Ashley Hales on the Call for Christians to Be Stable Disciples

My favorite house we owned started out a salmon-pink bank-owned foreclosure on the corner of 800 East and 900 South in Salt Lake City, Utah. When we sold that house to move to the California suburbs six years later, my husband had refinished floors, built me bookcases along the stairs, knocked down a wall to make a bedroom, and we’d painted nearly every wall in the house (the salmon pink was changed to a lovely gray). We knew the floorboards that creaked, the steepness of the stairs, and the quirks particular to a 100-year-old home in the city. The home was more than an address; it was part of who we were and had become.

But it wasn’t just the home. It was the address that meant something. Every address in the Salt Lake valley proceeds from the LDS temple. Our home at the corner of 800 East 900 South was nearly eight blocks east and nine blocks south of the temple. Our homes splayed out along the valley in a grid, where you always knew where you were in relation to the temple—and it was easy to find where you needed to go.

While Salt Lake City grew in racial, cultural, and religious pluralism, our addresses told a different story. We all—Mormon, Christian, atheist, none, secular humanist—had to coexist in a system and geography formed around the LDS faith. Places shape us. The geography of a place affects how we live and what we’re oriented around. While we may not have an address that overtly acknowledges a place’s cultural or religious center, our places nevertheless revolve around ideas, values, and institutions.

Places form us. It would be easy to wax poetic about place (from the goodness of farm-to-table local cuisine to neighborhood little libraries), yet ignore how many of us default to the unmoored, rootlessness of “space” over the specificity and banality of place. Let’s start here.

Space Over Place

Our habits of constant movement—from our car-centric lives to our distractibility—shape our souls.

For example, as a whole, we are a nation of commuters. Americans spend more time per year on their commutes than on vacation, where mega-commutes are common. More than 600,000 people spend at least three hours on their commute daily. The car (and our constant movement and our addiction to busyness) isn’t simply the way we get to work; the time spent bumper-to-bumper forms us. Drawing us away from local communities, commuter culture puts us in the no man’s land where we’re untethered from community and place. We exist in boxes of our own consumeristic makings—we choose the song or podcast and the temperature.

Our online habits similarly move us away from human connection and into liturgies of consumption. We scroll through Facebook and pause to comment on the politics of someone we used to know, swipe up on Instagram to buy, and consume someone’s life on YouTube as if a person were a flattened fictional story. Over the course of a week, the average internet user spends at least24-hours online and social media usage averages approximately 2.5 hours daily. We’ve read how Google is changing our neural pathways and the rate of teen depression increases with time spent online, particularly on social media platforms. While our experience of technology is complex, let us not think that the way we spend our time—whether in cars or on our phones—would bear no imprint on our souls.

The problem with our commuting or internet usage isn’t just environmental or social; it is spiritual. If, as Abraham Kuyper, said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!,” then our commuting and our internet habits aren’t just neutral factors that make up a life.

What is the allure of space over place? When we choose space over place, we believe we’re choosing the path of freedom: Here there are more options open, more purchases available to us, more connections with real people behind screens. We imagine that freedom is a life without constraints.

Yet freedom is never a freedom from; it’s a freedom for others. Wendell Berry helpfully articulates how the individual has two ways to turn: either to this rootless “space” typified by the “relatively unconditional life of the public” (where we pursue self-interest primarily) or toward the life of the household and community. Patrick Deneen writes in his fascinating book, Why Liberalism Failed, of the temptation of rootlessness: “We are increasingly shaped by technology that promises liberation from limits of place, time, and even identity.”

Our temporal habits that put us on autopilot not only inhibit our creativity but also numb our souls. As we detach from real people, real places, and even the ordinary banal moments of life—when we choose space over place—we also lose our spirituality. The spiritual life is always a concrete, embodied life. Might we re-imagine freedom to be less about me and more about us, more about choosing (when we can) the rooted, specific, concrete over the abstract?

Clearly, technology and commuting aren’t going away and neither are they the only challenges to faithful Christian witness in 21st-century America. But let’s carefully consider how such habits might form us more into consumers than rooted disciples.

A Theology of Place

Walter Brueggemann writes of the importance of place in The Land:

Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is a space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is a space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space.

In short, “place” in the context of faith is about relationship, history, covenant, and is one thread in the gospel narrative. Place is one way we know God, are enfolded into community, and are sent on mission.

Recovering place as a theological category (not simply as the setting where we live or “do ministry”) is a vital avenue for knowing God and his mission. It’s one framework to understand how we might begin to push back against the allure of rootlessness.

Rootedness in place is a part of the biblical story from the beginning. God gives place as a gift and as a way to know God. Humans are given Eden, the first home, the land, a place to steward and work in concert with God and each other. Part of God’s benevolence and care came through place, from the gifts of blue skies and dahlias to the surprise of pomegranates and cauliflower, through “every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” (Gen. 1:29).

More than that, the land was a way to know God’s character as provider and sustainer. God could only be known through the particular as he was “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). As we follow the story of Israel, the land—and not just land in general but a very specific patch of earth in the Middle East—becomes increasingly important in the story of redemption. With the Abrahamic covenant, the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17), is the tangible reminder of God’s care, provision, redemption, and restoration. A theology of place proceeds from creation.

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Source: Christianity Today