Who had heard of “missional” church prior to 1998 (the publication by the GOCN)? Now “missional” is everywhere. What really changed? Sometimes we need new language in order to see. The language of “place” recovers a lost imagination, one obscured in the legacy of Modernity where we traded “place” for “space,” the concrete for the abstract. Recovering language helps us recover an ability to enter the texture, colors and rhythms of the places we dwell. “Place – An Introduction” introduces the concept and why it’s important. At the end of this post I’ll share links to some videos connected to the most recent books on neighbouring.
Some time ago I uploaded an image of the best books on “place” currently available. These are the ones I have, and there are related books that deserve mention, like Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door (Acorn Press, 2007). So let me walk through this stack. I’ve cracked each of them, read most of them, but also a disclaimer: I don’t have a degree in philosophy, human geography, phenomenology or culture In alphabetical order:
Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. 1951. 241 pp.
Bachelard applies the method of phenomenology to architecture basing his analysis not on purported origins (as in Enlightenment thinking) but on lived experience of architecture. He considers spatial types such as the attic, the cellar, drawers and the like. He implicitly urges architects to base their work on the experiences it will engender rather than on abstract rationales. Bachelard is concerned with the architecture of the imagination.
Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell (2011) 372 pp.
Bartholomew is interested in “place” and the role it plays in God’s work in the world. He offers a few principles to aid us: First, “[place] is a human concept,” and “to be human is to be placed.” Second, “place results from the dynamic interactions of humans and their particular location.” Third, “although space and place are inseparable, place must be distinguished from space.” These principles form the foundation of the book.
The book is divided into three sections. Part I surveys the role of place in the Bible. I was stopped cold on page 99 where the section heading reads thus: “Kingdom: Reign or Realm?” A discussion of the work of G.E. Ladd follows, then leads into a survey of “place” in the Gospels. Bartholomew frames the kingdom as both creative rule and created realm (237).
Part II considers the role place has played in the Western philosophical and Christian traditions: an outstanding survey of the Church Fathers on “place.” The discussion of Irenaeus, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich were very rich. What is striking is that it is difficult to develop a meaningful theology of place apart from a sacramental worldview. Sacramentality is both relational, and an event. Part III is “A Christian View of Place for Today,” continuing to page 323. I have only cracked this section.
Brueggemann, The Land. 203 pp.
Brueggemann identifies three movements of history and thought related to land. First, from a position of landlessness, Abraham and his descendants are promised the gift of land. Secondly, after Israel is in the land, she moves almost at once to a future of landlessness (exile) partly because she fails to understand that management of land is along lines quite opposite to that of the nations around her. Brueggemann discusses kingship as a failure to offer an alternative in land management.
The third movement is one from landlessness (exile) to landedness. Brueggemann offers a sympathetic view of the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah which others frequently treat with little appreciation because of the perceived “parochialism” and “legalism.”
Land is a central, if not THE central theme of biblical faith. Yet consider, there is not even an entry “land” in the highly acclaimed four-volume Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon).
de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. 1984. 229 pp.
The book examines the ways in which people individualize mass culture, altering things, from utilitarian objects to street plans to rituals, laws and language, in order to make them their own. He begins by pointing out that while social science possesses the ability to study the traditions, language, symbols, art and articles of exchange that make up a culture, it lacks a formal means by which to examine the ways in which people reappropriate them in everyday situations. This is a dangerous omission, runs the argument, because in the activity of re-use lies an abundance of opportunities for ordinary people to subvert the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.
Inge, A Christian Theology of Place. 2003. 161 pp.
Inge differentiates between space and place and identifies the ‘loss of place’ as a regrettable feature of modernism. He reveals that while the Greeks recognized the significance of place, in the Western intellectual tradition space and time have received more attention. Inge uses Scripture and tradition to redress this imbalanced phenomenology. He addresses globalization briefly with reference to the universalization of place, and builds a theological paradigm of people, place and God as an integral and vital component of the main world faiths in general and the Christian faith in particular.
When he turns to the NT tradition, he recognizes the tension between the universal presence of Christ, and the particularity of the incarnation. He refines his to address the role of sacred space within the Christian tradition and the need to understand and experience place sacramentally. He includes an extensive discussion of this latter concept, and extends it into a discussion of the potential holiness of particular places. The final chapter addresses the practice of pilgrimage. Inge is widely read and his book is both complex and rich.
Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom. 2003.. 189 pp.
Jacobsen sets out to introduce Christian groups to the New Urbanist agenda, calling for walkable neighborhoods, more community-focussed building practices, and support of local business where real relationships can be borne. Some have called this “God Next Door” for the USA. It’s a good primer, organized in two broad sections. 1. thinking about our cities (theory) and 2. markers of the city (practice). It is not always a thorough theological account. Jacobsen sometimes sets up false dichotomies (community-building is not a part of evangelism and he doesn’t address the environmental arguments), and his too narrow eschatological orthodoxy creates problems (the cities that exist today will all perish). But note: this is an introduction to the subject. Jacobsen includes some helpful material in appendices (reading cities, a charter of the new urbanism). Check out a balanced review at “the post-yesterday church.”
Santmire, The Travail of Nature. 1985. 274 pp.
Santmire surveys the widely varying attitudes toward nature found in Christian theology’s long history, working with the thought of Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, St. Francis, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Teilhard de Chardin. He identifies two opposing theological motifs that are interwoven: the “spiritual motif” and the “ecological motif.” These arise out of what Santmire calls three “root metaphors”: 1) the metaphor of “ascent,” 2) the metaphor of “fecundity,” and 3) the metaphor of “migration to a good land.” These metaphors form the unspoken assumptions and beliefs structuring the ecological and spiritual-theological motifs.
According to Santmire, the spiritual motif expresses a religious worldview that is largely unconcerned with its state of existence. This motif is “predicated on a vision of the human spirit rising above nature . . .” The emphasis is on transcendence. Nature is affirmed as a “good” only in its ability to embody spirit. In contrast to the spiritual motif, the ecological motif expresses “the human spirit’s rootedness in the world of nature and [the celebration] of God’s presence in, with, and under the whole biophysical order . . .” Thus the ecological motif stresses the immanence of God as the power of life itself. Santmire sees the metaphors of fecundity and migration to a good land as clustering to form the ecological motif.
Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred. 2001. 214 pp.
Simply an outstanding treatment of “place,” this Anglican theologian gives us the tour de force. The chapters: “A Sense of Place,” “Place in Christian Tradition,” “The Eucharist and Practicing Catholic Space,” “The Practice of Place: Monasteries and Utopias,” “The Mystical Way: Transcending Places of Limit,” and “Re-placing the City?” Two quotations from familiar sources draw the reader to an underlying theme: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul” (Simone Weil) and “There are no meanings apart from roots” (Walter Brueggemann) (p. 9).
Contrasting “place” and “placelessness,” Sheldrake guides the reader through a myriad of examples from the historic significance of cathedrals and the place of hospitality in the Christian tradition to the loss of a sense of place today. The eucharist, the author writes, “is not an eschatological escape route to somewhere beyond” but rather, “The eucharistic action is founded on the transfiguration … of the ordinary material of human feeding. We are what we eat” (p. 82). Sheldrake ponders the question: “What is a human or humanizing city?” He wonders whether there is really any hope that the city of today can be anything more than “an arena for consumerism.” He thinks so. Utopias are signs of the future and can inspire our earthly pilgrimage-as “signs of a place to which we do not yet belong but in which we will belong” (p. 104).
Tuan, Space and Place. 1977. 235 pp.
A classic text in human geography that first attempted a recovery of the concept of place, this is a phenomenological approach. Tuan provides a descriptive account of the concepts “space” and “place,” drawing on the work of phenomenologists, anthropologists, psychologists, geographers, and others. He grounds his analysis in a structuralist framework, using anthropological research to illustrate how our experiences of space and place can “transcend cultural particularities” (5). He also considers the relationship between space and place, on the one hand, and myths, architecture, time, religion, and cognition, on the other.
Tuan created the term “topophilia” to describe the “affective bond between people and a place or setting.” He argued that man-made environments could provide evidence about the worldviews of the people who inhabit the area in question. In essence, places reveals much about a people and their values – place has meaning. Place both constrains and enables. Place has effect: “The easiest way to understand how places work is to recognize that they all, large or small, thick or thin function to include or exclude different elements of forces of the world.”
Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One. 2009. 189 pp/
This book I have barely cracked. A good summary can be found HERE, and what follows is taken from there.
“Walton’s most distinctive argument is that the days of Genesis 1 depict the organization of the cosmos so as to function, rather than focusing on its material origins.This argument is supported by both a careful analysis of key terms from Genesis 1, as well as comparison with other creation accounts from antiquity.Walton argues that Genesis 1 is better understood as a depiction of the inauguration of the cosmos to serve as God’s temple. Against this background the idea of the deity resting in the completed temple becomes central, rather than the final day being something of an anticlimax as in most modern readings of the English text.Walton reiterates his point that “science cannot offer an unbiblical view of material origins, because there is no biblical view of material origins aside from the very general idea that whatever happened, whenever it happened, and however it happened, God did it”(p 113).
A few others worth considering. Robert Farrar Capon, The Romance of the Word. Similar to Dillard, but with explicit theological arguments included in the prose. A great read for a “sense of place.” Sean Benesh, The Multi-Nucleated Church. And I have begun reading Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soul Craft.” This is related to place via the concept of embodied knowledge – an interview with the author HERE. Other great articles: James Skillen, “Reimagining a Sense of Place,” and Eric Jacobsen, “Redeeming Civic Life in the Commons“.