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Church, several attributions to his articles like “A Biblical Theology of the City,” and even one reference to his unpublished notes.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.”

The question is what are these top American cities? Our first flinch takes in Manhattan and maybe Los Angeles and Chicago. But the list actually includes places like Ogden, Utah and Scranton, PA because, depending on whether you’re looking at municipality or metropolitan area, the cut-off to be in the top hundred would be just over 200,000 or 500,000, respectively.

Yet, Keller seems to mean something even broader. In his next paragraph, he quotes United Nations statistics about the rapid pace of urbanization around the globe: “. . . 180,000 people move into cities across the world every day. That is nearly 5.5 million people a month, or a new San Francisco Bay Area being created every 30 days.” Maybe he’s unaware, but for the U.N. an urbanized place varies, but usually means a community with more than 2,500 inhabitants, or a not-rural place. So we’re not talking about 5.5 million people creating a new Bay Area every day, but 5.5 million people moving from the countryside into a diversity of places including small towns, suburbs, and cities.

Adding to the confusion, Keller continues, “Christians, particularly in America, are generally negative toward cities” and bemoans that, “very few American Christians have lived in urban centers.” Keller cannot be using either earlier definition as American Christians are not generally negative toward their towns and suburbs of 2,500 or more. Thus, parsing his definition of “city” closely, I believe Keller in these few pages has used the term “city” to describe three different things:

  1. ”The Top 100 City”—a metro area at least as populous as Wichita, Kansas
  2. “The Not-Rural Farmland City”—everything with a greater density than homestead farming
  3. “The Urban Center City”—places like Manhattan

Um and Buzzard sustain this pattern of equivocation in the remainder of the book. Their introduction switches from referring to global urbanization statistics (based on the not-rural definition) in one paragraph to talk of cities possessing more cultural influence than suburbs in the next. Similarly, they call for moving beyond the “typical dichotomous approach (“city v. suburbs”) of understanding the importance of cities,” yet traffic in the clichés of that dichotomy:

A twenty-something from a small, white, upper-middle-class, churchgoing Midwestern suburb who has a desire to teach high school students meets a tremendous opportunity for growth when he moves into center-city Boston.

And this one:

Cities are more friendly to the “morally relativist, urban-oriented, culturally adventurous, [and] sexually polymorphist” than are traditional suburban communities.

At some point, they seem to confuse themselves with their definitional imprecision.

They gloss over an article by Joel Kotkin in which he points out that when 20-somethings get older, they marry, start having kids, and move out to the suburbs and claim “the city” is still on the rise because suburbs are full of people who were influenced by their time in the city even though they settled in a suburb. In this instance, I think they must be operating from Keller’s urban center city definition.

Just a few pages later, Um and Buzzard claim that,

The growing human consensus seems to be that cities, despite their sometimes-crowded nature, are increasingly preferable to rural and suburban human settlements.

But this claim makes no sense if they are still using that urban center city definition, because—as they acknowledged in their response to Kotkin—people are leaving the cities for suburbs. They cannot have it both ways. Either cities are important because folks prefer them or they are important despite the fact that folks eschew them.

I am reminded of a philosophical idea I encountered in law school: the essentially contested concept. An example would be fairness. While everybody is for it, the high-tax socialist and the low-tax capitalist have completely opposed conceptions of what it entails. Could “the city” be slipping into this kind of status where everybody believes that cities matter and they all think they live in one?

The “City” of Silicon Valley

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this growing confusion is with the “place” from which co-author Justin Buzzard has written the book. The book introduces the authors in the following way

Stephen lives in Boston—the academic hub of the world; Justin lives in Silicon Valley—the innovation hub of the world.

Boston is a city; Silicon Valley, well, not so much.

In the first place, it is a nickname of a region, not the name of any municipal political body. This is not a very crucial point, but it made me curious to see exactly where Buzzard’s church was located. It turns out that Garden City Church meets at 400 N. Winchester Blvd. in Santa Clara, California. That’s here: (via Google Maps).

Why Cities Matter 1Okay, that looks pretty car-dependent and, dare we say, suburban. Here’s another screen shot to demonstrate the context:

Picture-2a

Buzzard’s church is marked with the arrow. I’m not seeing evidence of much mixed-use action here.

I’m not the first to note that Silicon Valley displays most of the distinguishing marks of suburbia. Here’s arch-urbanist Richard Florida, in a WSJ editorial last year, describing Silicon Valley’s “great weakness” by quoting Venture Capital icon Paul Graham:

Silicon Valley proper is soul-crushing suburban sprawl. It has fabulous weather, which makes it significantly better than the soul-crushing sprawl of most other American cities. But a competitor that managed to avoid sprawl would have real leverage.

To his credit, Buzzard acknowledges this “flaw” in his “city” by admitting that it is largely navigated by car. But then he immediately walks back this concession with a footnote arguing that there are many exceptions:

I (Justin) currently live in a walkable, mixed-use region of Silicon Valley. Within a quarter-mile radius of my front door I can walk to scores of businesses, coffee shops, restaurants, a school, a park, the post office, a fire station, places of worship, a cemetery, and hiking trails, and cross paths with a great diversity of people.

The pastor doth protest too much, methinks. He continues:

The section of the city where our church holds Sunday services functions the same— walkable, mixed-use, and highly diverse.

In that last sentence, Buzzard is referring to the initial meeting space of his church plant, the Theatre on San Pedro Square in downtown San Jose. As illustrated above, the church has since relocated. In theory this wouldn’t make much of a difference as a church can serve pretty much the same population whether in the heart of downtown or in a neighborhood six miles (and 10 minutes by car) away. But I haven’t finished Buzzard’s footnote:

This is a good place to recall what the biblical writers meant by “city.” [As Tim Keller wrote,] “What makes a city a city is proximity. It brings people— and therefore residences, workplaces, and cultural institutions—together. It creates street life and marketplaces, bringing about more person-to-person interactions and exchanges in a day than are possible anywhere else.”

By implication (and this implication is borne out in the context of the Keller quote), mixed-use/walkable cities are biblical, and subdivisions of car-dependency are not. Therefore, by moving his church to Santa Clara, Buzzard has abandoned God’s mission to the city.

Or not.

—————————————

I’m not just playing gotcha with Buzzard. If we are going to have a fruitful discussion about the import of cities we must be able to consistently define our terms. Slippery definitions not only dot this book but are also present throughout this wider discussion of the good of suburbs. We must do better.

I don’t think any of the definitions I’ve discussed are very good as a one-size-fits-all definition of “city.” There are times when we want to talk about folks leaving the agricultural countryside for city life, even if they are only relocated to a very small town. There are other times when we’re going to want to talk about that special something that only exists in the truly mega-cities.

If we want to talk about cities as that thing which excludes suburbia we will need to be extremely careful in drawing lines. Old suburbs have always had a habit of becoming today’s city. And now Richard Florida is writing about the fading distinction between suburbs and cities and Anthony Bradley is talking about how there is “very little difference between racial and cultural diversity in major cities versus the suburbs.”

So let us be precise. After all, Um and Buzzard are right: cities matter.

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  • Chris

    Is it possible you’ve fallen into the trap of believing where a church gathers on Sundays = “where it is”? A healthy church is still the church, living out Jesus’ mission throughout the rest of the week all around the city/burb/town, wherever the people live and share life. The fact that the Garden City Church family meets outside the downtown core doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less engaged in and committed to mission in the city.

  • jhaanen

    Good critique. My response to your critique: http://www.jeffhaanen.com/2013/05/22/cities-burbs-and-metro-regions/

    • Keith Miller

      Jeff,
      What a very kind review of my review. Thanks for posting.

    • Keith Miller

      Jeff,

      In your response you suggest that we could substitute “metro region” for “city” and still get at the core thrust of Um and Buzzard’s point. I don’t think that’s as much of a fix as you do.

      First, if we will define any center of influence as a city, then the point if the book would be merely “why influential things are influential.”

      But more importantly, Buzzard is very desirous that the reader know that his house is in a walkable-island within the vast ocean that is Silicon Valley’s soulless car-dependency. He’s the one who wants to make mixed-use-ness and walkability crucial.

      That Silicon Valley is both influential and suburban doesn’t bother me, but it is a major flaw in his narrative.

      • jhaanen


        Mr. Miller,

        Thank you for your reply. I do not believe that you’re
        correct in arguing that Um and Buzzard’s argument can be reduced to “influential things are influential” if cites are linked to the idea of metro regions. There are many influential “towns” that aren’t cities.

        But overall, that’s not my point. I reacted harshly to
        your review primarily because it lacked charity. If we take John Updike’s 6 Rules for Reviewing seriously, and we should, at bare minimum we should try to understand the author before we levy a critique, and we should question whether our faults are not greater than the author’s. Did Um and Buzzard lack clarity with respect to defining a city? Yes. Yet your review lacked something far greater: charity.

        As a social critique, as it seems you aspire to be, and as a
        Christian, I believe it’s important to understand the function of book reviews. When we speak the truth, we must speak the truth in love, or we will become yet another example of evangelicals fighting one another and making next to no cultural impact. Reviewing for the Christian must be an act of neighbor love, which at minimum should highlight the helpful parts of any book, should therebe any, and gently point out where the author is mistaken in case of misinformation or faulty analysis.

        The real question is, What is the purpose of writing? This
        question should drive all Christians – including the bright folks at Mere-O.

  • Ben Thorp

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on a similar book from a couple of years ago, “For The City” by Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter.

    • Keith Miller

      I haven’t read that one, Ben. I’ll try to take a look. Do you recommend it particularly?

      • Ben Thorp

        I have to admit that it’s currently on my “to-read” shelf at home. It seems to cover a similar idea and, as vice-president of Acts 29, Darrin Patrick would seem to be in a similar “tribe” to Keller/Buzzard/Um.

        (Having said that, I just re-watched the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4EOc3Y47L0 and maybe it’s aimed less at a theological defence of prioritising urban mission, and more at challenging existing urban churches to be “for” their city)

  • Eugene Scott

    I really appreciate your writing this. I thought this was great.

    My response is be long …

    If the authors are indeed using inconsistent definitions for ‘city,’ that’s not helpful. And in fact, is just confusing.

    Furthermore, making absolute statements about city life that aren’t actually universal hurts the very important truth that ‘cities do matter.’ Scripture doesn’t need to be ‘doctored up’ to the place of being unrecognizable to make the point. I think anyone with even a casual view of Scripture has to admit that cities were major places of influence in Scripture. However, that is not to say ‘more important than everywhere else.’

    My personal challenge in these conversations has been the fact that cities, suburbs and even rural communities are more diverse than we want to admit. And our individual understanding of cities, suburbs and rural communities often conflict. As a D.C. native now living in downtown Phoenix, it annoys me deeply when I’m talking about city issues with someone from Tempe and they respond as if that relatively dense, more established,
    inner-located suburb is unquestionably a ‘city.’ Is it Queen Creek? Of course not. But the center of a metropolitan area, it is not. Denying this is not good.

    Perhaps the epitome of this is the debate about whether Gilbert, AZ, a suburb of nearly 212,000 residents 22 miles from downtown Phoenix, is a city or a town. Gilbert and its town council formally refer to itself as a town … unless they’re bragging about being named one of CNN and Money magazine’s most livable ‘cities.’

    For what it’s worth, Gilbert is the only municipality in the U.S. with more than 150,000 people that calls itself a town. It has more residents than Salt Lake City and Richmond. But it has more than its share of farmland, complete with cotton and cows, and – dare I say it – cookie-cutter subdivisions.

    My point is that we can not paint cities, suburbs and rural communities with a broad brush. HOWEVER, I fear that the leaders of the increasingly popular anti-city backlash reacting to (what they perceive as?) the anti-suburban backlash is that ‘everywhere is the same and nowhere is different.’ That’s just not true. And I do think there is nuance and contextualization that needs to happen when doing ministry based on geographical location. Am I saying that suburban Gilbert has no similarities to downtown Phoenix? Of course not. But I am saying that differences do exist – sometimes significantly – and it helps no one to ignore or downplay those because our feelings were hurt because some author or blogger left us feeling rejected.

    • Keith Miller

      I’m not sure that there is much “increasing popularity” for my defense of the lost cause of suburbia, but I hope you’re right.

      Your point that Gilbert and Phoenix are not equivalent is a good one and one that my article certainly glosses over. However, they are different in the same way they used to be. I am with Richard Florida that the differences between urban core and upscale ‘burb are less stark than they used to be. He has “vivid memories from 1968 of a tense drive through a city that was literally aflame, and of my father telling us kids to lie down on the floor of the back seat so we wouldn’t be targets for snipers.” With dramatically lessened crime rates and reduced industrial pollution, the cities that now attract college-educated talent are not the same thing that the previous generation of affluent folks fled.

      How can we be fair to that previous generation without clear acknowledgement that the times have changed?

      • Eugene Scott

        Well based on all of the ‘amens’ you and Bradley seem to get when you defend suburbia, it appears like there’s a new movement in the making. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that the pro-city evangelists and planters see suburbia as ‘a lost cause’ and it’s sad that their arguments get reduced to that, but it is what it is. I just believe that they see the city as a long ignored field of opportunity.

        Yes, you are right – the disparity between late 1960s downtown Phoenix and late 1960s Gilbert was MUCH greater than the disparity between 2013 downtown Phoenix and 2013 Gilbert. HOWEVER, 2013 downtown Phoenix and 2013 Gilbert are still VERY different. And that can’t be glossed over.

        I whole-heartedly believe that the gap between some (NOT ALL) suburbs has lessened because suburbs are filled with people who were influenced by their time in the city and want to replicate what they love in suburbia. Whether this is right or wrong is another conversation.

        But it’s very important to acknowledge that not all suburbs are the same. I feel like that keeps getting ignored when we say things like ‘the suburbs are actually more diverse than the city.’ Scottsdale – or even Gilbert – are NOT more diverse than Phoenix and we can’t let people walkaway thinking that. It’s irresponsible. SOME suburbs are more diverse than SOME cities.

        I’m not sure what you’re asking here:
        How can we be fair to that previous generation without clear acknowledgement that the times have changed?

        • Keith Miller

          My final question was alluding to the tendency of us folks who like today’s cities to anachronistically condemn those who fled cities in the past without recognizing that the thing we’re returning to is not the same thing that they left.

          • Eugene Scott

            Well first we have to ask what they were fleeing and why? And if there was actually sin in that, call it out and stop glossing over it, denying it and justifying it. And we should ask those who fled if others were harmed by their departure and disinterest in the communities left behind.

            Many of the challenges that existed during the decades of flight remain. There is no major city that doesn’t have struggling public schools and significant poverty. And many (if not most) major cities still have poverty rates higher than their surrounding suburbs despite attempts to suggest otherwise. Any attempts to paint current cities as ‘fully redeemed’ and suburbia as the place where the ‘real’ problems now lie isn’t based on facts and hard data.

  • Richard

    It seems Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard and their source Keller is
    engage in a fine piece of eisegesis that is reading New Urbanism into
    rather than exegesis of the scripture. The problem is the scripture is silent where we live but we are called to proclaim Chist in Him Crucified to the ends of the earth. Now If I want o get technical we need to go to history in day of the Apostle John the City include both the urban center and administration of nearby rural territory; therefore making an urban centric and
    anti-suburban reading out of the Great Commission both moot and unbiblical.

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