A History of Future Cities
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013
480 pp., $27.95
Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church
Stephen T. Um
176 pp., $15.99
Noah J. Toly
In the City We Trust
Oddly, Um and Buzzard overlook a very important idol—one of the most seductive false gods. While they give us a list of cities each matched with a single idol—"Boston: Knowledge," "Seoul: Competition," "Manila: Opportunity," "Geneva: Peace," "Tehran: Power," etc.—they never point out that we can idolize the city itself.
If the flood of books about the city tells us anything, it is that cities don't just have stories that draw us into idolatry, but are becoming the story that draws us into idolatry. Cities themselves are becoming the things in which we trust for deliverance. Brook falls into this trap, making the dynamism and diversity of the city our great hope for deliverance from oppression. By not identifying the city as a potential idol, Um and Buzzard stumble into the same mistake, at points seeming to trust our idols to deliver us from our idolatry.
Ironically, this idolatry will take any true dynamism right out of our urbanism. When we idolize something, we don't try to change it. Instead, we absolutize it. We don't critique our idols.
We may hope that the diversity and dynamism of the city will deliver us from oppression, but placing our hope for the city in the city is likely to result in the perpetuation and sedimentation of social ills. People will suffer as we give up our ability to critique the city. As Jacques Ellul wrote, once we have made something into an idol, "then we are ready to sacrifice persons to it." Indeed, when Peter the Great's son Alexis saw that his father's vision for St. Petersburg would undermine the social order of Russia, he tried to stage a coup during his father's travels. Peter sentenced Alexis to death. As Brook notes, Alexis "died of torture even before his execution could be carried out. Peter had chosen to sacrifice his son to save his city." But this should not be surprising—as Ellul noted, "All the gods … have demanded human sacrifice."
While there is indeed more to the city than brokenness, idolizing urban dynamism will only blind us to the oppression and subjugation that persist within our urban communities and rob us of possibilities for transformation, however incomplete and fragile it may be. None of the recent books on urban dynamism make this point. Maybe there's something left to be written after all.
Noah Toly is director of Urban Studies and associate professor of politics & international relations at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.