View from the Urban Loft: Developing a Theological Framework for Understanding the City.
Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2011. 190pp. $20.49.
In the heart of a world city, surrounded by multiple nationalities and the hiss of an espresso machine, Sean Benesh shares his theological reflections on urbanization and the church. He writes from Burnaby, Canada, a landing point for many first-generation immigrants in the greater Vancouver area. His book, View from the Urban Loft, is a mix of personal storytelling, biblical and historical examination, urban studies, and theological consideration on all of the above. The book is an introduction to concepts that might form a theology for the city. His goal is that the church would begin to embrace the city, understand the city, and eventually take part in transforming the city.
A theme that runs through the entire book is that the church often falls victim to several false lenses when it looks at the city. First is the dichotomy between spiritual and physical ministry that puts the focus on soul winning and church planting to the neglect of urban planning, development, and concern for the poor. Benesh advocates for a broader soteriology that includes the redemption of place. He asks us to consider, What makes a city great? If it is simply the number of churches and Christians, would not cities like Dallas and Atlanta (his examples) be the greatest cities in the US? No, the greatness of a city goes beyond the number of Christian residents or even church plants.
A second lens Benesh critiques is the view that rural wilderness areas are spiritually good, whereas man-made cities are spiritually evil. He argues that Western Christianity developed a negative view of cities after the Industrial Revolution that remains embedded in our subconscious. However, cities are actually a gift of common grace from God, and God has set humankind on an urban trajectory to experience this grace. This may be one of the more controversial statements of the book.
Benesh approaches Scripture as the source for this theological perspective. He argues that Genesis 1:28 implies urbanization and that the promise of the heavenly city in Revelation shows God’s favor towards an urban movement. In the Old Testament, the Israelites certainly embraced a worldview involving a holy place and a holy city. Yet there is a significant shift in the New Testament as the physical temple is replaced by the spiritual reality of the church. Place, however, remains important as an aspect of God’s mission. The church is sent into the world as part of the missio Dei. Benesh says that any theology for the city must be rooted in missiology. He also explores incarnational theology, drawing insights from Irenaeus’s theory of recapitulation. Eschatology plays an important role as well. Is the earth going to be destroyed or renewed in the end? Benesh believes that the earth (i.e., “place”) is redeemable. Many readers will agree that a call for a more positive and hopeful view of the city is certainly necessary. But Benesh’s shotgun approach to Scripture and theology leaves the reader with more questions than answers.
The best chapter of the book steps away from worldview questions and turns to Nehemiah for a “template for community development and urban renewal” (84). Benesh draws ten principles of community transformation that are quite helpful and sometimes surprising. A few highlights include: funding will often come from outside the church (Neh 2:7-9); Christians should take responsibility for the sins of the city (Neh 1:6-7); and agents of transformation should expect push back from others in the church (Neh 3:5).
Scattered throughout the book are helpful snippets that urge church planters toward theological reflection as to where and how they will plant. He criticizes a trend he sees of church planters moving to the hip areas of the city, always claiming they have been “called” to those neighborhoods. Planters should examine their motives when choosing a location to see if they are in line with the values of the kingdom of God. He fears that if church planters continue making decisions based on their preferences and commonalities with their target group, then many neighborhoods will continue to be unreached.
One of Benesh’s unique contributions may be his inclusion of urban studies. The church needs an up-to-date understanding of the city if it is to develop a theology of cities. Several chapters in the book are dedicated to understanding what a city really is. The problem, which Benesh admits, is that no definition really suffices. He issues this challenge to churches: urbanization is not going to stop and we can no longer run away from the fact that cities are our mission field.
The book ends with several chapters reflecting on a theology of the built environment of a city. The built environment “refers to the human-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity” (141). One can see underlying values at work in a city’s built environment. “Fences,” for example, can communicate warmth and charm in a rural area. But in high density urban zones they more often communicate a socio-economic distinction between the “have’s” and “have not’s.” Benesh encourages Christians to be at work in urban planning and development. An urban planner may have a more potent impact for God’s kingdom than a church in some communities. Church planters may want to consider an idea like Benesh’s “pedestrian-oriented church planting” (162 ff.) as they reflect on a theology of the built environment.
View from the Urban Loft introduces a significant topic for our time—a theology of place related to the city. Unfortunately, the book only skims the surface of its various points. I fear that those with a negative view of the city will not be swayed. As a church planter in Vancouver, BC, I can relate to Benesh’s setting, but the book leaves me wanting more. His argument that the city should be viewed as a good gift from God is weak and overstated. He touches on incarnational theology, which has much to offer in constructing a theology of place, but he leaves it underdeveloped. While there are some helpful insights in the book, I think most readers will want to keep looking for something with a bit more meat.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada