Posted by: John Adams | March 24, 2010

Why Eden Isn’t Enough

Anthony Bradley has a brief, well-reasoned article up on WorldMagBlog today, arguing that urban environments can be every bit as “natural” as rural ones. He quotes Lewis Mumford, author of The Culture of Cities, in saying that “cities are a product of the earth..there is nothing in city life that keeps one from experiencing nature.” In contrast to Wendell Berry, a poet-farmer who once scoffed at the “sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato,” Bradley asks, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”

There is nothing wrong with having a preference for smaller towns or more rural contexts, but to set rural life—“simple living,” or the mythology of small town solidarity and the like—against urban living is to introduce a twisted distortion of nature and is foreign to the world of the Bible. Alternatively, those who argue that urban life is the best way to live miss the diversity represented in the providence of God using rural and urban contexts to fulfill his good intentions for the whole creation. So the next time you want to “get back to nature and see God’s creation,” skip the mountains and visit your nearest major city.

No doubt Bradley’s article will be a bit provocative to those who are more of a “back-to-nature” bent, but I think his main point is sound. The Bible may begin in a garden, but it ends in a city. Industrial machines, urban architecture, and the bustle of human activity are not aberrations marring a once-pristine creation. They are part of what God always intended when he told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply.” Thus, some Christians’ aversion to cities may owe more to warmed-over romanticism than it does to Scripture.

“Cities represent concentrated activities of people living out their human vocation to be rulers and subduers of creation—a priestly function to manage creation well, create conditions for flourishing human life, and bring glory to God,” Bradley writes, and he’s absolutely right. Despite what Wendell Berry might have said, a city is just as much a natural (and Biblical) development upon raw creation as a garden.

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Responses

  1. I am going to disagree at some level, for many rather long drawn out reasons. But at one level, we anachronize when we put our urban centers as the understanding of city in the Scriptures. Urban living in Biblical times was nothing like we knew today.

    And while cities may be built from the creation, being from creation is not automatically justifying. For instance, in Genesis 11, it isn’t just the tower that God sees, but is the “city” AND the tower. The city would offer a form unity instead about being spread out and the tower would offer great protection to make this possible, but God determines to split the peoples instead.

    I am not denouncing all ideas or concepts of city life, but we should not take our modern day vision of city as the Biblical vision of the New Jerusalem. And even then, the city life of Biblical times was a rather dreary existence for many reasons (particularly because of overcrowding).

  2. I forgot to say one other thing. In regards to the romanticism of nature, I do agree. In the present state of creation, we don’t need to pit rural versus urban life as inherently superior. There was a reason we began to live in urban centers and it was because of necessity as creation as it stands wasn’t fit for the proper way of life as God intended. City life offers a certain level of protection in a dangerous world and efficiency in a world of scarcity that the rural life does not. Nature in creation as it stands is not automatically better as some naturalists might assume, but it itself is a dangerous place, just as the city is (but in their own different ways).

  3. I agree that the New Jerusalem will be far better than any city past or present could ever hope to be. However, I still think that it’s significant that God’s “telos” for creation is not another garden, but a city. That means that He intended all along for us to grow, develop, build, and expand.

    The beauty of cities (and they could be beautiful, even in ancient times) is not primarily in the fact that they provide security, or because they furnish necessities, though those things are true. The beauty of urban life is that it is a cross-section of humankind created in God’s image and a representation of humanity’s highest achievements and aspirations (although cities also tend to be places where sin is more exaggerated as well).

    In any case, my point wasn’t that present-day cities are the New Jerusalem, but that human beings who live in urban areas and work something other than the land can be just as in tune with nature (in the sense of “the way things were created to be”) as those who till the earth and reap its fruit.


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