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Church, several attributions to his articles like “A Biblical Theology of the City,” and even one reference to his unpublished notes.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.
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:
- ”The Top 100 City”—a metro area at least as populous as Wichita, Kansas
- “The Not-Rural Farmland City”—everything with a greater density than homestead farming
- “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).
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.
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.