With the continuing emphasis on urban ministry, serious and theological perspectives for our urban world is of crucial necessity. This need for a balanced, informed, reflective, practical and scriptural theology of urbanity is more than ever vital to the Christian ministry. It is just what David W. Smith, Senior Research Fellow at the International Christian College in Glasgow (U.K.), has provided in this distinctive work.
Smith’s agenda is threefold. First, a “theology for an urban world” must pay attention to the importance of urban settings throughout the history of God’s revelation. Second, it must interact with scholars from other disciplines, and even though inter-disciplinary interaction is nothing new, Smith has successfully put this necessity to test. Third, to be relevant we will need the wisdom, “especially that provided by those who live in conditions of poverty and suffering in the slums” (44).
The need for a fresh global urban-church vision, naturally lead Smith to contend that what is at stake is nothing more than the mission of the church for the cities—in which most of the human population is now dwelling. Cities are the most strategic mission field. This partial quote of T. S. Eliot makes explicit Smith’s endeavor:
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city ?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?1
The motivation for Smith’s work is clear: the world is urban, even in (especially in) the Global South. This globalization of urbanity is one of the main reasons for bringing God’s kingdom to our cities. Further, within the framework of globalization, cities evidence a dramatic divide between the “global wealthiest” and the “global poorest”: indeed, in the cities the living condition of the poor is the most appalling and the most challenging to the Christian faith.
Indeed, Smith’s perspective is not blinded to the evil nature of the urban world, nor is it overly pessimistic—on the contrary. Beginning with a consideration of the birth and growth of the city, Smith concludes that the city was, and remains a sacred sphere—the prominent buildings in a city reflecting the hearts and idols of its people. In this context, the intrusion of God’s revelation through the cities of the Old Testament takes its full meaning: sacredness is lost to cities. In this historical and sociological part, Smith stresses what some are reluctant to undertake: provide an unbiased and critical appreciation of the “coming of age” of the modern city. Surprisingly to some, Smith is not hesitant to point to the negative side of the urban world: a sense of dislocation and anxiety mature into “urban pathologies” of personal disintegration. It might indeed be that the pervasiveness of sin is most striking in cities, where the “redemptive power of steel” is most overrated (96).2
However, Smith does not hold a pessimistic view of the city. Urban signs of hope are manifest and provide “grounds for optimism.” These hopeful projects of urban sustainability revolves around the reshaping the communal dimension of urban living, the example of cities of the Global South, and the way religious beliefs “shape the form and practice of the city”—as seen in the Islamic vision for cities. What is at stake with this third sign of hope is “the fact that these movement briefly described above have indeed been the agents of hope and social transformation in urban settings characterized by grinding poverty and injustice” (101).
In the final chapter of this first part, Smith tackles the question of the meaning of the city. This chapter is the pivotal chapter of the work since it provides a transition from sociological to theological perspectives. This transition is located in Smith’s conviction that theology for an urban world must be, first and foremost, an ethical challenge. Since this issue is ethical in nature, it must also be a theological issue. And so we reach the heart of Smith’s engaging and profound urban perspective: the biblical and theological foundations. The subtitle of the book—theology for an urban world—is itself indicative of his distinctive approach to urban theology. Smith is more concerned with fleshing out a contextualized theology for an urban world than contending that cities are God’s eschatological plan for humanity.
Rather, Smith begins this second part pointing to the necessity of listening to Scripture before building an urban theology. Failure to do so results in bringing theological presuppositions to the text of Scripture itself and shaping a priori an urban theology. It turns out that, to Smith, theology, when concerned with the urban setting, has mostly been drawn towards two opposing and extreme a priori positions. The first one, typified by French theologian Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, considering human urbanism as a direct consequence of Cain’s murderous action leads to a rather anti-urban perspective. This pessimistic approach is mirrored in the diametrically opposite perspective of Harvie Conn who contends that the cultural mandate was a mandate to build the city in obedience to God. Both these perspectives fail and, “as a result, the variety and tension found within the biblical narrative as a whole is lost” (123).
Contrary to what is often assumed, Smith contends that the city is a place of deep alienation from God and that the biblical narrative offers a “sobering warning of the potential fate of all urban communities” (129). A biblical perspective must be an alternative vision for life in the city, contesting the mythical beliefs of those who shaped it. This in turn is the lesson we learn from the Patriarchs and the prophets: liberation is at the core of the biblical stance towards cities. For example, the “conquest” of Canaan, more than a mere political agenda, was a revolutionary social and religious event: it was a challenge to the oppression by the urban elites. This liberation radiated, throughout the land, God’s shalom manifested in a covenantal urban hope. As for the prophetic message, it is centrally concerned with the cities, providing the most telling example of critique of urban religion. Hence: our biblical prophetic stance, demands that “urban religion” be challenged—especially when its evil and corruption are sanctified, slowly leading to he death of the city (149).
The stress on the prophetic nature of urban theology is constant in Smith, sustained by the assessment that “in the urban world the impact of urbanization on a global scale is placing unbearable strains upon the earth’s resources, with the results that the issue of sustainability has become a major concern in urban studies” (163). However, the prophets were looking with hope, as Smith describes it, towards an urban covenantal faithfulness, the accomplishment of God’s shalom. This is precisely what the church of Christ is called to undertake throughout the urban context of the twenty-first century.
In this must-read work on urban theology, Smith has challenged us to hold a balanced view of the city not exclusively founded upon theological consideration. Theology for our urban world must challenge and denounce the idols of our time and be neither naïve nor pessimistic. And as far as theology is concerned, Smith’s endeavor draws out brilliantly the consequences that the cross of Christ has the deepest implications for our urban world: it “brings the hope of true freedom, equality and peace” (221) to the earth, and so, with particular strength to the places where hope and justice are most needed: our cities.
2Quoting Philip Bess, Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism and the Sacred. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006, 123.
Copyright (C) 2013 Yannick Imbert
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