City Transformed

Is this what Tim Keller and the redeemers of culture had in mind?

Grand Rapids, Michigan, was one of the first cities to go in for the complete redevelopment of its downtown area using Title III money from the 1949 Housing Act as amended in 1954. In 1959, Grand Rapids invited to town John Paul Jones, a planning consultant from the New York firm of Ebasco. He blew in with lots of energy and big ideas for the complete reconstruction of downtowns using federal funds to cover two thirds of the cost. In July of that year, he proposed more than a million square feet of government office space and 13,500 new parking ramp spaces. Retail and residential uses were no longer part of the picture. They were separated out. In August of 1960, the citizens of Grand Rapid were sold on the plan to revitalize the downtown. They approved a 1.75 mill property tax hike to the pay the city’s share of the redevelopment costs. In September of that year, Jones was appointed the new planning director of Grand Rapids, and soon the wrecking balls and bulldozers went to work, taking down all the buildings in a forty-acre, twenty- two-block area. The Richardsonian Romanesque city hall andKent County buildings were reduced to rubble. Sleek office towers were built on huge superblocks, creating a sterile urban environment that few would visit unless they worked for a bank, were called for jury duty, or wanted to contest a utility bill. The promised revitalization of the downtown did not happen. After 6 pm, the place is a ghost town.

Sometimes architecture does matter more than words.

When Did Philadelphia Turn into San Diego?

I was in the nation’s original capital yesterday and saw this at 22nd and Walnut:

It replaces this:

Which makes me think this has a point:

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a generous tax abatement program—combined with flawed preservation policies—changed the landscape of Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods. During the past decade, the city experienced a demolition bonanza. In neighborhoods of historic housing like Powelton Village, developers “have discovered they can make a tidy sum simply by replacing one of these old houses with a stucco-clad apartment building and then cramming it with students,” observed the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron.

Preservationists have protested how Philadelphia’s demolition permits are approved. In the past year, two historic structures were razed for projects that never materialized. Currently, the preservation fight is focused on Center City’s Jeweler’s Row, a charming set of commercial properties on a block laid out in 1799. The historic storefronts, slated for demolition, would be replaced by a massive condo tower. Ill-advised demolition projects continue throughout Philadelphia, its future depending on an influx, however temporary, of millennials and students.

Why does it take regulative-principle toting confessional Presbyterians, not urban hipster pastors, to notice?

Old Urbanism

H. L. Mencken was so much more than an iconclast:

The chief beauty of such a town as Paris lies in the harmony visible in its architecture, and particularly in the architecture of its private buildings. Look down any of the principal streets and you will note at once that most of the houses are of a height, and, what is more, that most of them are of the same general style. In the treatment of details there remains plenty of room for individual enterprise and skill. Some houses are quite commonplace. But taken together they produce an effect of order and dignity. There are no bloody wars between Doric and Gothic, Moorish and Tudor English, the pointed arch and the mansard roof, the Corinthian column and the Byzantine minaret. Huge towers do not leap indecently from squat Greek temples. The stories of one house are not twice as high as the stories of the house next door.

Even in London, a town generally hideous, an effort at harmony is still visible. True enough, you will find huge sarcophagi shouldering pretty little Georgian houses in Pall Mall, and a saturnalia of styles in Park lane, but in most other parts of the West End every separate street, beside its virtues in detail, has some virtue as a whole. It is, in fact, a street, and not a mere hodge-podge of houses. The roofline is broken, not by leaps, but by intelligible progressions. And if we cross the Channel and proceed to such streets as the Ludwigstrasse, in Munich, we find harmony become almost perfect.

Harmony, of course, does not mean sameness. Here in Baltimore, at least in our residence sections, we have plenty of sameness. One wanders for hours through endless rows of undifferentiated houses. Citizens in liquor are constantly pulling the wrong bells, swearing at the wrong keyholes. It is difficult, so I hear, even for a teetotaler to find his house on foggy nights; the wine-bibber, in despair, frankly gives it up and so stays down town. But that ugly and depressing monotony is not harmony–no more, indeed, than the beating of a tom-tom is music. Harmony means the agreeable co-ordination of distinct but related details. It is important that they have elements in common, but it is also important that they have elements not in common.

Such harmony is rare in Baltimore. South street, for example, which might well have had character and beauty, for its builders did not lack money, is unspeakably and amazingly ugly. It has beautiful details, true enough, but the general effect is cacophonous and repulsive. So with Baltimore street, Lexington street, Hopkins Place. Even Mount Vernon Place, for all its charm, is still chaotic and disturbing. The serene dignity of a London square is not in it: the war between its antagonistic details is too savage and too noisy.

Humble or Spectacular?

Pope Francis says that Christ’s way is simple and humble:

The Pope noted that “one of the three temptations of Jesus in the desert” was to create a spectacle. Satan invites Him to cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple so that, seeing the miracle, the people might believe in Him. “The Lord, instead, is revealed in simplicity, in humility,” he said. “It would do us good this Lent,” the Pope said, “to consider how the Lord has helped us in our lives, and how the Lord has led us onward. We will find that the Lord has always done this with simple things.”

He concluded, “This is how the Lord acts: He does things simply. He speaks silently to you, to the heart. Let us remember in our lives the many time we have felt these things: the humility of God is His style; the simplicity of God is His style. And even in the liturgical celebration, in the sacraments, what is beautiful is that which manifests the humility of God, and not the worldly spectacle. It would do us good to journey through our life and to consider the many times the Lord has visited us with His grace, and always with this humble style, the style He calls us, too, to have: humility.”

Do simple and humble come to mind when visiting the churches in Rome?

Do Neo-Calvinists Actually Think Before They Speak (or sit)?

As noted a few days ago, the fallout from the recent discussion of two-kingdom theology at Covenant College (with Mike Horton) has touched off several lively discussions. The one at Dr. K.’s blog led the good doctor to use a phrase in connection with the virtues of neo-Calvinism that I had never heard before: “a public Christian theology of cultural obedience.”

If you perform a Google search for the phrase you find variations on cultural obedience or public theology but nothing with the whole enchilada of Kuyperian grandeur.

A public theology of cultural obedience would be one thing. It must be a way to distinguish a public from a private or personal theology of cultural obedience. But to add Christian to the phrase would apparently distinguish this from Muslim and Jewish public theologies of cultural obedience (though it does not address differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants or confessional differences among the latter).

Even odder is the phrase cultural obedience (more below). Public theology would seem to be one way of describing a Christian’s engagement with social, political, and cultural affairs. So cultural obedience seems to be redundant. But I suspect it is a form of overstatement for emphasis. Like Isaiah’s utterance of “holy, holy, holy” to describe the gulf separating him and God, this phrase indicates that we really, really, really need to be engaged with human existence outside the church.

Fine. Culture is important. But it is also one of the least useful categories for assessing problems in political, economic, and social life.

Still, what is cultural obedience and how does it square with Christian liberty? If Christians do not have a culture the way Israelites did (food, language, politics, land) because Christians now find themselves living in all the nations of the world, and if a hallmark of Reformed conviction has been the notion that Christians are free in those activities not prescribed by Scripture (like meat offered to idols or whether to speak Dutch or English), what possibly could the phrase cultural obedience mean? I get it. It’s supposed to indicate that Christians are supposed to live their lives before the face of God and not treat areas of life as if independent from Christ’s Lordship.

But here is where some serious theological reflection needs to go on because the ideals of Christian liberty (which allows for Christian smoking) and the Lordship of Christ for all areas of life are in tension. If I have liberty in those areas where the Bible is silent but now find out that I need to submit to Christ in everything I do, my brain cramps. Either I have liberty or I must show submission the next time I reach into the humidor. Neo-Calvinists really could provide some assistance if they would wrestle with these contrasting theological notions rather than simply trotting out pious and inspirational bumper stickers.

They might also benefit from some serious cultural reflection, such as the kind that comes in books like Witold Rybczinski’s Home: The History of An Idea. (I am on a Rybczinski kick since I am teaching a seminar on place and home and have assigned his book which is — truth be told — brilliant in its ability to instill a sense of wonder about things we regard as ordinary.) What neo-Calvinists could learn from books like Home is that culture is never as self-conscious or intentional as the ideas-have-consequences model alleges. Like history, culture is accidental, and it comes to us without a rule book or manual. We inherit the choices (ironic and unwitting) of previous generations and accept them as part of the cultural norm. And when those norms prove unacceptable, we change them but often the changes are as much functional as based on ideals. Perhaps the greatest example of how common and unthinking culture is is the chair (a piece of furniture that absorbs architects’ attention almost as much as the exterior of buildings). Here are a few excerpts from Rybczinski that might give users of the phrase cultural obedience the willies:

Differences in posture, like differences in eating utensils (knife and fork, chopsticks or fingers, for example), divide the world as profoundly as political boundaries. Regarding posture there are two camps: the sitters-up (the so-called western world) and the squatters (everyone else). Although there is not Iron Curtain separating the two sides, neither feels comfortable in the position of the other. (78)

If this is true, and it surely has the ring of it, what does cultural obedience mean for posture. Do I submit to the Lord by sitting in a chair or squatting on the floor? And if one of these is more obedient, do Christians have an obligation to transform squatters into sitters (or vice versa, though sitting would be better for the furniture makers in Grand Rapids)?

Rybczinski goes on to try to answer how sitting developed in the western world and does so by suggesting how little inevitability accompanied those pieces of furniture that would never imaginably produce calls for a Christian public theology of cultural obedience:

A little reflection shows that all human culture is artificial, cooking no less than music, furniture no less than painting. Why prepare time-consuming sauces when a raw fruit would suffice? Why bother with musical instruments when the voice is pleasant enough? Why paint pictures when looking at nature is satisfying? Why sit up when you can squat?

The answer is that it makes life richer, more interesting, and more pleasurable. Of course furniture is unnatural; it is an artifact. Sitting is artificial, and like other artificial activities, although less obvioulsy than cooking, instrumental music, or painting, it introduces art into life. We eat pasta or play the piano — or sit upright — out of choice, not out of need. . . .

Here is an explanation of why the world came to be divided into sitters and squatters. The coincidence of all the factors necessary to comfortable sitting is so unlikely, the probability of awkwardness and discomfort is so great, that it is not hard to imagine that many cultures, having had a try at it, would abandon the effort and wisely resort to sitting on the ground. This choice, in turn, would have affected the development of furniture in general, for without chairs, there would be no need for tables and desks, and little likelihood that a floor-sitting society would want to surround itself with other upright furniture such as cupboards, commodes, and bookcases. (80, 96)

Bottom line: culture and its development (or transformation) are far more complicated and independent of human control or manipulation than phrases such as a Christian public theology of cultural obedience would suggest. The Lordship of Christ? Of course. The Lordship of Christ involves neo-Calvinists’ lordship of culture? Hardly.