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Issue 07

5 Reasons to (re)discover Place Today

Craig G. Bartholomew

Craig Bartholomew is the Director of the KLC.

Photo by Katerina Pavlyuchkova

When I was doing my research for my book Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Baker Academic, 2011), a regular cause of puzzlement was my answer to the question “What are you working on nowadays?”, namely place! Place is just not something people think about very much and yet it is everywhere. Place is your home where you sit reading this article, it is your garden outside, your town or city, your country, your office or workplace, etc. We live amidst the intersection of a myriad places and yet, remarkably, we rarely stop and think about them as places. There is an immense amount to be gained from (re)discovering place today for the following five reasons.

1. Because place stems from how God made the world.

Place is grounded in the doctrine of creation. Whereas in the ancient Near East many of the creation stories see humans as created in order to make the lives of the gods easy, in Genesis 1 and 2 the world is created as the ideal home for humans. There is a radical other person centeredness to God that is lacking among the all too human gods of the ancient Near East. The first major distinction of places is between heaven – where God dwells – and earth, the abode of humans and animals. In the course of the differentiation of the creation in Genesis 1:1–2:3, three major places emerge, namely sea, land and sky. In the course of the creation narrative each of these is filled with its inhabitants, the sea with fish, the sky with birds, and land with plants, animals and humans. If one is looking for a biblical basis for delight in, enjoyment of, and responsibility towards these three great places of earth, sea and sky, then it is right here in the doctrine of creation, that creation which God brought into being by his command and pronounced very good. (See Bruce R. Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew, The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach [IVP Academic, 2020], chapter 6).

2. Because place relates to our embodiment.

God is omnipresent but humans by contrast are always located and dated, subject to being in a particular place at a particular time. This stems irretrievably from our embodied nature.

This is why Genesis 1:1–2:3 moves on from the whole world as our home to a very particular place, namely Eden, as the home for the first couple. Unlike God, they can only dwell in one place, and that place is Eden. And what an extraordinary place it is. Eden is often referred to as a garden, but it is far more like one of the vast parks that you find in the USA and Canada. It is planted by God (Gen 2:8) and is lush with rivers flowing in and out of it and rich in minerals, namely gold, bdellium and onyx (Gen 2:12). It is full of trees and plants, which are both aesthetically pleasing and a wonderful provision of food.

Georges d’Espagnat, The Red Rocks

Eden is sometimes thought of as a pristine wilderness but, as Peter Altmann’s fine article in this edition shows, it was rulers in the ancient Near East who above all developed such gardens. Indeed, gardens were more of an urban than a wilderness phenomenon. Advocates of wilderness understandably argue against human intervention because of the damage we humans often inflict on the world, but here the first Adam is assigned a priestly role; he is to till and to keep Eden (Gen 2:15), namely, to manage it and to cultivate and develop it. The first Adam, we might say, is in the full-time service of the LORD God … as a farmer! And Eve is created as Adam’s helper, not least in this great task of managing Eden.

Thus, from the very outset, creation care is at the heart of what it means to be human. And this is by no means restricted to the Old Testament. Rembrandt has an extraordinary etching of the resurrected Jesus as a gardener! He has understood that Jesus is the second Adam, who recapitulates the calling of humans in himself and sets us and the creation free to become what he always intended for it.

Place is thus grounded, not only in the doctrine of creation, but also in the doctrine of the human person. We are em-bodied, and thus always in place. As Christians have often done, whenever we diminish the importance of our earthy, material bodies and make our souls or spirits what really matter, place likewise becomes marginalised. Biblical anthropology – the nature of the human person – is a complex matter, but it is always the whole, embodied person that is in the image of God. Indeed, Genesis 2:7 is instructive here. God forms Adam from the earth and breathes into him so that he becomes a living being or soul. Here at least, the whole, embodied Adam is a living soul! And, as is well known, in the Apostles’ Creed we confess our belief in the resurrection of the body and the soul, the whole human person.

Being embodied certainly limits us but it is a glorious limitation. It is precisely our bodies that make the experience of place possible.

Rembrandt, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene

3. Because we shape place, and it shapes us.

For those of us who lecture or teach, we will resonate with the experience of teaching in a pristine, white lecture room with fluorescent light beating down upon us and with nary an artwork in sight. Such rooms appear to be constructed with the view that the more abstract and anaemic the room, the better will be the learning experience. Alas the reverse is true but note my point; we shape the room and then the room shapes us!

This is exactly how place works. Because we are created to “till and keep” the world, we have significant power to shape and develop places. Reflect for just a moment on the human ingenuity in building and developing cities, houses, roads, malls, cathedrals, dams, furniture, kitchens, bedrooms, parks, restaurants, office blocks, farms, movie houses, houses of parliament, skyscrapers, etc. Such is our power that it sometimes seems to have few limits.

However, when it comes to place it is never a one-way street of humans making and shaping places. We shape them but they in turn shape us. And they often do so unconsciously but powerfully. The invention of the car was a major feat. But, think of what has followed. Cars need paved roads and we have built millions of kilometres of them across the planet with little thought of the implications for animal life and the environment. We spend billions each year maintaining them even as we build better and faster cars. Ironically, it is precisely such cars that sit in huge traffic jams in most of the major cities of the world each day, stressing us out – generally one passenger per car in our individualistic West – as we commute to work. We built the cars, and we built the roads, and now they return the compliment by shaping us.

The car has also made possible the often-dreadful monotony of suburban sprawl in North American towns in particular. Often the large box house with its double garage facing the road, sits on its plot adjacent to another such plot. Such houses and properties are often not cheap but spell the death of community. One can live hermetically sealed off in one’s massive box without ever knowing who your neighbours are.

Of course, place can also shape us in wonderfully positive ways. We find those coffee shops that not only serve great coffee but are also a tranquil environment in which to relax and spend time alone or with a friend. KLC’s offices are located in Cambridge, UK, and it is amazing to walk around Cambridge and to drink in the extraordinary architecture of the colleges, with spires pointing towards heaven and calling its residents to honour the trinitarian God in the quest for knowledge of this world that belongs to God. But places that nurture us need not have the grandeur of the major Cambridge colleges. As I learnt in South Africa, the poor who create their homes out of cast-off wood and iron in the shanty towns that spring up around our cities, often manifest a profound aesthetic in the use of the minimal resources at their disposal, while in the West wealthy middle-class folk proudly live in their aesthetically impoverished cookie-cutter houses, utterly indistinguishable from one another.

Taichung Rainbow Village, Taiwan

4. Because we can radically misshape place.

After the fall, humans do not cease being powerful, but they are constantly tempted to use their power to develop places in destructive, inhuman ways. The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 stands as the great symbol of such hubris. History is littered with such towers, both great and small. Names of places such as Auschwitz and Birkenau haunt our memories, places including great gas chambers built amidst Europe during World War II. Such places, as has been observed, were quintessentially modern “achievements,” but demonic in their misdirection of the human capacity of placemaking, so that the enormity of the blood shed in such places scars them for life and cries out to God (Gen 4:10).

Such places of indescribable evil are unusual but sadly not restricted to the Holocaust. Many of our “towers” are also examples of misdirection but mercifully in a far less consequential, albeit not inconsequential, way. I referred above to roads and suburban sprawl. All our placemaking has the potential for misdirection. Think of the church building that is like a factory and entirely functional, evoking nothing of the creativity and glory of the good news of Jesus. Think of towns that house huge numbers of people but are built so as – albeit unintentionally – to discourage community. Think of agribusiness farms that pour chemicals into the earth destroying the health of the soil and so much of the animal life that depends upon it. Think of the three great places of the creation, mentioned above, namely earth, sky and sea. Environmental degradation of the earth is notorious, and now we have learnt what our penchant for plastic is doing to the oceans. Even that last frontier of space has now become a garbage dump as satellites and other equipment we launch into space expire and are abandoned to float around endlessly.

If we are unconscious of place, we will unconsciously align with the misdirection of placemaking that is so common in our cultures. Fortunately, it need not be so.

Roger Wagner, Menorah by Lawrence OP licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

5. Because a rediscovery of place could ignite Christian mission like nothing else.

Wouldn’t it be astonishing if there was one thing Christians could do to reignite mission – the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world – today? There is: attention to place and placemaking. Let me explain.

Think of all the properties owned by churches throughout the world. Imagine, for example, if each of those churches managed their gardens by filling them with indigenous plants so that they became renowned among the birds of the air as the best local place to hang out! We are not talking expensive here; indigenous plants are often the cheapest available and they grow well precisely because they are indigenous. Such gardens would become like bird sanctuaries and a sign of the kingdom.

Imagine if, when Christians built a new church, they made sure in a humble but glorious way that the very architecture speaks to the neighbourhood of the good news of Jesus. Cathedrals do this in their own way but so too does the humble, local church building if constructed creatively.

Imagine if Christians, having become conscious of place, awoke to the horror of homelessness and of being a refugee fleeing from your home but with no idea of your destination, became champions of a home for everyone and worked alongside the poor and homeless to find homemaking solutions.

Imagine if those of us with many places, unlocked what Edith Schaeffer called their “hidden art,” so that our places, whether our living rooms or bedrooms, our shops or offices, exuded an appropriate shalom that facilitates human and non-human flourishing.

It has been noted that one of the great needs of Christian mission today is a plausibility structure, so that when we speak our words ring with authenticity. Because we are embodied, we are always already in place/s. All we need to do is to work out how to become creatively and redemptively in place, and our plausibility would be wonderfully enhanced. Our lives – the way in which we shape and indwell our places – would call forth questions from our neighbours, and then we would be in a position to give a reason for the hope within us.

Photo: Kristin Tovar