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.


Of Secular Novels, Governments, and Drinks

Amy Julia Becker recommends secular novels to Christians. Among the reasons she gives are these:

The earnest and bleak atheist world-view provided by Camus in The Plague challenges any trite answers we might want to offer to the problem of suffering. The searing portrait of pain and loss that makes up much of the southern and African-American literary canon challenges the role the church has played in passively supporting the evils of slavery and segregation. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom all come to mind as books I have read and reread in my struggle to understand the persistent divide between black and white within this nation.)

It’s hard to know which contemporary novels will rise to the top of the literary landscape. Who are the Steinbecks and Fitzgeralds among us? The Chopins and Whartons and Cathers? Whoever they are, many of them are not Christians, and yet these are the perspectives that can teach us about who we are as a culture and how we as Christians can engage our culture through a lens of love.

Good novels—whatever world-view they profess—challenge us to love others better. They disrupt comfortable assumptions about reality. And, to the degree that these books state something true about the world around us, even if that truth is about God’s apparent absence, they also invite us to know God better by loving our neighbor all the more.

If secular novels help us to be human (at least in this period between the advents of Christ, since being a glorified human being will truly be transformational), can’t we say the same thing about secular governments? Don’t secular magistrates, even un-Christian ones, also make us ask big questions about what we share in common with unbelievers, what is government for, and the nature of community in a fallen setting? If governments were only Christian, wouldn’t we wind up with the Puritan’s Massachusetts Bay? The exclusion of non-Puritans from Puritan Boston may foreshadow the sort of separation between the wheat and tares coming at the last day. But it hardly does justice to life in a post-ascension era when the Holy Land is no longer holy and God’s people are strangers and aliens.

And then there are the humanizing effects of secular (read alcoholic) beverages. Of course, in excess they can dehumanize. But in the right proportion they make the heart “glad,” right? And yet, D. L. Mayfield thinks that some Christians may need to give up alcohol out of respect for their neighbors:

We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn.

And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable. It makes me question my faith in God, struggling to find hope for those who are addicted. There are other neighbors here too, people who are in various stages of recovery, and they help me. They drink their coffee black and smoke in the parking lots. They shake their heads and tell me they don’t touch the stuff anymore. They find that every sober day is a gift.

I certainly respect and admire Mayfield’s determination to live among the urban poor. But I would also say that by giving up alcohol — even for social as opposed to moral reasons — she has chosen a less human way to live, like not reading secular novels because the members of your congregation can’t handle them. Reading books by non-Christians, paying honor to secular rulers, and drinking and eating in moderation are activities that Christians share with non-Christians. In other words, being spiritual (as some Christians understand it) is as noted before not a way to be fully human but one that reduces our creatureliness to cardboard cutout proportions. I still don’t see how the transformationalists of whatever variety are comfortable with the goodness of creation if culture (literature, politics, and food) needs to be redeemed before Christians can properly appreciate or engage it.

Machen Day 2012

Social conditions in the apostolic age were exceedingly bad. There were favoured classes, living in vicious luxury, and great hordes of the poor and the down-trodden. There was especially the great institution of slavery, impairing the dignity of free labour, permeating all nations and all peoples, and producing a thousand miseries. Under such conditions the Church might have been expected to come forward with a social programme. Certainly there were great evils to be righted; many institutions of the ancient world were out of accord with fundamental principles of the gospel. As a matter of fact, however, Christianity seemed to exhibit a remarkable patience in its attitude toward the evil institutions of the time. It made no loud demands for social equality; it indulged in no denunciations of slavery; it apparently assumed the continuance of the distinction between rich and poor.

The explanation is to be found partly, no doubt, in the circumstances of the early Christians. “Not many wise after the flesh, not many might, not many noble” were called. Those humble men and women were excused from instituting an social revolution simply because they did not have the power. The acquiescence by the apostolic Church, therefore, in certain imperfect social institutions does not necessarily excuse similar acquiescence today. The Church has now, in the providence of God, become rich and powerful; and with additional power comes additional responsibility.

There is, however, a far deeper reason for the moderate attitude which the apostolic Church assumed toward existing institutions. The fundamental fact is that the Church refrained from a definite programme of social reform simply because she had something far better; she postponed the improvement of earthly conditions in order to offer eternal life. The improvement of conditions upon this earth is in the providence of God a long and painful process; while it was proceeding souls would have been lost; the first duty of the Church was obviously to offer to everyone, man or woman, rich or poor, bond or free, the inestimable gift of salvation. If a man has communion with the living God, all else can wait.

Accordingly, the apostolic Church promised men not silver and gold, the improvement of earthly conditions, but an abundant entrance into heaven. It is this spiritual and heavenly character of Christianity which makes the Christian offer universal. A gospel which promises merely an improvement of the world is dependent upon worldly conditions. If Christianity is merely a happy and successful life in this world, then a man may be deprived of it by disease, or ill fortune, or unjust suspicion, or death. As a matter of fact, Christianity is a life in communion with God, and that can be maintained in poverty and in plenty, in slavery and in freedom, in life and in death. The Christina offer is extended to everyone, and every earthly condition, no matter how degrading or how painful, can be used in the service of God. (The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History, 368-69)