city? In a world where so many of us are like Jayber—haunted by the pains inflicted upon us as well as our own sinful heart—where will we go to be healed and restored? How many of us will be given the time to slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions?

My own take on this is similar to what I think about cities and suburbs:  any theologically minded commentary on how we relate to a place, and how places form us, must be unremittingly ambivalent in its approach.  It is true that small towns can make “community more plausible,” as Jake puts it.  But “community” can also become downright hostile to outsiders and overly protective of its own. The recent Maryville horror story–and there is no other word for it–is simply that sort of debased protectiveness magnified to the extreme.  Loving one’s own has real dangers within it, when it is not mediated and transformed by more fundamental loves.  Small towns and cities strike me as equally conducive to virtue, even if their challenges take a very different form.  And yes, all this points to affirming Jake’s fundamental point that we need pastors to go to small towns now more than ever.  As a child of a town of three thousand people, I found Jesus there–and a whole lot else beside.

But then, if what Jake thinks small town life provides is an “antidote to the frantic pace of life that defines the city and deadens the soul,” then I suspect there are no such thing anymore–not with the internet, anyway, and the inescapable mental franticness that the distractions of Facebook and Twitter introduce.  It is doubtlessly the case that for most people in small town, Facebook provides additional texture to their embedded lives, rather than having the sort of globalizing effect that it does for other people.  Yet even so, using them on a smartphone–as nearly everyone these days does, it seems–invariably tears our attention in multiple directions.  It is not the “hectic, hypermobile life of the city” that we need to be concerned about but the online equivalent, which introduces placelessness as a way of life into every community no matter what the size.  We may be given the time to “slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions” (a perhaps very gracious nod to a recent work of mine?).  But few of us will take it.

It’s for this reason that I was happy to see Jake’s wrestling with the way in which the dislocatedness of his writing fits into small town life:

While it’s preferable to have a small town populated with remote workers like Dreher than no small towns at all, I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else. Speaking only for myself as a writer based in Lincoln, NE whose reading habits more closely resemble a resident of Washington DC or New York than my midwestern neighbors, I have real questions about the strength of a community shared by people who share a place but not an economy. My own experience of life in Lincoln suggests that cultivating deep community when people share a place but not an economy may be quite difficult.

The economic point here is a crucial one, as it goes much deeper than simply having a job that pays bills.  Our work entangles us in the world in our entirety, not in part, if we are to do it well.  Our work is a role, yes, but it is a role that we assume without fragmenting ourselves.  We invest ourselves in our work; our work pervades the entirety of our lives, forming our desires and establishing a scope for our interests.  The tension of living in a place and working elsewhere is not simply one of not having to leave our front doors in order to get to the office and so bumping elbows with our neighbors on the way.  Rather, it is a question about where our investments are and what it means to be in a place when such a fundamental mode of our existence takes all our concerns elsewhere.  We can deflate the “economy” so that it is only a transaction of money in exchange for some sort of service; but that may be to enter into a mode of working that lies at the heart of the alienation that many people feel in their lives, to give ourselves over to the very problem that the emphasis on place is meant to address.

Let me put the point differently, then:  if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from.  It is not enough to hand out Wendell Berry and consider the work of describing the interests of small-town life done, though Rod Dreher’s Little Way does this too, it seems.  If there is something distinctively good there, some sort of formation that can occur anywhere but which might be especially concentrated in the way of life that is wholly integrated into a small community, then we need writers willing to forgo the temptations of universalism that the internet presents and take up their pen and describe the granular, frequently petty and occasionally heroic forms of life that make small-town life uniquely indispensable.  It may take a form of writing that is as parochially concerned as the people it represents.  But if it is the case that the true wisdom is found within the limiting, narrow particulars of a small-town life, it is just within such parochialism that we will see the world properly.

Otherwise, I may be left wondering whether we really need small towns after all, or whether they too are simply one more place of ambivalence equivalent to all the rest.

Responses to Why We Need Small Towns

small-town NebraskaOne of the frustrations of a short-form essay is that you don’t get to say all the things you’d like to say about the topic. This in turn leads to responses which actually end up saying many of the things you’d have liked to say if only you had more space. So it is with the responses to my Why We Need Small Towns essay published recently at Rod Dreher’s blog and at Brian Gumm’s Restorative Theology.

The essential point raised in both responses is that it’s lovely to speak of the necessity of small-town life and of what small towns can teach us, but if we don’t have a plan for participating in and preserving the economic life of small towns, we are radically unprepared to actually act upon any of our words in any meaningful way. That’s a true point, and certainly one deserving of a response.

To begin, small towns may not be as doomed economically as they’re sometimes made out to be. One of the blessing of the foodie craze is that more and more young people are looking to farm. While it’s true that the food fad has inspired lots of silliness, it has also pushed us toward a greater awareness of our dependence upon creation and our responsibility to steward it affectionately–and for that we ought to give thanks.

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Why Cities Matter: A Review

My latest post on hating suburbia precipitated a great number of substantive responses. I want to continue the discussion by reviewing the new book, Why Cities Matter by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard. Both men are pastors of Gospel Coalition-ish churches in Boston and Silicon Valley, respectively. They are also aspiring Kellerites. Not only does Keller pen the foreword, but there are nearly twenty citations to his book Center Church, several attributions to his articles like “A Biblical Theology of the City,” and even one reference to his unpublished notes.

The book’s title encapsulates its purpose; Um and Buzzard endeavor to explain why cities are important to the economic and evangelistic future of the world. They do this with both sociological data on how and why cities are centers of power, culture, and worship, and then theological reflection on God’s view of cities.Why-Cities-Matter

Their theological insight takes the form of a biblical word-study of “city” from Genesis to Revelation. It is not exactly the most contextually sensitive of readings. For example, they write that Jesus ministered in an “undeniably urbanized environment” because he makes reference to courts, market squares, and interest-bearing accounts, and they write that Paul’s letters are “even more urban than we think” in that they are “written from cities to cities… [so Paul] does not need to argue for the necessity of ministry to cities.” For those of you scoring at home, Jesus is urban even though he’s in the countryside because he mentions cities, and Paul is urban even though he doesn’t really mention cities because he is in the city. Like proverbial men with hammers, they certainly see a great number of nails.

I wish this was the only absurdity in their biblical study of cities, but it is actually typical. Other exegetical stretches include: “Eden may well have included buildings,” “God is the ultimate, creative, entrepreneurial urban planter,” and “When God’s people’s commitment to the urban mandate fizzled out, he personally took up responsibility for the mission, took on human flesh, and was born into the city (Luke 2: 11).” FACT: According to scholars, the population of the City of David at the time of Jesus’ birth was 300 – 1000. I had touched on this odd exegetical phenomenon in my first piece on Metro-Evangelicals, but the sloppiness continues to amaze.

The remainder of the book contains helpful missiological advice for reaching cities and it is here that Um and Buzzard hit their stride. They counsel avoiding twin temptations of city living: “overadapting” by conforming one’s life to the culture of the city or “underadapting” by privatizing one’s faith in order to be approved by peers. One technique they suggest is to understand the storyline of your city—that is, the dreams and cultural values of your locale—and rewrite it with a Gospel ending.

The gospel doesn’t eradicate a city’s story, but it brings completeness to it. Once a city’s story has been challenged, it must be retold. And it must be retold to show that a city’s story can only find a happy ending through Jesus’s substitutionary resolution and completion of the themes of the city’s story line. The gospel resolves the thickening tension in the city’s narrative, and shows that resolution, relief, and rest are to be found only in Jesus Christ.

This is wonderful advice, but it would seem equally applicable in urban, suburban, or rural environments, which brings me to the chief weakness of the book.

Equivocating on the Meaning of “City”

From the outset of the book there is ambiguity as to the definition of “city.” Keller’s foreword lays out some facts about the increasing importance of cities. He quotes the CEO of Gallup that “as goes the leadership of the top 100 American cities, so goes the country’s economic future.” Continue reading

Why Do We Hate the Suburbs?

Anthony Bradley struck a nerve in his probing post on the dysfunctions of Evangelical twenty-somethings. He blames two salient ideas: the “missional narcissism” of the Radicals and the anti-suburban dictates of the Metro-Evangelicals. Both trends are animated by the conviction that the comfortable, consumer-driven suburban life of the previous generation of Evangelicals was a travesty. The young people Bradley is encountering are paralyzed for fear that they will recreate their parents’ lifestyle choices and hold down hum-drum jobs in a peaceful ‘burb.

Bradley, while spurring these young folks to action, did not actually defend the suburban lifestyle — chiding the “lukewarm Christians” living in “safety, comfort, and material ease” there — but he just thought that the Radicals and Metro-Evangelicals were overreacting.

In response to Bradley’s mild critique of this reflexive anti-suburbanism, the editors at Fare Forward (HT: Mere-O Notes!) reflexively proclaimed their anti-suburbanism:

[T]here are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. . . [A]s the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary lives and ordinary relationships.

In other words, “No, really, suburbs are that bad.”

Dalas skyline and suburbs

Dalas skyline and suburbs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am prepared to say the unthinkable: suburbs are good. Stay with me now. While suburbs have suffered decades of derogatory propaganda, there is still much to be commended. In fact, I wonder if the only reason we think suburbs are bad is because we were told they were bad and we believed it.

Hating the Suburbs since 1921
Denigrating suburban living has been a favorite pastime amongst the hip-cool set for almost a century. Joel Kotkin outlines some of this history in a fabulous post on his New Geography blog. Since the 1920’s when Lewis Mumford described the expansion of New York’s outer boroughs as a “dissolute landscape” and “a no-man’s land which was neither town or country” the chattering class has been convinced that suburbia is eternally boring and somewhat sinister. F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed this jazz age sentiment in The Great Gatsby by describing the inferiority of the “bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions.”
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Metro-Evangelicals and Their Organic Produce

Over at his Gospel Coalition blog, Jared Wilson has followed my lead by sticking his thumb in the eye of the Metro-Evangelical consensus with a post titled “Rural Ministry: Too Cool for Hipsters?” In his post he quotes my friend and Hillsdale College compatriot Darryl Hart on the inconsistencies within the younger set’s worldview. Hart wishes

… that Christians, who have discovered the value of wholesome food and the farming practices that produce it, would translate their choices about diet and carbon footprints into congregations and pastors more circumspect about cities and more respectful of the fly-over sectors of the greatest nation on God’s green earth[.]

It isn’t just Evangelicals who suffer with such inconsistency. At the core of the hipster aesthetic is a simultaneous championing of slowed-down, artisan craftsmanship along with a preference to reside in densely-populated urban cores. These tastes are not naturally compatible as there are sure to be times where their rejection of mass production will conflict with their preference for massed population.

English: Rural Church. The sign to the left of...

English: Rural Church. The sign to the left of the door reads “Welcome to our Church”. I don’t know any more than that. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wilson also quotes Hart’s theory as to what explains these competing preferences, a desire “to elevate one’s own status by hobnobbing with the influential.”  This may be right. After all, what is the common factor that bridges folks who buy limited-run items and yet live in large cities? Disposable income, and a lot of it. I understand that this imputation of a less than grand motivation is sure to raise some ire, but I believe that it is a conversation worth having.

However, I’m not sure that Hart and the folks at Front Porch Republic get all the way there. Despite living in a small town myself and enjoying the occasional arugula-based salad (made with produce harvested from my own backyard garden, of course), I don’t want to put my lifestyle on a pedestal. I think that the best, most sacrificially Christian activities I undertake are when I get outside of my cultural box and take time to talk with my blue-collar neighbors. Doing so is much more difficult for me than speaking with a big firm attorney, sure, but I can’t really share a common love of Mumford and Sons with them either. They are neither urban nor urbane and thus provide me with an actual opportunity for self-giving love. These are the folks who present me with Matthew 25-type opportunities:

I was shopping at Walmart, and you did not sneer at me;
I was eating at McDonald’s, and you did not condemn my palate.

More than joining the call for Christian hipsters to be more consistent in their embrace of a quasi-Luddite way of life, I want to see greater love for folks who are less educated, less influential, and less wealthy. We may do better to reflect on the virtues of eating at Burger King and KFC instead of exulting in our grass-fed beef and free-range poultry.

Are the Metro Evangelicals Right?

Andy Crouch (or his headline writer) coined the catchy term “metro-evangelicals” to describe the growing urban resurgence within American evangelicalism. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Crouch explains that pastors like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll see cities as the beachhead of a new evangelization. Crouch’s magazine, Christianity Today, has launched an extensive series on this work of God (This is Our City).

My first two reactions are profound rejoicing at the sending of workers into the harvest and profound prayer that these efforts may bear much fruit. To all who are called there (like my two siblings in Manhattan) the great opportunity and great difficulty should always occasion our concern and support.

A panorama of Lower Manhattan as viewed from t...

A panorama of Lower Manhattan as viewed from the Staten Island Ferry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there is a timbre amidst all of this city-centrism that troubles me.

Maybe this is because the metro-evangelicals are not counter-cultural, but rather a baptized version of New Urbanism. In a culture that idolizes living in a loft in a gentrifying art district, a church planter is not exactly bearing a cross in deciding to “rough it” under such conditions.

Maybe it is that some of its advocates tell a story that previous generations fearfully abdicated the dirty, sinful cities. Thus, all this new “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” generation needs do is show up and things will get better. It’s worth noting that this mythical Evangelical abandonment never really happened and we should be more careful at imputing impure motives to previous generations of believers.

Or maybe the metro-evangelicals’ claims of self-importance are so hyperbolic that they insult the gospel work being done in less densely populated zipcodes. For example, some urbanist church planters claim that cultural transformation emanates exclusively from cities, as Mark Driscoll writes: Continue reading

On the Height of the Buildings in Heaven

Ever wonder about the buildings in heaven? And the block sizes?

Two articles sparked similar thinking the other day. The first is in the most recent Atlantic, from Harvard economist and polymath Edward Glaeser. It’s about how skyscrapers promote human flourishing by pushing the price of space down and density up: the key ingredients for vibrant culture and business. It takes an especially interesting turn when Glaeser explains how Mumbai is failing its poor people by restricting building height:

Limiting heights didn’t stop urban growth, it just ensured that more and more immigrants would squeeze into squalid, illegal slums rather than occupying legal apartment buildings…Mumbai is short, so everyone sits in traffic and pays dearly for space…An abundance of close and connected vertical real estate would decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a 21st-century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space. Yet instead of encouraging compact development, Mumbai is pushing people out.

The second article is by big-deal pastor Tim Keller, who catalogs the differences between different-sized churches. He puts the parting shot in someone else’s mouth, but it’s a bomb either way:

Schaller shows that the very large church is more accessible and capable of reaching young people, single people, the unchurched, and seekers than smaller churches are. He then poses a question: If the need for very large churches is so great, why are there so few? Why don’t more churches (a) allow the senior pastor to become less accessible, (b) allow the staff to have more power than the board, (c) allow a small body of execu­tive staff to have more decision-making power than the larger staff or congregation, or (d) allow directors more power to hire competent workers and release generalists? His main answer is that the key to the very large church culture is trust. In smaller churches, suspicious people are much happier…The larger the church gets, however, the more and more the congregation has to trust the staff, and especially the senior pastor…ultimately a very large church runs on trust.

To be fair to Keller, he says earlier in the article that different-sized churches shouldn’t be judgmental toward one another, but the implication is clear: to reach the unchurched, we need to get over our big church hang-ups. Or, put another way, we need to figure out how to make big churches better.

I’m interested in whether these two articles bear some mutually-informing relationship to one another. Maybe I’m reaching, but maybe not. The deep magic is everywhere.