The landscape of the City
The Bible begins with a garden and ends with a city. Both are visions of what might be. Both are reminders of what is not in the human condition. The Garden of Eden is a compelling myth of innocence, of natural harmony. Until it goes wrong. In the Jewish myth that became the Christian myth too, the reason things went wrong was not the Gods or God, but human disobedience to the vision. We always want more. The Holy City in the book of Revelation is a place where harmony exists. Again it has some compelling images – “I saw the Holy City and the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride dressed for her husband. The I heard a loud voice call from the throne. You see this city? Here God lives among people. He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness.” Many of the motifs of the Genesis story are implied here, but the landscape is now a city. The City.
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It is the extension of the city as the location of the Temple. The true place of worship. The city that was destroyed and its people scattered by successions of invading armies. The city of the vision that here God truly touched earth and the shining sight of God’s presence was visible, at least to the high priest in the hidden place at the centre of the centre. This is the same city to which Jesus came. From the village of Nazareth, from the small town of Capernaum, in Galilee far from this city he came and confronted what he saw as the wrongs of the way the city had captured God in its temple.
So at Easter we move in the story from the rural landscape to the paved streets of the city. Looking for the signs of God here too.
The first observation I make to myself is that the idea of landscape and city seem to be on different planets. The NZ poetry Book “The Nature of Things, poems from the NZ landscape” has no poems about the city. Nature and landscape are not here? We feel we often have to travel out of the urban jungle to get a sense of God, but we live here, in the streets, among the towers, the shops, the mess, the sprawl of houses. Negative images abound about the city. Joni Mitchell, in a great song, Big Yellow Taxi, sings:
“They paved paradise /And put up a parking lot /With a pink hotel *, a boutique /And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ Till it’s gone/ They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot
They took all the trees/ Put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people/ A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ Till it’s gone/ They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot”
The city is a magnet for all things. Jobs, recreation, shops, museums, cultural activity – you name it, and the city will have it if you know where to look. Cities are vacuuming up people with incredible speed around the planet: The WHO reports that For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow. One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10 people
The city is where people live lives of community and loneliness. Of excitement and boredom. Of job and no job. Of terror and safety. The city is bright billboards in the centre, housing all over the place. Roads, parking spaces, traffic and crashes. It’s easy to characterise the city as big brother; cctv cameras now extend to Riccarton. It’s easy to characterise the city as the epitome of humanity rushing to its own demise. Look at Rome and see how long civilisations last, look at Petra, look at London, look anywhere. We build up and out and use economics to justify what the city has become. People’s jobs have changed. If they have one. Do we know our neighbours in our streets? Some of us will, some of us won’t. Life in the city is often called fast paced. Which means that for those of us who are getting slower, we can easily feel out of place. We will all know people who scarcely go out their doors, who hide away for all sorts of reasons. We know others who would retire to the country in a lifestyle block attempt to recreate the myth of the serene garden. In the city, it’s all there.
It all comes to a head in Christchurch as we argue about what a new city might look like. All the factors are there. Business, and leisure. Parks and roads. Rivers and sewers. We pride ourselves on being the garden city, and then argue with the council about tending gardens in the red zone. We want to find the soul of the city and struggle to name what that is – for some it’s the old cathedral, for others it’s no longer anything to do with a religious edifice. And there’s the rub. The city is the place of the secular. The landscape of the towering buildings hide the parks. One has to search the green spaces out. In a secular city such as Harvey Cox wrote about in the mid 1960’s, we survive in cities by making life into compartments. Public and private are kept separate. Any religious impulse in this city is firmly in the private, behind closed doors zone. We survive in this world view by maintaining our anonymity. We are alongside each other all the time, but looking someplace else, seldom into the eyes of those around us. Look someone in the eyes. Create a point of human contact. It’s extremely hard to find folk who won’t treat this with suspicion in a city. The guys begging on the pavement tell me few people will look at them.
But the miracle is that despite what could be seen as a depressing point of view, the city landscape still offers a hopeful vantage point. The landscape of the city is in blocks, with views afforded down streets. Glimpses only of whatever might be down there. If you have ever been a tourist in a foreign city you will have experienced the wandering off the beaten track and the discovery that behind the facade is a whole life going on. We might not understand it, but we can encounter it. The landscape of the city invites us to explore beyond the places where we are comfortable and familiar. To go to the other side of town is often a revelation. It is a metaphor of the spirituality of discovery that Easter is about. The city is full of nooks and crannies. It changes, today’s trash becomes someone’s art work tomorrow. The city in this sense is a landscape where the known merges quickly into the unknown. Which often tells us heaps about ourselves – do we stick to our tracks or wander into someone else’s hood?
We crave for human contact yet we want to preserve our own identity and privacy. The city allows us spaces where we safely mingle. Yet we’re not expected to interact with those around us. We go in small intimate groups into a crowd of thousands, stay in our wee groups, but enjoy the feeling that there is something bigger around us. The paradox of such living is at the heart of the way we have learned to manage our understanding of God too. It has mirrored the 20th century secularisation and urbanising pull. We have come to think of God as being personal. Not to be discussed. If we find ourselves disagreeing with others we say, “Oh well, I have my beliefs anyway.” We agree to disagree more often than we stick with the huge discomfort of working through what’s going on in that disagreement. That’s the city landscape at work. Compartments. Departments. The protection of the personal can easily be at the expense of community.
When Jesus wandered into the temple precincts and created a disturbance I wonder if some of all this might have been at the heart of his unease. In his day Galilee was being upturned by huge urban development by Herod Antipas. He changed a backwater rural place into a Greco-Roman urbanised territory. He built a city called Sepphoris close to Nazareth, yet the Gospels say nothing of it, and present Jesus as a rural itinerant teacher using farming parables and village life as his focus. Jesus was living though huge urban renewal times. Absent from the Gospels. Which leaves open the question I voiced earlier – is there a spirituality of hope, compassion, awe, wonder and creative relationship in the city? Or has Lent and now Easter drawn us to the desert in another form – concrete. The way we live out our answer makes all the difference!
There is much about the block tower landscape of the city to be depressed about. It makes human interaction at depth much harder. But it is the place where we live. To abandon the sense that there is no positive spirit in the city is to “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. Dante would have us live in Hell then. To sit with that point of view is to allow God to be absent in urban landscape. And that I am not prepared to do.