Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith
by Eric O. Jacobsen
190 pp.; $16.99, paper
When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah 60 and the New Jerusalem
by Richard J. Mouw
Eerdmans, rev. ed.
131 pp.; $14, paper
Whatever happened to sidewalks? Like the roads of the Roman Empire, these seemingly unremarkable paths are in fact vital arteries of civilization. They foster fellowship and recreation; they serve as an extended public square where children riding bikes, people walking dogs, mail carriers toting letters, and couples holding hands share a common experience. But sidewalks are vanishing across the country, notably absent from sprouting subdivisions as sprawl swallows the land beyond our cities. Without these channels of commonality, we have no choice but to drive everywhere, confining ourselves to that holy of holies of privacy—the automobile.
It takes an innovative Christian thinker to convincingly frame these issues of city planning as fundamental to Christian discipleship, and Eric Jacobsen pulls it off in Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. He delicately but firmly makes the case that the New Urbanism movement, with its advocacy of public spaces and variety in neighborhoods, is of urgent importance to the Church and needs its support.
Jacobsen anticipates the question of why Christians should care about sidewalks when we're supposed to worry about salvation. To begin with, the characteristics of our urban environments determine how we are able to spread the gospel; it's easier to reach out to pedestrians in public places than to car-bound citizens cruising from their gated community to a Costco.
The ministry of Christ thrived, Jacobsen says, on "incidental contact"—such as the healing of the woman who bumped into Christ in a crowd and touched his robe. Today Christ couldn't stride alongside the two men on the road to Emmaus—he would have to materialize in the backseat of their SUV while they sped along the interstate. More subtly, shared public space shapes how we learn the virtues of civility, hospitality, and authenticity—and lack of the former tends to translate into a lack of the latter. Jacobsen goes as far as to say we should pray for more sidewalks and other public works projects that seek to discourage American habits of isolation.
Jacobsen's book is a useful introduction to the New Urbanism movement, but it is Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary and a member of Books & Culture's editorial board, who provides a firmer foundation for our conception of cities in his recently reissued When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah 60 and the New Jerusalem.
A profound work of Christian vision that should be required reading for church leaders, the book develops a theology of the city from Isaiah's vision of the New Jerusalem. Isaiah, Mouw says, sees a vital cultural center—a busy place of commerce, politics, and the arts—as the setting for eternal life. It is a fitting resolution to the creation narrative, as Mouw sums it up: God commissioned humans in the Garden of Eden to "fill the earth" to his glory; instead we filled it with waste and with monuments to our own pride. But Isaiah's vision suggests God will reconcile not only our souls but also this filling of the earth in order to dwell among us in the New Jerusalem.
Jacobsen seems to see cities as evil developments that were basically dumped in God's lap to redeem; Mouw sees them as integral parts of God's plan for history and as the setting of our eternal life. Ironically, while it is Jacobsen who goes into detail about zoning and other intricacies of urban planning while too vaguely articulating the theology of doing so, it is Mouw who, while speaking much more generally, passionately justifies Christian witness to the nooks and crannies Jacobsen identifies.
This is how Mouw addresses the question of why to bother with culture when there are souls out there to be saved: "Jesus came to rescue a creation that was pervasively infected by the curse of sin—an infection not limited to the psychic territory populated by 'human hearts,' " he writes. " 'Changed hearts' will not 'change society' if the efforts at change are not also directed toward the structures and patterns of human interaction."
Not only does Mouw's analysis of Isaiah's vision give greater theological depth to what Jacobsen is talking about, but it more clearly articulates an alternative to the popular End-Times fiction of the day that imagines believers being scooped out of moving cars and whisked into the clouds. If this is our destiny, the cultural context of our current lives is mostly irrelevant. Only after reading Mouw does one come away convinced: there will be sidewalks in the coming kingdom, and we must live lives that reflect this expectation.
The city can, in fact, be a lonely place, as my wife and I have discovered upon moving to our downtown Chicago high-rise. We were eager to leave behind the provincialism of our hometown and gratify the kind of cosmopolitanism Isaiah's urban vision arouses. But we underestimated the anonymity of the city—the fact that people come here to mind their own business and hope others follow suit. It's not just SUVs and strip malls that keep people from interacting. My wife and I are usually content to enjoy a quiet evening with a rented movie behind closed doors rather than endure the din of the bars we view from our apartment window, and I wonder, how would Jacobsen judge us? Nor does Jacobsen address the equally useful question of how Christian communities, even if they have the ideal physical surroundings he calls for, can avoid becoming insular as they become intimate. But overall, Jacobsen rightly calls Christians to get serious about committing to urban issues as an element of our witness to the world.
Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant for Books & Culture. He writes the weekly B&C weblog, Content & Context.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
For further reading on urban issues, see T.J. Gorringe's A Theology of the Built Environment, Joseph Rykwert's The Seduction of Place, Blair Kamin's Why Architecture Matters, and Jonathan Franzen's essay "First City" in his collection How to Be Alone.
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books? | Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture." (May 12, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (March 17, 2003)
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
Diagnosing "The Doctor" | A new assessment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preacher. (March 3, 2003)
Taken Prisoner | Stories from the far-flung frontiers of the British Empire, 1600-1850, challenge our preconceptions. (Feb. 24, 2003)
Another Third Way? | The mixed record of Catholic social thought. (Feb. 17, 2003)
Divine Numbers | Can you say "Christian" and "mathematics" in the same sentence? (Feb. 10, 2003)
Getting Beyond Victimology | A provocative collection of essays for "the black silent majority." (Feb. 3, 2003)
Strange Bedfellows | Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell collaborate on a collection of political writing. Has the millennium arrived unnoticed? (Jan. 27, 2003)
Encounters of the Gods | Christianity and Native American religion in early America. (Jan. 20, 2003)
Books Present, Books Past, and Books to Come | Plus: A new format for this column. (Jan. 13, 2003)
Double Indemnity Meets Dead Souls | A conversation with novelist Richard Dooling. (Jan. 6, 2003)