Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today
Craig G. Bartholomew
Baker Academic, 2011
384 pp., $32.00
Where Mortals Dwell
In the ten years of our marriage, my husband, Paul, and I have moved six times, often across the country. From Dallas to Los Angeles to Dallas to Los Angeles (again!) to Denver to, finally, Holland, Michigan, the longest we've lived in a single location is three years.
Having grown up in just one small town in East Texas, I prized our mobility in the early years of our marriage, but recently I've wondered how our itinerant lifestyle has affected my spiritual life. Does place—or, rather, chronic displacement—impact spiritual formation?
In Where Mortals Dwell, Craig Bartholomew argues that "one of the glories of being human" is to be implaced in a specific locale—that to exist at all we must be somewhere. Bartholomew further suggests that in contemporary Western culture, our sense of place has been deeply eroded, due to the time-space compression that is characteristic of postmodernity and globalization. When it once took months of travel to facilitate trade between Asia and Europe, we can now trade stocks in Singapore from our home computer.
Bartholomew agrees with Walter Brueggemann that we do not suffer so much from anomie, or meaninglessness, as we do from atopia, placelessness. Indeed, Bartholomew says, our sense of place is not merely neglected in Western culture but is actively suppressed.
In Where Mortals Dwell, Bartholomew hopes to help Christians recover a sense of place and "placemaking" in distinctively Christian terms. To accomplish this, he analyzes the concept of place in the Bible and in the Western philosophical and Christian traditions, wrapping up with a discussion of how Christians can pragmatically begin the work of placemaking in their local communities.
Bartholomew presents an extensive commentary on the significance of place in both the Old and New Testaments, beginning with creation. The doctrine of creation, he argues, is fundamental to a biblical theology of place for three reasons.
First, the doctrine of creation resists dualisms that minimize the importance of the material world, for God was pleased with the material world he created, calling it "good." Second, the doctrine of creation informs us of our responsibility to demonstrate a "cosmic concern" for the environment. Third, a biblical view of creation resists the nature-culture dichotomy that prizes the wilderness over the city. Though the first cities mentioned in Genesis seem to support the view held by many Christian thinkers, such as Jacques Ellul, that the city is a place of open rebellion against God, Bartholomew argues that the mandate to tend and steward the earth ultimately results in cultural development and the building of cities.
Similarly, Bartholomew argues that the doctrine of the incarnation is central to a biblical theology of place in the sense that the incarnation and resurrection are the ultimate affirmation of creation. The redemption that Christ offers encompasses the entire creation, leading it forward not to Eden but to the destiny that God originally intended for it.
As embodied creatures made in the image of God, we must acknowledge that our identity and our very being are deeply intertwined with place. The heart of God's judgment on Adam, Eve, and eventually Cain, was displacement. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden was painful, "vomited out of the land" as they were. The curse of Cain for killing his brother was permanent displacement.
Bartholomew notes that place has a formative influence on the lives of individuals throughout the Scriptures. Central to the Abrahamic narratives and much of the Pentateuch is the theme of journeying and the land; Abraham journeys through the wilderness to the land God promised, and the people of Israel wander through the desert after their release from Egypt. Likewise, God uses the desert as a formational place in the lives of Moses, the Israelites, and Jesus.
Working with this robust theology of place, Bartholomew outlines several important implications for Christians. First, we should demonstrate care for our immediate environment, which begins with our home. Bartholomew advocates gardening and the "slow work" of homemaking such as making your own meals and replacing television dens with the front porch. Homes should also be smaller and more permanent. Since Christian institutions of higher learning already occupy a great deal of land, they ought to evaluate their use of the land and implement curriculum that teaches the importance of place and placemaking.
When churches build, Bartholomew says, they should take care that their buildings embody their faith—buildings should be localized in particular neighborhoods and should witness on the outside to the glory of the God they worship on the inside. For Bartholomew, this means moving away from the mall-like compounds so prominent among contemporary churches.
Finally, Bartholomew suggests that a biblical theology of place demands that we should demonstrate concerned action against climate change. To do this, we need to "face up to the challenge of global warming," recognize our part in it, and repent of our destruction of nature.
Where Mortals Dwell is remarkable in the sense that it gives a comprehensive answer to a question that many are just beginning to ask: Does place—where we are and what we do with it—matter to our spiritual formation? Barely has the question been uttered when Bartholomew answers with a resounding "Yes!"
We've been asking questions that dance around the edges of this issue for a long time. The relationship between church and culture has been debated for centuries. We know that highly mobile lifestyles alienate individuals and undermine community. More and more people are digitally detoxing by unplugging from social media in order to invest in face-to-face relationships. The dissatisfaction with suburbia is well-documented. The heart of these questions centers on our placedness as human beings.
The weakness of Where Mortals Dwell is that Bartholomew fails to present a comprehensive discussion of how our contemporary lifestyles inhibit our placedness. He references the "crisis of place" in the introduction, but he does not treat it with the same depth as he does the concept of place. Providing such a discussion would have enabled readers to better understand the role of place, or lack thereof, in their daily habits, lifestyles, and organizations. How do social media undermine our sense of place? Do telecommuting and distance learning promote or detract from our sense of place?
Whether or not one agrees with the specific suggestions proposed by Bartholomew, we should be able to agree that our relationship with place is reciprocal: place shapes us and we, in turn, shape it.
Halee Gray Scott teaches spiritual formation and leadership at Wesley Seminary and theology at A. W. Tozer Seminary. She has written for Christianity Today magazine.
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