Book Review: Sidewalks in the Kingdom

Much thanks to Matt Ostercamp @ Rolfing for this guest post!

What does it mean to follow Christ in the city?  Having recently bought a condo in Chicago, this is an important question for my wife and I as we seek to incorporate our faith.  Looking for answers we joined another couple this summer in reading Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith by Eric Jacobsen.   This book challenged us to think about how where we live contributes (or detracts) from our spiritual formation and it provided several suggestions on how to make positive contributions to our neighborhood.

Jacobsen starts by asking not how we can save the city but how the city can save us.  How can our cities help our growth in sanctification?  Throughout the book he builds a case that the post WWII suburb is an especially arid place for Christian spirituality – reflecting and reinforcing an extreme form of individualism that cuts us off from our neighbors and our God.

In place of the subdivision and shopping mall, Jacobsen calls Christians to rediscover traditional cities with their mixed use neighborhoods – neighborhoods that combine residential, commercial, and public spaces.  These neighborhoods encourage us to get out of our cars and have personal encounters with our neighbors.  It is in such settings that Pastor Jacobsen thinks the fruits of the spirit – gentleness, patience, self control et al can be nourished, we can encounter and welcome the stranger, and we learn to put others ahead of ourselves.  It is also in our older cities that diverse and compelling architecture imparts dignity to our daily tasks in ways box stores and cookie cutter subdivisions fail.  The theaters, coffee shops, and book stores in cities also nuture the life of the mind.  Tapping into the  presence of a critical mass of interested people, these venues are places where ideas are discussed, debated, and strengthened.  Finally, it is in cities that we have unique opportunities to incarnate the gospel and evangelize people from all nations.

All of this was encouraging to this farm boy-cum-urbanite.  But of course it is also a challenge.  First, because as the book explains a lot goes into to making and keeping our cities appropriately human scaled – places where we can have healthy encounters with others.  Second, the opportunity to develop fruits of the spirit are right next to opportunities to sit on the couch and channel surf while muttering curses at the loud teenagers outside the window.  Finally, though this isn’t adequately discussed in the book cities not only include the artistic and architectural pieces that impart dignity but they also can be brutal places where greed, addiction, and violence strip dignity from its citizens.

If you are trying to find a place to live or interested in exploring how your neighborhood (wherever it is) can better promote a Kingdom agenda, I would encourage you to reflect on the ideas in Sidewalks in the Kingdom.  Remembering that the heaven John saw was not a new garden – it was a new city.

Matt is the Head of Technical Services at the Rolfing Library and writes more about his urban pilgrimage at: http://mattostercamp.wordpress.com/

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