Book Review

Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church By Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard

Leslie A. Brown
Stephen T. Um
Monday, December 30th 2013
Jan/Feb 2014

Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church, by Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard, announces a lofty goal on its back cover: To be "a comprehensive analysis… [that] answers questions including why cities are so important, what the Bible says about cities, how to overcome common issues and develop a plan for living missionally in the city." In the first two chapters, Um and Buzzard seek to articulate what cities are and why they are important. Their tools of measurement would seem to be census information about population and economics. The cities are where the people are’and where people will be in greater numbers’and the church needs to follow.

This point has merit. The last century has witnessed increased urbanization, and the new urbanites need the church no less than their ex-urban fellows. However, Um and Buzzard argue that cities are especially valuable for economic and cultural reasons. In their first chapter, "The Importance of Cities," they describe "what makes a city a city" in terms of power and culture‘by which they mean primarily economic influence. While they acknowledge that "places with higher economic output" do not necessarily have "more intrinsic value," they insist on the very same page that "economic importance" and "concentration of power" illustrate "the importance of cities in our world today" (29).

As a natural outgrowth of Um and Buzzard's emphasis on the economic significance of cities, Why Cities Matter focuses much of its attention on the middle and upper-middle class, professionals, and the upwardly mobile. The majority of their examples and anecdotes (e.g., pages 21-22, 32-33, and 93-94) deal exclusively with young members of these groups.

Cities, however, are not simply the home of young professionals. The working poor, the unemployed, the aging, and the uneducated also live in cities, though they are conspicuous here by their absence in Um and Buzzard's account. This unbalanced treatment of the people who live in cities creates an almost disquieting narrative. It suggests that the people who count (most) are the young, the beautiful, and the powerful’these are the people you want in your urban church, and the reason that cities matter. The disadvantaged, jobless, dropouts, and misfits young and old may exist, but where are they in this account of the city, especially since there is a concentration of these demographics in the city? This subtle focus seems to reveal more of contemporary culture's perspective than Scripture's.

Um and Buzzard do not simply present these qualities and classes as evidence, but explain the mechanics of urban significance. Cities matter because they have a monopoly on creativity and innovation, two terms that permeate the book. These terms demonstrate the dependency of Why Cities Matter on questionable cultural assumptions. Their use rests on the presumption that innovation is self-evidently virtuous in the age of the iPhone and Google Glasses’appealing to modern Americans who have never entirely abandoned a vaguely progressive and postmillennialist notion of history. However, Scripture does not clearly support the idea of innovation as a good in itself. If anything, in addressing theology and doctrine the New Testament demonstrates the importance of holding fast, which doesn't mean that innovation is bad; but it does suggest that Christians ought to be sensitive to the ambiguities of innovation and hesitant to accept it uncritically as an intrinsic good. Fortunately, the authors do acknowledge on pages 52-53 that the products of the city's "engine" of creativity and innovation can be sinful and destructive.

Chapters 5 and 6 deal most directly with the topic of human sinfulness and the doctrine of sin. The question to be asked here is whether the authors present a complete picture of sin in all its aspects, and whether they give the impression that they are wary to rub against the cultural grain as a result. They make much of idolatry as a frame for understanding sin (which makes sense given the influence of Tim Keller on their work), insisting that "until we identify the idols in our lives, we will feel enslaved, exhausted, and unhappy." But with this emphasis predominating, the result is an incomplete picture of the human condition. Absent from Um and Buzzard's account, except in the most passing references, is any sense of sin as an act of rebellion against God. What's missing isn't simply the ethical dimension of sin, but recognition that sin affects anyone outside the individual. The language of idolatry, as it is employed here, reinforces this. It keeps the focus on the individual's internal state and minimizes both the way that sin affects other people and the extent to which many sinful acts are directed against others. How then can we promote churches that preach a countercultural gospel and model a healthy community if we can't free ourselves from individualism in our account of that very gospel?

Many of the specifics of Why Cities Matter make sense in light of a few key remarks in the book's introduction. There the authors complain that "much Christian literature about the city has focused on inner-city problems," and that "cities have been portrayed as places of problem, rather than places of opportunity and blessedness." They describe one of their goals as showing that "the city is a wonderful, dynamic, exciting, and healthy place for people to live, work, and make a difference." In short, Um and Buzzard want to make cities look attractive. The book is about opportunity, the opportunity of the city for the upwardly mobile. Perhaps this explains the one-sidedness of their exploration of the dynamics of the city. Topics such as the working poor don't fit well with the aims of the book.

In sum, the authors insist that the Christian faith has something to say to the city’something important, something "countercultural." Unfortunately, Um and Buzzard prove not to be very countercultural. They rely on measures of economic success and power in their arguments about the unique opportunities that cities now afford the church, giving undue attention to the successful and upwardly mobile in the process. Further, they seem to take innovation as a self-evident good in their explanation of why cities are important. Finally, it even strikes this reader that they focus on a therapeutic understanding of sin in their discussion of the gospel challenge to these cities, one that only half-heartedly challenges narratives of autonomous individualism. In my view, Why Cities Matter doesn't make a compelling case because it uncritically accepts the same contemporary orientation to the city from which many urban problems themselves spring.

Monday, December 30th 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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