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Review of David W. Smith, Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World

Author: Alastair Ferrie
Published: August 2012

MD 3.2

Article Type: Review Article

David W. Smith.
Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World
Nottingham, England: IVP, 2011. $37.50.

David Smith challenges preconceptions about city dwelling versus country living in this excellent work. He traces the history of urbanization from ancient Babylonia to cities of the Industrial Revolution. In a broad sweep the author describes such varied cities as Babylon, Jerusalem, Rome, Glasgow, Dubai, and more recent rapid growth of vast conurbations in Africa. This section of the book contains interesting information on the process of urbanization and its acceleration in the past hundred years. The subtitle of the book points to the development of a theology for an urban world. This historical information is introductory in nature. It merely prepares us to consider the theological thesis yet to be revealed in the denouement of a more radical theological statement.

Smith organises his material into two main sections. The first deals with the urban world. Here he traces the birth and growth of cities and discusses the various visions behind the formation of urban communities. He asks us to consider the fundamental questions which lie at the heart of these communities. Many cities were founded on sacred philosophies and sacred sites formed the urban landscape. Smith points out that sacred sites and sacred philosophies were important in the formation and ultimately in the social cohesion of these communities.

The second section of the book deals with biblical and theological perspectives. Smith challenges us to see through the emptiness of a godless philosophy of life and its inability to sustain a community of men made in the image of God.

What is the ideology which is at the heart of the city? Smith points out:

The tragic experience of Hosea demonstrates in the most deeply moving way what happens to life in the city when a community loses contact with the ultimate source of love, turns sex into a false sacred, and abandons moral and ethical norms beyond a concern for self-interest and self-fulfilment. (155)

Surely the book considers the underlying vision which is the foundation stone on which the city is built.

We may conclude then that cities reflect the true greatness of human beings, but they also display the disastrous consequences of human greed, selfishness, and propensity to violence. Which is why, according to the Jonah story, God looks upon the most corrupt of urban societies and asks his worshippers; “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jon 4:11) (170)

Those who were raised in a major city often are tempted to think of the city as a place of anonymity and violence. The world is in the midst of an unprecedented level of urbanization, with higher and higher percentages of the world’s population congregating in cities, sometimes compelled to live in ghettos of desperate poverty and deprivation. Yet we see that the Bible tells the story of a journey from a garden to a great city, New Jerusalem.

In the Old Testament Jerusalem and Babylon contrast sharply. One is the city of God and the other is the embodiment of all that stands against God. Babylon is characterized by an ideology steeped in idolatry and opposed to all that the covenants of God stand for. Jerusalem is God’s covenant city. Ideologically, life in Jerusalem is based on the covenant.

Some of Smith’s observations are based on the city of Glasgow, Scotland where he currently lives and works. It happens to be my native city. I also have spent forty years in ministry in three of Scotland’s most populous cities. Hence it was intriguing to read the analysis in this book which identifies the city’s vital central ideology as the heart of the matter. What is the ideological soul of the city? What is it that identifies the fundamental nature of the city? And once we have understood that, what does that mean for the sense of identity of the citizen?

Is a city just a collection of people who are bound together by the motive of exploiting one another economically? In so many instances cities revolve around the principle of exploitation, leading to huge differences in economic standing and resources. The rich and the poor exist in close proximity to one another, separated by distrust and resentment. The ideological basis of many urban centers consists of “the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, without regard for the destructive impact of that quest on other creatures. . .” (224).

Smith suggests that a greater hope might be found in the worship of the God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and made possible in Christ a new citizenship in the New Jerusalem of God.

Jerusalem of old abandoned the covenant of God and as a result became a pagan city full of idolatry and every form of corruption. And thus from the outset of the new covenant of God, New Jerusalem came into being on that momentous Pentecost feast. New life became possible for the first time in Christ Jesus, through the preaching of the gospel. There was something foundational about this new life, and the new community that resulted from it. There was a real sense of community. They met together, ate together, broke bread together. They shared resources as any had need. This was real community. This community constitutes the city of God, New Jerusalem.

There is a sense of identity which derives from belonging to the city which has foundations. It is arrived at through transformational faith. This reviewer is stimulated to conclude that once this fundamental philosophy is understood it allows us to move towards a mission philosophy for the urban environments of the twenty-first century. What people are searching for today is an authentic Christian experience, realness in the place of counterfeit community. For community based on the idolatry of consumerism, the worship of sex, the devotion to mammon, is empty. It is a void and cannot answer any of man’s deepest needs.

Smith quotes Tim Keller: “Believers are called to be an alternate city within every earthly city, an alternate human culture within every human culture to show how money, sex and power can be used in non-destructive ways” (234). The challenging thesis of this book is for the church to be the authentic New Jerusalem of God, the city of God. If as the author explains we are living in an increasingly urbanized world, and we are to be effective in sharing the gospel in these urban contexts, then it will be by the church being the authentic city which has foundations.

When I first became a Christian in the city of Glasgow, I was led to faith by members of the Castlemilk church of Christ. I found myself in a community of faith. The girl who was to become my wife some years later lost her mother to cancer when she was twelve years of age. What I saw was a community of love and support: women helping to look after three motherless girls, spending the night with them whilst their father worked nightshift as a fire-fighter. To me this was authentic community. This was the city whose builder and maker is God.

Smith does an excellent and intriguing job of painting the story of the city from the dawn of time to the present day. There is an interesting discussion on the shape of cities, the important role of sacred sites within the city, and how in this age of secularism the nature of the significant buildings in our cities has changed. However, the most significant contribution that this book makes to those of us who are concerned with the business of mission is to remind us of the significance of realness in the community, as an evidence of the realness of conversion. Further, this realness must of necessity contribute to the new identity of the people of God. It is unfair to try to summarize his 240 pages in one sentence but to me this is the heart of this book: realness of conversion leads to realness of community. If we are to be successful in the mission to reach out to the lost in an increasingly urban world, it must be by demonstrating the real city which has foundations.

Alastair Ferrie


Dundee, Scotland

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