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Reading the City: Cultural Texts and Urban Community

Author: David Leong
Published: August 2012

MD 3.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

In examining the city, we examine ourselves and our capacity for cultivating communities of belonging in urban contexts. Through seeing the city as a cultural and theological text, critical engagement with urban literacy focuses on reading for themes of density, diversity, and disparity. In dialogue with Seattle’s Rainier Valley, the process of theological reflection on the nature of place, neighbor, and community moves the church in the city into participation with the missio Dei.

What is the city?

How can the city become a place of shalom, where its disparate inhabitants understand that their peace and prosperity are bound to one another?1 And how can the church be an agent of this divine wholeness and mutuality in the city? In various ways, these questions have preoccupied my research and involvement in the city for years. Unfortunately, defining the term city is deceptively complex. Part of this complexity comes from the fact that “scholarship devoted to the city has yet to find a commonly accepted definition of either a city or the city. The diversity of cities makes such a question extremely difficult.”2 What, then, are we to make of the urban environment that frames so much of our lives?

We may know that a city is comprised of people and places, along with institutions and infrastructure, but as Aristotle noted in his philosophical treatise Politics, “a city . . . is more than the sum of its parts.”3 Beyond the physical geography of settlement space, cities—and their growth, politics, economics, and social influence—are arguably one of the most significant, pervasive cultural realities shaping our world today. As the majority world continues to march inexorably toward an urban future,4 in North America we face issues of urbanization that are both similar to, and distinct from, our global neighbors.

The similarities of cities are rooted in common urban issues: congestion, pollution, segregation, resource allocation, and so forth. But one of the things that makes North American urbanism distinct from its counterparts in the majority world is its virtual invisibility. Whereas the relatively recent and dynamic urban growth in developing contexts has drawn the attention of the world, many North Americans remain largely oblivious to the structures and systems of the city.5 Particular facets of the urban environment become like wallpaper, just a function of the background as we go about our daily routine.

Thus, the location of this grocery store, the length of that freeway, the height of this apartment complex, and the size of that ethnic enclave become little more than incidental geographic realities. Sadly, this lack of critical engagement with the urban environment has been tragic for the church in the city. Particularly as more Christians (especially Evangelicals, a broad tradition of which I am a part) jump on the “missional bandwagon,”6 the hypocrisy of global advocacy without local engagement is glaring.7 As John Perkins, the legendary civil rights advocate and grandfather of Christian Community Development, says, “it’s easy to give out of abundance and help the poor Africans ‘over there.’ But white Christians hesitate to cross the tracks in their own hometown and meet their brothers and sisters on the other side.”8 This hesitation to “cross the tracks,” whether literally or metaphorically, can be traced in some ways to a fear and ignorance about life in the city.

But is the city—in all of its complexity and brokenness—only something to fear? Or worse, a problem to solve or people to “rescue”?

It is assumed by many people that the terms “urban” and “problem” are synonymous, like “urban” and “decay.” There are many things wrong in cities. But the easy juxtaposition of urban with problems and the automatic connection between cities and social ills have become so pervasive that they have clouded our judgment, polluted our language, and infected our analysis. Cities . . . are a mirror of our societies, a part of our economy, an element of our environments. But above all else they are a measure of our ability to live with each other. When we examine our cities, we examine ourselves.9

Ultimately, the city is not only about “us” and “them,” or the many serious problems created by cyclical poverty, class consciousness, and structural racialization, important as those issues may be. Rather, the city is fundamentally about our generative capacity for life together as we imagine and embody places that cultivate communities of belonging instead of exclusion. This cultivating work is central to the vocation of the church. However, before we can realize this vision of the city as a place for human flourishing, the ability to live with each other requires a particular kind of literacy of urban contexts.

Reading the City

Stated succinctly, the city is a cultural text. To see the city as a text simply means that its many facets and features need to be read and interpreted in order to understand its meaning. The art and science of interpreting cultural texts is a whole field of interdisciplinary discourse that cannot be summarized concisely,10 but for the sake of brevity, reading the city as a text essentially means paying close attention to both the whole and the parts of the urban environment as we observe and make sense of its significance. In the same way that a critically engaged reader of Scripture must utilize the tools of biblical exegesis to parse paragraphs, examine contextual details, and reflect on layered metanarratives, so must an astute reader of the city bring thoughtful, critical inquiry to the task of “urban exegesis.”11

Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, in emphasizing the importance of cultural literacy, says that “Christians must learn to read the signs of the time. . . . Most of us learn to read and write. . . . What we do not learn, however, is cultural literacy: how to ‘read’ and ‘write’ culture. . . . The focus is on reading culture and involves critical engagement, not merely passive consumption.”12 Urban literacy begins with seeing the city as a complex cultural text loaded and layered with meaning. Rather than allowing ourselves to remain passive consumers of the city, dialogical engagement with the urban context calls all city-dwellers to recognize that “the city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it.”13

As we encounter and become conversant with the city as a cultural text, urban literacy helps us to know what we are looking for as we read and engage urban contexts. In my ongoing reading of the city, I consistently examine three interrelated descriptors of the urban environment: density, diversity, and disparity.14 Density describes the physical context of the built environment in the city, from both a structural and human perspective.15 Diversity describes the varied social context of the city, with an emphasis on race, ethnicity, class, and religion as elements of both social cohesion and division. Disparity describes the economic and political context of the city as density and diversity often work together to accentuate the stark contrasts of wealth and power with the poverty and marginalization that characterize the urban environment.

By overlaying these thematic descriptors on the city, certain spaces and places that rise to the surface accentuate the distinctly urban contours of the city. In other words, reading the city for these themes highlights the cultural texts that exemplify the convergence of density, diversity, and disparity. These cultural texts could be a particular neighborhood, a certain historical event, or a dynamic social movement. However, what matters most in reading these urban texts well is not only being able to interpret them in their particular urban contexts but also being able to “exegete” their meaning in a theological context. How do urban cultural texts help us to reflect on the nature of God, the identity of the church, and the mission of Christian community? The meaning that arises from this reflection is simultaneously social, ethical, and missiological in nature, and, like any complex text, is always multivalent in relationship with the hermeneutics of the reader.

The Columbia City Neighborhood

One such urban cultural text that has shaped a reading of my immediate community is the Columbia City Landmark District, a small but dense commercial area that serves as the social and economic hub of the neighborhood. Contained in a relatively short four-block stretch of Rainier Avenue South, right in the heart of Seattle’s Rainier Valley, the Columbia City Landmark District is on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, quaint storefronts and turn-of-the-century architecture frame each urban block in a seemingly innocuous restoration of this once dilapidated business district. Yet behind the trendy boutiques and new restaurants is a very particular history—one that connotes community pride and successful revitalization for some but class tensions and deep resentment for others. Whenever a neighborhood changes, there are always people on both sides of the change. Developers, investors, business owners, families, and residents interact in a complex, dynamic process that can shift the socioeconomic trajectory of a community, and sometimes evidence of these changes is inscribed in the physical geography of the built environment.

Angie’s Cocktails, a fixture of the “original” Columbia City, was a symbolic tavern of the old neighborhood. Described by some as a classic “dive bar,” Angie’s was a favorite watering hole of local clientele for decades, particularly among the African-American community. With as many surveillance cameras as there were barstools,16 regulars came to shoot pool and enjoy cheap drinks, but for many newcomers in the neighborhood, a few too many incidents of alleged criminal activity damaged the bar’s reputation beyond repair.17 Polarizing perspectives on the controversial bar had long fragmented the community.

In 2000, directly across the street from Angie’s, the opening of the Columbia City Ale House signaled the changing demographics of the community. Offering “fine ales and splendid food” according to their elaborate, full-service menu, the new Ale House catered to a growing population of hipsters and professionals with very different tastes than those of the regulars at Angie’s. Noticeably more upscale and attentive to aesthetics, the Ale House predictably attracts a customer base that is mostly white. And as one might naturally expect, the Angie’s and Ale House crowds do not mix.

To the casual observer, these two bars, one on the west side of Rainier Avenue and the other on the east, are divided by what would appear to be little more than fifty feet of asphalt and sidewalks. But locals know all too well that the cultural, socioeconomic, and historical distance is much greater. In this particular context, Rainier Avenue signifies an invisible boundary that segregates the gentrifiers and upwardly mobile professionals of the future from the humble, working class roots of the past. Both groups are working through these social tensions in the present, but they are doing so independently of one another and on either side of Rainier Avenue.

Despite cohabitating in this dense urban environment, the various barriers between the Angie’s and Ale House groups nearly invalidate their proximity. And as a microcosm of the larger Rainier Valley community, one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse urban areas in the US,18 the apparently peaceful coexistence of people from different backgrounds does not necessarily lead to a truly multicultural community. Instead, in some cases, the density and diversity of Columbia City serves to exacerbate the socioeconomic disparity between various stratifications of the social order. While Southeast Asian immigrants and recently resettled East African refugees lament the closure of a small corner store that sells a seemingly odd combination of halal meats and garden-grown Asian herbs, white gentrifiers cheer the opening of a pricey, all-organic grocer offering artisan foods.

Given the multifaceted complexity of this kind of urban cultural text, what is the meaning—social, theological, or otherwise—of the city in this context? How does reading the city closely help us to make sense of the urban environment for the constructive purposes of cultivating communities of belonging and human flourishing?

Urban Theological Reflection

Noted Christian “urbanologist” Ray Bakke has often said that before we attempt to devise a missiology for the city, we need a theology of the city.19 Too often, eager pastors and practitioners equipped with the best of intentions have rushed to strategize about urban ministry programs without any robust ontology of the city. But how can we design and implement effective urban ministries without a theological understanding of what exactly the city is? Unfortunately, these strategic efforts often fall short due to any number of oversights and misunderstandings, ranging from unintentional cultural paternalism to an underestimation of the entrenched nature of structural challenges in urban systems.

In conjunction with Bakke’s merited admonition, it is also true that good missiology has a deep theological foundation in the identity of a sending God and the ecclesial community of a sent people. With its proper orientation around the missio Dei, urban missiology that takes the city seriously must first begin to unpack the theological—and therefore missiological—meaning of density, diversity, and disparity in the urban context.

This abbreviated urban contextual theology20 will simply trace the contours of density, diversity, and disparity by reflecting on the nature of place, neighbor, and community in the city. Each of these reflections is dialogical in nature in the sense that urban contexts do not dictate theological discourse in a systematic fashion. Instead, like all cultural texts, the city conveys a plurality of meanings, and the role of theological reflection is to enter into the discourse of the city with both contextual considerations of complex anthropological realities and a strong sense of the deep wells of the Christian tradition.

Density and Place

The particularities of the Columbia City neighborhood—its people, history, character, geography—reinforce the unique nature of place in the city. As people humanize urban space, it becomes a particular place in the same way that a family’s memories make the space of a house into a place called home. The full dimensionality of “place” is much more than the physical mechanics of geography or sensory perception of one’s surroundings.21 “ ‘Place’ is one of the trickiest words in the English language, a suitcase so overfilled one can never shut the lid. It carries the resonance of homestead, location, and open space in the city as well as a position in a social hierarchy.”22 Thus we can speak of physically “going to this or that place,” socially “knowing your place” in a relational context, and existentially “understanding our place in the world” all in the same sentence. A theology of place in the urban context must see this multifaceted nature of place as more than just theologically neutral territory.

Unfortunately, the concept of place in the frenetic urban environment of Western society is largely a pragmatic, consumer-driven idea often motivated by little more than comfort or convenience. The places where we live, work, worship, shop, and play reflect projected images of a class-conscious “lifestyle” with little to no awareness of the ethics of place, the patterns of structural inequality, or the politics of fear in the city. Urban density, it seems, is just so inconvenient and unappealing. Is it any surprise that our churches have largely departed from the city for greener pastures?

For the past two decades . . . we have been abandoning our strategic locations within city cores and traditional neighborhoods, and we have tried to create for ourselves a new kind of society in the form of suburban megachurches. And as individual Christians, we have marched right along with the rest of our culture and moved our homes outside of the urban core into the sanitized world of the suburbs. Even when we have not participated directly in this radical shift, we have come to view the particularities of functioning in the midst of the city (restricted parking, unsympathetic neighbors, and pushy transients) as inconveniences rather than as opportunities for ministry. . . . Unfortunately, if we were to take a hard look at how Christians in this country have come to view their cities, we would have to conclude that our views have not necessarily been shaped by the Bible, prayer, or meaningful discussions among fellow Christians. It might be more accurate to say that the fear of cities, or the fear of one another, or possibly the love of convenience has been the actual basis of much of our current perceptions about the city.23

Jacobsen’s conviction that the church has succumbed to fear and comfort over compassion and service is a timely critique for a self-focused, therapeutic Christianity. Generally viewed as a place of congestion, inconvenience, crime, and immorality, the urban context has too often become a place to avoid, not a place—as the prophet Jeremiah admonished exiled Israel— to “seek the peace (shalom) of the city” (Jer 29:7; author’s translation).

However, urban density is not only a problem to be solved, or an inconvenience to overcome. Density in the city confronts North American individualism and privacy and helps people to see that public places in the city, when truly shared and stewarded by a neighborhood, can help to cultivate communities of trust and mutual care. Density may force us to encounter “the Other” and to begin to see the imago Dei in all people in surprising and refreshing ways. Though segregation and fear persist in my neighborhood, there are also signs of hope. Columbia Park, built over an old dumping ground, is just two blocks from where Angie’s was recently closed. On a good day, it’s a place where people are moving from co-residents to becoming neighbors as children play together, families enjoy the farmers’ market, and friends gather to share a meal under the shade of an evergreen.

Diversity and Neighbor(ing)

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14; msg). Eugene Peterson’s well known paraphrase of this memorable introduction in the first chapter of John’s Gospel is more than just a clever rewording of this incarnational doctrine. That God chooses to dwell among us and become our neighbor is a powerful biblical metaphor that must inform our praxis as we strive to love our neighbors as ourselves. Though “neighbor” is traditionally a more static category of people, this theological concept of “neighboring” in the city is a dynamic verb of action and engagement.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the passage opens with an abrupt interaction between Jesus and an expert in the law about what must be done to inherit eternal life. It is important to recognize that the qualification of faithfulness to the Shema (Deut 6:4-9) that is outlined by the lawyer and affirmed by Jesus is portrayed in an intentionally active light. The discussion is not merely theological and propositional; it is by definition connected to the concrete reality of neighboring in the world. “That the practice of God’s word is the central issue in this narrative unit is obvious from the repetition and placement of the verb ‘to do.’ . . . In this way the first segment of this unit (vv 25-28) is bound together with references to praxis.”24

The defensive question “And who is my neighbor?” that the lawyer poses to Jesus is one of justification and avoidance. But Jesus replies with a radical narrative of countercultural neighboring, one in which traditional cultural categories were shattered in favor of a different definition of neighbor. After the priest and the Levite had failed to intervene on behalf of the beaten man, “the audience may well have expected the third character in the story to be an Israelite layman, thereby giving an anti-clerical point to the
story. . . . Jesus, however, deliberately speaks of a member of a community hated by the Jews.”25

Jesus’ unexpected inclusion of a Samaritan in the story is a turn that surely would have shocked his listeners. Nonetheless:

What distinguishes this traveler from the other two is not fundamentally that they are Jews and he is a Samaritan, nor is it that they had high status as religious functionaries and he does not. What individualizes him is his compassion, leading to action, in the face of their inaction. . . . The parable of the compassionate Samaritan thus undermines the determination of status in the community of God’s people on the basis of ascription, substituting in its place a concern with performance, the granting of status on the basis of one’s actions.26

Over against all the other social and cultural identifiers at work in this context, compassionate action is what differentiates the Samaritan and defines him as a good neighbor.

That a nameless Samaritan—perceived as less than fully human by many first-century Jews—embodies a Christlike ethic of love and service to neighbor should call into question the ways in which racialization and class consciousness have accentuated the segregation of neighbors in the urban context. Diversity in the city is an opportunity for Christians to see the unique particularities of their neighbors as a vital, indispensable contribution to the wholeness of the community.

Angie’s and the Ale House represent disparate communities that are in fact bound to one another. Though race remains as a deeply problematic barrier in this context, the city can become a place where communities move “from exclusion to embrace.”27 Angie’s closure is in fact an opportunity for people in the neighborhood, especially those committed to the work of reconciliation, to create a new and hospitable place for neighboring together in friendship.

Disparity and Community

The ubiquity of socioeconomic disparity in the city has conditioned people to accept the stark contrasts between the rich and the poor (and the powerful and powerless) as inevitable, or perhaps even necessary. In Columbia City, residents in million-dollar homes look across the street at government-subsidized public housing, while wealthy, single professionals wait in line for groceries behind a family surviving on food stamps. Is this kind of disparity “just the way it has to be”?

If the church is to become a community of belonging both for and with its diverse neighbors in the urban context, then it must consider ethics of redistribution that effectively model care and concern for the poor. Unless the church is able to truly see the poor as neighbors to whom it is accountable, people will not understand the heart of the Prophets and the importance of economic justice for the marginalized in the eyes of God. Until the church is willing to see “poverty as a scandalous condition,”28 the community of faith will not fully grasp the deep compassion of YHWH revealed in the righteous anger of Amos, the indignant admonitions of Isaiah, and the somber laments of Jeremiah.

To be a Christian community that practices redistribution is not to adhere blindly to human models of economics that preclude private ownership or wield an authoritarian rule. Rather, to be a generous and hospitable Christian community is to seek the heart of God in the fair and equitable treatment of the poor so that the whole people of God, and not just those with economic means or political resources, will be able to live under the gracious care of a generous, reconciling God. The church must model this kind of community, especially in the urban context, where the exploitative market forces of gentrification and unrestrained capitalism too often run rampant, deepening socioeconomic disparities and trampling on the poor in the process.

A steadfast devotion to communal economic justice is perhaps the most prophetic and countercultural commitment the church can make in an age of unbounded hyper-consumerism. Becoming a community of redistribution flies in the face of a society where cutthroat social Darwinism, left to its own devices, would have us all chasing after “the wealth of nations”29 at any cost. Moreover, Christian redistribution is not simply about taking resources from the “hardworking haves” and giving them to the “nonworking have-nots”; quite to the contrary, it is about sharing that with which we have been entrusted as stewards and giving back “to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:13-17; niv).

As Columbia City continues to undergo significant economic changes with an influx of new wealth, questions about displacement of the poor are ongoing. In a neighborhood that has known socioeconomic disparity for much of its history, the role of the church as an inclusive, bridge-building community is increasingly important. Making room at the table and extending hospitality to those on the margins is the church’s Eucharistic offering to the city.


Density, diversity, and disparity in the city make for interesting urban reading. As critically engaged interpreters of cultural texts, the church must see the city in all of its complexity, brokenness, and beauty. It is important to remember that the ministry of place-making, reconciliation, and communal justice is always participatory and collaborative. We participate with the missio Dei as image bearers of the divine community, and we collaborate with our neighbors as co-learners. And along the way, the church in the city lives into its vocation as a called and sent people.

It is a healthy reminder:

Christianity entered history as a new social order, or rather a new social dimension. From the very beginning Christianity was not primarily a “doctrine,” but exactly a “community.” There was not only a “Message” to be proclaimed and delivered, and “Good News” to be declared. There was precisely a New Community, distinct and peculiar, in the process of growth and formation, to which members were called and recruited. Indeed, “fellowship” (koinonia) was the basic category of Christian existence.30

May the bold witness and compassionate care of the church continue to grow this fellowship into the city and beyond.

David Leong, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Missiology at Seattle Pacific University where he directs the Global and Urban Ministry Program in the School of Theology. He can be contacted at


Bakke, Raymond J. A Theology as Big as the City. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997.

Barthes, Roland. “Semiology and the Urban.” In Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, edited by Neil Leach, 165–72. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Clay, Grady. Close-Up: How to Read the American City. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Conn, Harvie M., and Manuel Ortiz. Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, & the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001.

Florovsky, Georges. Christianity and Culture. Vol. 2 of Collected Works of Georges Florovsky. Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1974.

Gorringe, Timothy. A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Translated and edited by Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973.

Harvey, David. Social Justice and the City. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Hirsch, Alan. “Defining Missional.” Leadership Journal 29, no. 4 (Fall 2008),

Inge, John. A Christian Theology of Place. Explorations in Practical, Pastoral, and Empirical Theology. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

Jacobsen, Eric O. Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. The Christian Practice of Everyday Life. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003.

Leong, David P. Street Signs: Toward a Missional Theology of Urban Cultural Engagement. American Society of Missiology Monograph Series 12. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012.

Lewis, Mike. “Angie’s Keeps Columbia City’s ‘Essence’ Alive as Area Changes.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 28, 2007.

Livermore, David A. Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World. Youth, Family, and Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Marsh, Charles, and John M. Perkins. Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. Resources for Reconciliation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

Oakley, Allen. Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: Intellectual Sources and Evolution. International Library of Economics. London: Routledge, 1984.

Rainier Valley Historical Society. Rainier Valley. Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2012.

Short, John R. The Urban Order: An Introduction to Cities, Culture, and Power. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Swanson, Judith A., and C. David Corbin. Aristotle’s Politics: A Reader’s Guide. Continuum Reader’s Guides. New York: Continuum, 2009.

UN Population Fund. “State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth.” New York: UNFPA, 2007.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “What is Everyday Theology? How and Why Christians Should Read Culture.” In Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, 15-61. Cultural Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

1 See Jer 29:4-9, particularly “the peace of the city” in v. 7. The idea of “plans to prosper you” (v. 11) in popular readings of 29:11-14 is often disconnected from the shalom (peace) of the city in vv. 4-9. It is necessary to hold the people of God’s quest for urban peace together with God’s intention to create prosperity in a unified reading of vv. 4-14.

2 Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 157.

3 Judith A. Swanson and C. David Corbin, Aristotle’s Politics: A Reader’s Guide, Continuum Reader’s Guides (New York: Continuum, 2009), 19.

4 See United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth (New York: UNFPA, 2007),

5 By “structures and systems,” I mean the inner workings of the urban environment that are shaped by patterns and codes (implicit, explicit, political, geographic, etc.) in the city. See Grady Clay, Close-Up: How to Read the American City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 11.

6 See Alan Hirsch, “Defining Missional,” Leadership Journal 29, no. 4 (Fall 2008),

7 For example, churches often send short-term mission teams to Mexico without much thought for how that experience might shape their relationships with Hispanic/Latino communities close to home. See David A. Livermore, Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World. Youth, Family, and Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 25-29.

8 Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, Resources for Reconciliation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 42.

9 John R. Short, The Urban Order: An Introduction to Cities, Culture, and Power (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 5.

10 Cultural semiotics, cultural hermeneutics, and symbolic anthropology are a few examples of this complex discourse that I explore in David P. Leong, Street Signs: Toward a Missional Theology of Urban Cultural Engagement, American Society of Missiology Monograph Series 12 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012).

11 “Urban exegesis” is a method of theological interpretation of the city that I explore in Street Signs, 97-114.

12 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “What is Everyday Theology? How and Why Christians Should Read Culture,” in Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, Cultural Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 18, emphasis original.

13 Roland Barthes, “Semiology and the Urban,” In Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (New York: Routledge, 1997), 168. Though this discursive nature of the city gives agency to the reader in the process of shaping cultural texts, for the purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on “reading” as an interpretive/descriptive task.

14 These “3Ds” of the urban environment do not encapsulate the whole of the city, but they do serve as core descriptors of the multifaceted nature of urban contexts in Street Signs.

15 Public housing projects, for example, have historically exemplified the challenges of housing density in North American cities.

16 Mike Lewis, “Angie’s Keeps Columbia City’s ‘Essence’ Alive as Area Changes,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 28, 2007

17 Accusations of crack dealing, prostitution, underage drinking, and gang activity plagued Angie’s for years. After changes in ownership failed to rehabilitate the bar’s tarnished image, Angie’s closed in 2011. As of 2012, it remains vacant and boarded up with an uncertain future.

18 According to US Census data, there are over 60 languages spoken among 45+ distinct ethnic groups in the 98118 zip code alone. Additionally, incomes vary widely from resettled refugees on public assistance to enclaves of the independently wealthy. See Rainier Valley Historical Society, Rainier Valley, Images of America (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 7-8.

19 This sentiment is at least a part of what informs Raymond Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).

20 Again, see Leong, Street Signs.

21 The concept of “place” in place studies is interdisciplinary across literary, anthropological, architectural, geographical, and sociological perspectives. For theological perspectives on place, see John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place, Explorations in Practical, Pastoral, and Empirical Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003) and Timothy Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

22 Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 15.

23 Eric O. Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003), 16, 17.

24 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 425.

25 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 449.

26 Green, 431.

27 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 100.

28 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973), 291.

29 My rhetorical critique of Adam Smith’s foundational treatise on free-market economics is not intended to be a specific analysis of economic policy. Rather, I am attempting to offer an alternative view of the rarely criticized principles of capitalism, which function so well at generating wealth primarily because they capitalize on the human capacity for greed in the face of manufactured perception of scarcity. Marx is merely one prominent example of such a critique; see Allen Oakley, Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: Intellectual Sources and Evolution. International Library of Economics (London: Routledge, 1984).

30 Georges Florovsky, Christianity and Culture, vol. 2 of Collected Works of Georges Florovsky (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1974), 67.

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