Living Faithfully in the Global Hypercity
Living Faithfully in the Global Hypercity

Living Faithfully in the Global Hypercity

The Christian, whatever her context—rural, suburban, small town, and so on—should embrace the ascent of cities. These grandiose claims for the self-importance of cities and their residents are precisely what those who live elsewhere instinctively rebuff. But consider the stakes involved: Pragmatically, as the cities go, so goes the rest of culture, for good or for ill—what happens there will soon become everyone's problem or opportunity.

December 1 st 2010
Appears in Winter 2010

New York City buzzes. At any moment, day and night, like other globally-connected cities, New York is a turbulent, hyperactive whirl of machinery, movement, and music, teeming relentlessly with the frenetic (and astoundingly harmonious) activity of swarms of individuals, institutions—and, now, bees. Actual honeybees.

In March 2010, beekeeping was legalized in the city, and the previously illicit urban apiculture movement proliferated. You can now occasionally see a swarm emerging from a rooftop or community garden to take flight in pursuit of its peculiar industry, taking as a backdrop the criss-crossing patterns of park treetops, swaying skyscrapers, and helicopters and airplanes of the busiest airspace in the world. The growing presence of the city's newest legal immigrant is welcome—in addition to other more obvious contributions, bees are a particularly apt illustration of the urban experience, one that evokes the contours of the activity and presence that are required to meet the unique opportunities and challenges for a faithful life in the global hypercity.

Two hundred species of New York honeybees, numbering individually in the hundreds of thousands, launch from their hives, ascend to the airy heights, spread out, dissipate—and to what end? Pollination: Bees are the major pollinator of flowering plants, enabling vital plant reproduction and the creation of new species through cross-pollination. As a result of this function, one-third of the human food supply has come to depend on the work of a pollinator. And so bees' unique labour redounds in outsized beneficence to entire ecosystems. Just so, cities.

Cities are always the economic and cultural centre of a region, and the poor, immigrants, and ambitious individuals flock to cities hoping to gain influence far beyond what they considered to be the small lives that they would have lived elsewhere. Thence comes the capital, the communal exchange, the policies, the artifacts, the institutions that inexorably alight from the urban heights to transform surrounding areas and peoples. And because of this my grandfather, an apple farmer in Washington state, can engage his chosen rural vocation using tractors, electric light, and GPS devices, all while listening to a symphony on his iPod—products of cities, every one.

Further, with the rapid advance in transportation and information technologies over the last century, a handful of cities around the globe have emerged as the uncontested world centres of cultural interchange and influence, quickly becoming more like one another than the nations in which they individually reside. As these cities facilitate the exchange of their citizens, ideas, and goods through the airwaves and airways of the world, they further secure their prominence as the primary agents of cultural production and innovation for the rest of the globe. Indeed, these cities are more instrumental in world change today than most nations. To mention a trivial example: everyone wants their MTV, while few know the content of Hugo Chavez's most recent rant. Less trivial: name some Wall Street companies newly known to you.

The Christian, whatever her context—rural, suburban, small town, and so on—should embrace the ascent of cities. These grandiose claims for the self-importance of cities and their residents are precisely what those who live elsewhere instinctively rebuff. But consider the stakes involved: Pragmatically, as the cities go, so goes the rest of culture, for good or for ill—what happens there will soon become everyone's problem or opportunity.

Theologically, citification is the intent of God's work in history. The oft-mentioned observation that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city only scratches the surface. Throughout the entire Christian scriptures, God's salvation propels humanity progressively toward the maturity and wisdom required to rule under him in the eschatological City of God. Biblical history records humanity moving from glory to glory: Priests in the temple become kings over a nation become prophets to empires become citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. Whereas the kings wrote to Israel and the prophets to nations, Paul and Jesus write to cities and citizens.

Under Torah, life was subject to angels ruling over lunar cycles, agricultural seasons, and feasts—the elementary principles of the world. Under Jesus, the creation and angels have become subject to humanity; in cities, life is governed by secondary principles of human schedules and electric light. According to the Bible, where parochial tribalism exists, the gospel enters, Jesus destroys postures of suspicion and hostility, and the Holy Spirit plays match-maker—and then communities have the delightful shock of experiencing, for the first time, Ethiopian injera, sitars, Russian hats, Yiddish, a classic Mustang. This is God's work and the dynamic that forms cities and that cities then propagate.

As of the last decade and for the first time in history, over half of the world's population now lives in cities. To pursue maturation by participating in the city, then, is a sign of submission to God's purposes for the world. To attempt to live a faithful urban life now is to practice life in the eschaton. In the words of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, "The City of God is the center of the new creation."

Out of such stuff, a vital urban theology has begun to take hold. Colonies of diverse urban Christians have begun to embrace a vision to "seek the peace of the city," discovering deep theological resources to propel them toward faithfulness as they pursue the daunting challenge to ascend the airy heights, fan out, become the bearers of capacious blessing to the world around. But even as they've made great strides in permeating elite culture-forming institutions with Christian conviction, it seems they've not yet become attentive to a sinister and sub-Christian by-product of their presence and activity in the global hypercity.

The grave danger is that a positive urban vision might come to function only as a skin-deep, theological whitewashing of private ambition and larger demographic trends. What will distinguish the work of urban Christians from the generational mass that is recently rediscovering the city and reversing post-war white-flight?

My answer: the local. Christians do not yet give sufficient attention to the importance of place— the hundreds of discrete neighbourhoods that compose a vast behemoth like New York City— nor to the shaping power their daily liturgies have upon particular communities. Considered in redemptive local impact, the creative and professional class is largely the invisible class. They're not often found on the stoop, at block parties, volunteering for neighbourhood organizations. Too often they engage the city like medium-term tourists, even as their activity transforms it into a stay-cation destination hospitable only to the super-wealthy, hip, and educated, and that as a launching pad for somewhere else. They often overlook the means found in Jeremiah 29 for seeking the welfare of the city: build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce, get married and raise children there, do not decrease. Such activity requires local and long-term focus.

New Yorkers can fall for the big idea. Many of them move here hoping to change the world. But to actually bless the city and all it impacts, they will need to better master the art of the square mile—just as defending the institution of marriage requires first and foremost that millions of individual Christians love their actual spouses, day in and day out. When Jesus challenged listeners to love their neighbours, the scandal was in his figurative and expansive definition of neighbour. Today that might be reversed; the scandal is in its literalness. "You mean love the people right next door?!"

Precisely. Loving your neighbour requires attention to the nature of your activity in a particular place, year after year. If young people use neighbourhoods only as sleeping quarters and playground, they will do harm to the neighbourhood. If Christian families build relationships but bail for the suburbs for more space—forgetting that Jesus endorsed the good of urban density when he said, "In my father's house there are many rooms," rather than "in my father's subdivision there are many large tracts"—they will not secure the peace of the city.

But if urban Christians note that bees emerge from hundreds of local hives—a place of interior emphasis equal to the exterior—they may find success in blessing the city precisely by forming new habits of presence in neighbourhood upon neighbourhood. They might begin to leverage the resources of elite networks on behalf of underserved and overlooked individuals and institutions locally. They might not only tone down one speech in a syndicated serial, but hold resume-writing workshops for women in a nearby homeless shelter. They might spend as much time in a beleaguered PTA as in a pub. Congregations would begin to organize as parish churches rather than commuting niche groups.

Then Christians in the global hypercity might become known not only for their ambition and influence in office buildings, but for their pursuit of shalom in streets with names: a perichoretic indwelling of the heights and the hives. It is only faithful, long-term, and local presence that incubates the virtues of patience, sharing, and humility without which no one is able to rule wisely in more heady, expansive spheres of influence. Will urban Christians seek the peace of the city if this is what is required of them?

Go to the bee, you city-dweller; consider its ways and be wise. It soars above and abroad, enriching all it touches. But is its glory not in coming home to make honey?

Topics: Cities Vocation
Jamison Galt
Jamison Galt

Jamison Galt is the founding pastor of Christ Church Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, NY. He lives in and loves the neighborhood together with his wife, four children, and parishioners.


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