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New Urbanism and the Christian Faith

January 7, 2006 Books, Religion 6 Comments

The other day I was having lunch at the new Prancing Pony Cafe & Bookstore in New Town at St. Charles and one book caught my eye, Sidewalks in the New Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. I thumbed through a bit of it while waiting for my lunch companions to arrive but what I read was intriguing. I am personally not the religious type but many of my friends and family are. I think I’ll be ordering this book in bulk for birthday and Christmas gifts.

Here is what one person wrote in a review on Amazon.com:

People of all religious persuasions can find wisdom in this plain-spoken portrait of how humanity and culture are enriched by the informal social contacts of city life. Jacobsen, a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Missoula, Montana, builds a case for why Christians should have special concern for traditionally designed urban areas. At the same time, the book explores themes of community and identity that are relevant to people of all spiritual traditions.
He argues that we have been lulled into “worshipping false gods in the name of American values.” The concepts of individualism, independence and freedom are wrongly associated with life in the suburbs, Jacobsen tells us. Pointing out that identical tract homes and big box retailers are not expressions of individual choice, he says we have allowed corporations to bend our communities to their bottom-lines instead of our communal needs.

The car, so often equated with freedom, does not, in Jacobsen’s view, equal the Biblical sense of liberation, instead it represents a form of escapism. He writes that we have allowed ourselves to be isolated from one another by our cars and our low-density developments. The result is a loss of civility and a dismissal of God’s command to “love the stranger.”

He notes that cities give rise to critical mass, a condition that stimulates and incubates new ideas, significant events and formal art. Sidewalks in the Kingdom is a powerful call for Christians to endorse our cities in the same way they have embraced our natural environment. Should the concept catch hold, Christians everywhere may soon be fleeing the suburbs for a city near you.

If you are a person of faith but are unsure about New Urbanism give this book a read and let me know what you think. I’ve provided a link above to Amazon.com but you can also order the book online through local independent retailer Left Bank Books. Also, the author’s website offers a sample chapter.

I started reading the sample chapter and I wanted to quote one small bit:

It is important to note that we have not been backed into sprawl and standardization as the dominant mode of development because of poverty, national crisis, or other limiting factors. Instead, we have boldly and confidently marched toward these unsatisfying arrangements with no one to blame but ourselves. We have done so, I believe, because we have been worshiping false gods in the name of American values.

I am so ordering a copy for myself!

– Steve


Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. publiceye says:

    I dunno, Steve. It sounds a little like one of those projects that translates “Catcher in the Rye” into Klingon.

  2. David Sucher says:

    My first question is whether appeals to “religious values” are effective — even among very religious people — in persuading them to build better cities? I suspect that there are an awful of ethical and moral people in the suburbs and so I would find it difficult to tell them that their way of life is somehow immoral.

    Personally I don’t think that the shape of our cities and suburbs has much to do with our moral condition. Suburbanization/sprawl has happened over a period some 50 – 60 years and I believe it has far more to do with our mis-understanding of the power of a new technology — the automobile — than with “worshipping false gods.”

  3. me says:

    I’ve spent time with religious groups that are based in the suburbs, mixing with people in our city parish, and they notice a difference between city and suburb.

    The groups were meeting on an effort to build community, and the suburban groups were surprised to see how “built” our city parish community already was.

    Having a strong sense of community *is* part of a spiritual life.

  4. Scott says:

    Fascinating subject. I won’t make a judgement on this book until I have read it. However, I am a church-going Christian and I am concerned that we have been worshipping false gods for a long time and we are now facing our own self-made, sprawled, traffic-clogged hell. This isn’t saying that people in the suburbs are not good moral people. But think about it, would Christ have stayed in an inner-city parish to live with the poor, oppressed, marginalized, or would he have fled to an isolated, outlying, bubolic suburb for the easy life? Would Christ have spent hundreds a dollars a month to operate a car, or would he have been satisfied with a bus pass or bicycle? Also, are the isolated suburban churches offering the same sense of community found in inner-city parishes, where everyone lives, shops, & worships with their next-door neighbors? This book brings up a dangerous notion to many. They have too much tied up in our consumer-driven, isolated society to believe that anything else is decent & moral. By bringing this up, you will rattle a few people.

  5. Jeff says:

    I have a very strong Christian upbringing and background. I even was a Christian music radio “DJ” in college. I am always interested in things related to Christianity. I am very thankful you shared this book. It means there is hope for those in the burbs who have been fed this crap about the “city” being dangerous and a wasteland. As a cyclist I actually have felt safer in the city since there are more cyclists I have seen than out in the County. I look forward to reading this book in the future.

    I do believe Jesus would be riding a bus or a bike…or even walking! Sadly many have bought into the notion that the car is our ultimate means of tansport. Thankfully things are changing slowly but surely here in St. Louis!

    Keep Cycling,

  6. A friend who is involved in starting a new church in a newly developed part of suburbia has noticed how urban design hinders their ability to build a church community and connect with the broader community.

    Back in April, I commented on an article on a similar theme in the Presbyterian Church in America’s magazine. Without losing their concern for matters spiritual, evangelicals in America are becoming more aware of the impact of the physical realm on spirit and community.


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