On Place

Although a theology of presence drives the system, the impact of the Lord’s presence is within a particular place.  Within the 21st century, conversations about place include the impact of the cross-purposeful effects of urbanization, globalization, and post-modernity.  Based on one’s theology of place, a Christian will navigate them either by trying to ignore these realities, embrace them, or selectively work through them.  In other words, theologies of place predetermine the practice of Christianity in a place as one approaches these three.  Hence, it is of crucial importance to have a framework through which to understand how Christians throughout history have handled the interplay between the eternal Christ and the temporal culture.[1]

Urbanization, Globalization, and Post-modernity

With over half the world’s population living in urban environments and as urban sprawl envelops more rural territory, Christians can be found living out their theology of place as they either participate in the claiming of undeveloped territory on the outskirts of urban sprawl or in reclaiming the urban wastelands of the inner city.  Meanwhile, some may simply retreat into a shell to await the second coming of the King of kings who will right the wrongs they see.  In all three of these scenarios, the believers live out a theology of place.[2]

Meanwhile, the believer is tossed back and forth by the waves of local, regional, and global cultures developing interdependently.  The post-modern desire for community and authenticity reacts to the urbanization that encourages secondary relationships which can be developed cross-nationally through the interconnectedness of globalization.  In so many ways, these three are both at cross purposes to one another yet interdependent as reactions to one another.  Urbanization makes cities bigger.  Globalization makes the world smaller.  Post-modernity strives to makes sense of it in a real and tangible way by making value-based allowances[3] so that the post-modern individual can live with the inherent contradictions to these simultaneous, cultural forces.

Extreme Perspectives of Urban

The two extreme views of the city as either a positive or negative environment can be generated[4] from within a theological framework.  However, a balanced view of putting oneself under the authority of the Bible eventually submits to the idea that specific cities bound by specific times can take on either extreme as a positive or negative environment.  Further, a city can swing anyplace along the continuum between the two extremes, stopping periodically, then reacting to the rebuke of the Lord or submitting to the allure of evil forces.

Many brilliant Bible scholars argue both extremes.  Some argue that the cities are center of evil, idolatry, and human autonomy.[5] This argument can clearly be made in expounding the biblical accounts of the cities of Babel,[6]Sodom and Gomorrah,[7] or Babylon.[8] Meanwhile, others argue that the city is a gift from God, a place of ministry and mission where God will judge and redeem, all the while being an expression of human responsibility for one another.[9] The Bible also speaks to this view through the purpose of the cities of refuge,[10] the rebuilding of specific cities,[11] and the fulfillment of God’s people within the holy city.[12]

Archetypes for Understanding & Navigating Cultural Shift

Both of the positive and negative extremes reflect an oversimplification of applied biblical anthropology as it unfolds in understanding the historical-cultural sociologies that undergird the biblical accounts.  Herein, the framework of Christ and Culture allows an intentionally humble researcher[13] a typology through which the ebb and flow of the biblical accounts can be understood and applied to the current urbanized, globalized, and post-modern landscape.  The typologies of how Christ in Christians interacts with culture throughout the ages are seen both in the Scriptures as well as in 20th and 21st century theologies of place.  All of these typologies have occurred and are occurring.  The responsibility of the urban ministry practitioner is to recognize these typologies and determine which one is appropriate to exercise within a specific cultural context for the fulfillment of Christ-oriented, biblical objectives.

The typologies of Christ and culture are reflected in the Scriptures.  A comprehensive analysis and synthesis of these typologies[14] throughout the Scriptures is beyond the scope of this research.  Hence, the following examples are only illustrative.

The two extremes of Christ “against” and “of” culture provide the poles between which the other types may fall. When it comes to the “Christ against culture” motif, it is seen in Jonah’s attitude toward the city of Nineveh—an attitude that not only ends the prophetic book but history tells us ended with his death as is evident with the tomb of Jonah traditionally located outside the modern location – Mosul – of that ancient city.[15] “Christ of culture” is represented in the urban cultural identity of Lot’s incestuous daughters[16]who embraced the culture of Sodom, and can be argued that Lot himself revealed his cultural corruption in offering the Sodomizers his virgin daughters;[17] the syncretistic enculturation of King Solomon;[18] and the libertinism of some of the inhabitants of the early church.[19] Both of these typologies of extremes are outside of the continuous outworking of the grace of God, which launches out from the law fulfilled without embracing hedonistic libertinism.

The options along the continuum between these extremes represent more viable options for the urban practitioner to navigate between – pending the specific cultural milieu of which the minister needs to be sensitive.  The culture in submission to Christ is evident in the biblical accounts of various kings who were directed by the Lord God, in whom they did not believe.[20]The kings of the Assyrians[21] and Babylonians[22] are illustrative of “Christ above the culture.” An example is King Artaxeres submitting to the request of his prayerful cupbearer, Nehemiah.[23] Meanwhile, the efforts of some of the prophets[24] who lived in cities destined for destruction, who prophesized that destruction while striving themselves to live holy lives often as metaphors lived out before their hearers,[25] reveal the “Christ and culture in paradox” type.  Finally, the essence of Jeremiah’s instruction to the Hebrews exiled in Babylon to intentionally and deliberately “seek the peace and prosperity of the city”[26] not only reveals the “Christ transforming culture” type but may also have been the impetus for Daniel and his friends to submit and seek to influence their captors.[27] This type is revealed in the work of Joseph in transforming and saving Egypt from the hand of famine.[28] It is also revealed in the effect of Jonah’s preaching[29] that had the impact on Nineveh of repentance that may have lasted for up to 100 years.[30]

Place: A Contextualized Orthopraxy

The danger for the believer lies in the tendency to become locked solely into one of these typologies. Urban ministers need to see each as an option that meets a specific context – a context that may change around the minister as culture ebbs and flows with the impulses of sin-filled humanity blindly striving toward divinity.  The classic biblical example of the ebb and flow of the interplay between Christ and culture is revealed in both Babylon and Jerusalem.  At one point, both cities exemplify each of Niebuhr’s five typologies when taken in five snapshots of time throughout the Scriptures and reveal that each of these typologies has its place.  When Jerusalem is abiding in sin, her destruction is prophesied[31] typifying “Christ against culture.” The same is true for Babylon.[32] Both move through the continuum at different points in history.  However, in the end, it is the city of Jerusalem that embraces “Christ of culture” when it is recreated such that those who live within her will fulfill the hopes and dreams of everyone who ever sought out the peace of the city[33] and so fulfill the restoration prophecies.[34]

The problem comes with the believers (prior to that eternal fulfillment of being with the Lord face-to-face in His eternal city) within a specific context who cannot see where they are culturally.  Their cultural blindness prevents them from seeing how they are to interact with the Divine because the ebb and flow of their syncretism and cultural immersion disguises and confuses how to relate to Him.  The blindness of most believers within cultural shift is the basis for the ever-present need for the living out of the next theology: prayer, through which the Lord hears “the cry of the afflicted.”[35] Apart from submitting to speaking with the Lord through prayer, the believer is left to be driven and tossed by the waves of cultural shift.

In the specific context of the current ministry, seeking to assist people bridge-the-gaps in their understanding of being culturally bound and the freedom to make cultural mistakes while living with the cultural mistakes of others is hard work.  This requires deliberate and intentional educating of ethnic, socioeconomic, and generational differences, especially when the congregation reflects such great cultural diversity.  Some of this educating comes through the illustrations and applications of the sermons taught.  More focused teaching comes through seminars periodically offered on “Ministering Cross Culturally” based on the book of the same name[36] which helps the congregant unpack their own value system while learning which types of value systems may sabotage their relationships.  However, the cries of the afflicted are both initiated and cultivated through “praying on site with insight”[37] as semi-annual prayer walking seminars and trainings teach the people to spiritually interact with the culture in which the Lord has placed them.  Even so, much more needs to be done such as clearly unpacking the typologies from an urban perspective.[38]

[1] Niebuhr, p.xxxiv.

[2] This is most probably unarticulated.

[3] One such example is the forced reconciliation of subjectivity of truth & unreliability of absolutes.

[4] Some people categorically declare that the city is evil.  Others categorically declare that the city is good.  The researcher suspects that both do so not from objective biblical analysis but from allowing their presumptions to predetermine their conclusions.  Hence, although they utilize biblical analysis, they inadvertently generate or manufacture their conclusions from not having openly dealt with their assumptions and thereby prejudiced their biblical analysis.  The word “generated” may be somewhat harsh but it is intended to be descriptive, not harsh.  The discussion that follows will hopefully show that both are extremes and both are at times correct but each fails to take into account a complete biblical theology of the city.  This is further reflected in the researcher’s understanding of applying Niebuhr’s cultural analysis to the urban environment (see Appendix F) showing that there may be times when each of his categories applies.

[5] Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), xxx. In Eldin Villafañe’s class notes. Center for Urban Ministerial Education. 6 June 2007.

[6] Genesis 11.1-9.

[7] Genesis 19.

[8] Psalm 137.8-9, Isaiah 13.19, Revelation 18.2-3; these references are illustrative only. No apocalyptic symbolism is assumed as relates to the latter reference.  The intent is to note the judgment of God exercised against cities, not to interpret any symbolism often correlated with specific cities.

[9] Eldin Villafañe, class notes on 6 June 2007, based on research from R. Pasquariello, D. Shriever, Jr, and A. Geyes, Redeeming the City: Theology, Politics and Urban Policy (New York, NY: Pilgrim Press, 1982).

[10] Numbers 35.9-15.

[11] Amos 9.14.

[12] Revelation 21.

[13] An intentionality is crucial for humility to ever be realized, hence, humility can be described as willing to not know in order to come to know. C.f., Proverbs 11.2b.

[14] Appendix D.

[15] Carlos C. Huerta, “Jewish Heartbreak and Hope in Nineveh,” The Jerusalem Post, 24 July 2003.

[16] Genesis 19.30ff.

[17] Genesis 19.8.

[18] 1 Kings 11.

[19] E.g., Romans 6.1-2, 1 Corinthians 6.12, & 10.23.

[20] E.g. Habakkuk.

[21] 2 Kings 17.

[22] 2 Kings 25, Ezra 21.

[23] Nehemiah 2.1-9.

[24] E.g., Jeremiah.

[25] E.g., Hosea.

[26] Jeremiah 29.7.

[27] Daniel 1.8-14.

[28] Genesis 41.41-57.

[29] Jonah 3.6-10.

[30] Nahum.

[31] Exodus 22-24.

[32] Revelation 18, see footnote 185.  The purpose here is to note the continuity in both the Old and New Testaments of the destruction of Babylon (as a city) be it literal or figrative.  Granted there is debate about the literal vs. symbolic nature of the Revelation According to John (e.g. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-1985), in Logos Bible Software S 2:972).  Regardless of literal vs. symbolic, the “city-ness” is under judgment due to unrestrained sin and Christ is against it.

[33] Revelation 21-22.

[34] E.g. Isaiah 60, Zechariah 2.5, 2.10-11.

[35] Psalm 9.12.

[36] Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin Keene Mayers, Ministering Cross Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1986).

[37] The Journey Church of the City, PrayerWalking: A Resource for Church Planting and Evangelism, [DVD], 2004.

[38] Appendix F.


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