In the past fifty years “church” has been something we have mostly imported from our neighbour to the south. Our imagination about what it means to be God’s people has been shaped by a variety of traditions — you can name the one you know — but those traditions themselves have been conditioned by the preachers, leaders, books and churches that have dominated the scene in the U.S.A. The most prominent of these, we all know, being Willow Creek.

We are now in the intriguing place of recognizing the limits of an imported imagination of ecclesial life. There are signs that the work of theology, and of mission, in place — in THIS place — and the interaction of these two, is being taken with new seriousness by Canadians. Thus this series of posts on the work of Canadian authors.

Craig Bartholomew has made a timely contribution to a theological gap, with his book titled “Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today” (Baker Academic, 2011). At 372 pages, including the subject index, the work is comprehensive and rich. At 372 pages, it occasionally casts the net more broadly than some readers will appreciate: but that’s why it is an academic publication.

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.

coverThe book is divided into three sections. Part I surveys the role of place in the Bible. I confess I skimmed this section, interested in getting on to Part II. But 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. This brief discussion continues to page 101, then leads into a survey of “place” in the Gospels. Bartholomew raises critical questions that can help all bible teachers more carefully nuance a theology of the kingdom. It is both wise and biblical to frame 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. I skimmed pages 167-188, and then read carefully to the close of this section on page 242. This was an outstanding survey of the Church Fathers on “place.” I was particularly interested in the work of Irenaeus here, since Irenaeus is less captive to Greek thought, and his Spirit-Christology holds rich promise for theological reflection in our time. Likewise Bonhoeffer in the Lutheran tradition, and Tillich with his existential concerns may be rich sources for reflection. Contemporary theologies of place consider both Santmire (writing twenty-thirty years ago) and Inge (very recent at 2003).

What is striking (and challenging for Anabaptist readers) is that it is very difficult to develop a meaningful theology of place apart from a sacramental worldview. This is not an ontological sacramentalism, where we argue for something like transubstantiation, but a functional and epistemic sacramentalism: the recognition that the Spirit meets us in matter and in flesh, and that our experience of God is both immediate AND rooted. Any bush may burn and become a vehicle for the sacred. Any dish and towel, dedicated to God’s service, becomes a vehicle for his presence. For Inge, a sacramental approach to place follows from NT eschatology: “Christ Himself is the reintegration of God’s original creation, and in Christ God has restored the sacramental nature of the universe.” (239) Sacramentality is both relational, and an event.

That brings us to Part III, “A Christian View of Place for Today,” continuing to page 323. The goal of Part III is to offer principles and practices that help believers to engage in the crucial work of place-making, an engagement that is very much part of making shalom. Chapters 15-18 comprise this section, and they are listed as follows:

15 Contours of a Christian View of Place
16 Placemaking and the City
17 Placemaking in Garden and Home
18 Placemaking in Various Facets of Life

Chapter 15 is really an introduction to this third part. Bartholomew notes that there are multiple entry points to a Christian theology of place: Inge uses the incarnation and sacramental theology; P. Scott develops a Trinitarian, eucharistic theology. Bartholomew chooses the latter as the frame with the most potential (of course these can be combined, but an entry point tends to have particular implications). His next statement I found more interesting: that a theology of place must be christocentric, and therefore it will be Trinitarian (243). But WHY must it be christocentric, and would there not be equal or greater promise in rooting a theology of place in a Spirit-Christology?

On the following page Bartholomew notes that the doctrine of creation is fundamental to a theology of place. But to me this is another strong argument for anchoring this effort in a Spirit-Christology. I am thinking of work like that of Clark Pinnock and Steven Studebaker. Alright, enough of this, on with 16-18.

“Placemaking and the City” (16) is a rich chapter, with much food for thought. Gorringe and Mumford are the main resources here, but also Kotkin, Hall, McGibbon and Bess and those writing within the New Urbanism. Bess asks a question on page 265 that has been answered by Tim Dickau (“Plunging Into the Kingdom Way”) in Vancouver. Bess suggests that churches could use their huge plots of land to anchor the core of neighbourhood public space.

“Placemaking in Garden and Home” (17) feels different than the rest of the book. One can tell that here Bartholomew writes from an area of personal engagement and passion. Gardens are complex places, and a rich way to invest in local ecology as well as rooting collaborative effort. And they result in cookery – which expands into sensuous enjoyment and hospitality. I was glad to see this chapter, and the second part of it, on “Homemaking,” is also a nice contribution, leaning to semiotics but also containing practical suggestions via Calvin Seerveld (the aging classic, “Rainbows for the Fallen World.”)

“Placemaking in Various Facets of Life” (18) has six divisions: 1. placemaking and farming; 2. placemaking and the university; 3. placemaking and the church; 4. public memorials and battlefields; 5. placemaking and pilgrimage; 6. placemaking and the planet. That’s a wide swath, and curiously for me, “place and politics” gets only a single page in this chapter, leading me to wonder if Reformed theology does not yet know how to talk about issues of power. But one needs to live on the margins to see those issues clearly, and the Reformed Church lacks experience of marginality.

Craig G. Bartholomew (PhD, University of Bristol) is professor of philosophy, religion, and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, where he holds the H. Evan Runner Chair.

See also “The Holy Spirit in Mission” and “Place and the Sacred.”

Previous posts in this “Made in Canada” series:

A Happy Ending, published by The Story in Sarnia, Ontario.
Beautiful Mercy, published by St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg.
The Cost of Community, by Jamie Arpin-Ricci in Winnipeg.

Next Up: Plunging into the Kingdom Way: Practicing the Shared Strokes of Community, Hospitality, Justice, and Confession