Friday, November 03, 2006

Mont St. Michel vs. the Chicago Suburbs

I’ve never seen a thing like it. Pictures do not begin to do it justice. Set nearly a mile from the shores of northern France among land completely flat as far as the eye can see, it could once only be accessed by crossing the quicksand exposed at low tide. In 1017, Abbot Hildebert II began designing the mass of buildings on the island of rock, providing a base on which the abbey’s church rests. The scheme was preserved through the centuries, with the majestic choir finally completed in 1520. It’s truly awe-inspiring, and, even in a country riddled with great Cathedrals, the remote location and glorious architecture make Mont St. Michel unique upon the Earth.

Four thousand miles west, the terrain is also completely flat, though the eye cannot see very far among the densely packed buildings. The once-rich farmland lies suffocating beneath the concrete of parking lots in the Chicago suburbs. On asphalt tollways, cars and tractor-trailers spawn a choking haze of exhaust in their struggle for supremacy. What sky might be seen above is obscured by the screaming of countless billboards, each using every possible ploy to peddle mass-produced commodities to the swarm of rapacious consumers below. Yet no ad-pasted billboard, no factory-molded car, no hastily-paved street, no cookie-cutter building is at all remarkable, as another few miles yields a carbon-copy of each. One fears that the monotony simply goes on forever, world without end.

This hideous landscape stretches beyond the physical limits of the bulldozers; we who reside here feel its ugly, uncreative uniformity plowing over our very souls. In the end consumption is valued above creation – even the consumption of pleasure over the creation of life. When the abuse of the created order is taken to this level, many Christians in North America finally begin to draw the line. Yet if you try to talk to them about the destruction of an old family farm for a new subdivision, or the degeneration of Church architecture, they simply shrug their shoulders, saying that there are much more important things to worry about. The betterment of land or culture is just so much polishing brass on the Titanic:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! (2 Peter 3:10-12, ESV)
The end of the world presumably includes the end of Mont St. Michel, and all the hard work building a church upon that rock will be lost. Yet the monks therein would be the first to warn against attachment to the world, and, indeed, are sometimes seen as icons of a reactionary rejection of it. Why then is our world so much uglier than that of the ascetics?

The key to unlocking this apparent contradiction lies in verse 13 of the above passage, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Whatever their faults, these men saw a continuity between this earthly country and the new creation which is obscured to our eyes. The notion that what we create on earth will simply be lost leads not to the glory of Mont St. Michel but to the dullness of suburbia. We must go to scripture if we are to correct the vision that leaves both us and creation defenseless against the concrete Leviathan, and what better place to begin than one of the most hopeful chapters in Paul’s epistles:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:18-23, ESV)
Here lies an overlooked promise thrilling to anyone who has ever trained a dog, hiked in the mountains, planted a garden, or, indeed, had any love for a specific thing or place. We hear echoes of John 3:17, that “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” Only this time the “world” seems to refer to more than humanity. This shouldn’t surprise us. In the Old Testament, the blessing of God on His people is inseparable from His blessing on the land. In the face of judgment and exile on the people of Israel, the Lord assures them, through the prophet Isaiah, of eventual redemption:
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isa. 55:12-13, ESV)
Notice the lack of thorns and briers, an indication of the curse’s lifting. This is not merely a passage about the people returning from exile, but of creation itself set right. In chapter 65, Isaiah continues by linking Israel’s restoration is the restoration of all things in the created order:
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. … They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. … The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. (Isa. 65:17-19,21-22,25, ESV)
Here the words “new heavens and a new earth” are used for the first time in scripture. The echoes of Genesis are strong. Man is not redeemed in a vacuum; he carries with him the good things of creation: houses, vineyards, the work of his hands. The peace in the city from hostile attacks brings with it a change in the nature of the animals. They no longer attack and kill one another, and the serpent is finally defeated.

In the resurrection of Christ, we see the first act of this new creation necessitated by the fall and prophesied about in Isaiah. His resurrection gives us in Christ assurance of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) of our own mortal bodies, and a preview of what to expect:
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. … So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:37-38,42-44, ESV)
The new creation is not creation ex nihilo like the first; it requires a seed. In our case, that seed is our physical existence, buried in Christ. Though it may seem that the physical is simply destroyed and replaced with the spiritual, Paul goes on to clarify that what occurs is not destruction but metamorphosis.
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Cor 15:50-53, ESV)
To use an oft-cited analogy from nature, our mortal body is the caterpillar, Christ’s death is the cocoon (in which we are baptized), and our imperishable body is the butterfly. If the future of creation is tied up in our future, also being born again, then what is the seed of creation? And what composes its cocoon? Romans 8:21 suggests a startling answer: as we are raised in Christ, creation will be raised in us!

Having established that the physical creation does have a future in us, one wonders if this implies an active role on our part. Do we transform creation simply by our being the sons of God, or is there a work of sub-creation that we still have to accomplish. That man is indeed a sub-creator is easily established from his creation in the image of God. A reader new to the scriptures would come across this assertion in the first chapter of Genesis, knowing nothing about God at that point except that he is the creator of good things. Yet it baffles reason as to how ordinary people can accomplish a true new creation.

In order to come to terms with these mysteries, we need to think sacramentally. After all, our atonement was accomplished by a physical body pierced with iron nails on a wooden cross, and the skin and bones hanging there somehow comprised the body of the infinite Creator. Vinoth Ramachandra, at the Urbana 2000 missions conference, contrasted the Incarnation with the religious stories of Buddhism, Hinduism, and New Age Philosophy, which insist that, “ultimate transcendence lies in breaking free from our individuality, our physical embodiment, and from our entanglements in this meaningless world of historical existence, the ordinary, everyday world of work and home and family.” On the contrary:
The cross speaks of a god who is entangled with our world, who immerses himself in our tragic history, who embraces our humanity in all its vulnerability, pain and confusion, including our evil and our death. Here is a god who comes to us, not as a master, but as a servant who stoops to wash the feet of his disciples, to suffer brutalization and dehumanization at the hands of his creatures. And in identifying with us in our humanity, he draws the human into his own divine life.

So what this means is that the closer we get to God, the more human we become, not less. Our created physical bodies have a future. In raising Jesus from death, the creator was affirming our humanity, that this historical, embodied existence does have a future.

So you see, our salvation lies not in an escape from this world, but in the transformation of this world. Everything that is good, and true, and beautiful in human history is not lost forever, but will be restored and directed to the worship of the true God. And all our human activities in the arts, in the sciences, in the worlds of economics and politics, and even the non-human creation, will be brought to share in the liberating rule of God.
This is exactly what we should expect of a God who is both creator and incarnate savior, though it runs counter to many notions of what is spiritual. The early heresies tended to focus in on these points: a good God would not dirty his hands with a physical creation; a divine savior could not be fully human; if Christ was truly a man, he could not be God as well. Even today, many viewers who saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ were shocked by the brutal physical violence, asking “where is the spirituality?” The answer is simple – you’ll find the spirituality right in the middle of that mess of flesh and blood.

Sacramental thinking corrects our unbiblical notion that spiritual and physical are polar opposites. The word “spiritual” today carries with it a Platonic connotation of some sort of informational, disembodied, ethereal existence (like the internet). On the other hand, Scripture uses words like “gold” and “precious stones” in contrast to “wood, hay, and stubble” to show us that the spiritual is something thicker and heavier than what we are now, more “real” than what we consider reality. The chief characteristic of spiritual things is their endurance, and corrupted nature is wispy and transient by comparison. It is through sacramental contact with God that physical things become spiritual, and our physical bodies are the seeds that bloom into glorious spiritual ones, having an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor. 4:17, ESV)

So how does this notion of our sacramental participation in the new creation help us trade the Chicago suburbs for Mont St. Michel? Most importantly, it reminds us that we are meant to be creators rather than consumers and that what we do with our physical home has spiritual consequences. We cannot afford to shrug off the homogenization of every cultural artifact and desolation of every unique natural feature. For if we, the image-bearers and little-Christs, have no sacramental contact with these things, how can they be raised in us?

Individually, we must eschew entertainment for re-creation. How do we spend our free time? If it is simply in consuming commodities, whether they be trash novels, media brainwashing, pointless amusements, or the latest and greatest toy, they need to give way for potentially spiritual things. Try gardening, for example. Care for a small plot of earth, nurture a plant from seed to fruit, and use the fruits to feed others accustomed only to unripe monstrosities laden with preservatives. Train a dog from puppy to proud canine, teaching her to be obedient and loyal, and run with her as you explore the woods near your home. Learn to play an instrument, bringing to life music composed by others long gone, or even compose a tune of your own. Make a habit of eating at local restaurants rather than chains, where you can get to know the owners and the unique flavor and story of the place – their creation should be honored. Use your excursions into cyberspace creatively, learning new forms of communication and expression, being wary of spending too much time merely consuming information (or indulging in carnal lusts). Draw the good of this world into your life, and create good of your own within your sphere of influence.

Corporately, let us build the city of God. The reckless paving machine needs to be stopped – we need to consider why we build what we build. Farmers and their families have much to teach us (even much of scripture would be inscrutable without having a rudimentary knowledge of their work). Their way of life must be preserved, if nothing else so that those in the cities may visit them. The cities themselves must look forward to that holy city, the New Jerusalem, and our buildings must be built to the glory of God.

And to those who argue that what we create on Earth will simply be destroyed, the sacramental view stresses the mystery of the spiritual substance behind the physical world. The value of creation is not in what appear now to be tangible results. Let the perishable creation with us yearn and long for His coming, and let us value the act of creating and the hope that it reveals along with the creations themselves. Even if 2 Peter’s talk of destruction was only speaking metaphorically about the end of the current world order, good things are still lost all the time. Perhaps they will burn, but let them burn in the same way we will: sown in corruption to be raised in the glory that will be revealed in us.

WFO, I remember when you sent that to me a long while ago. Beautifully done...

Something I've pondered about is the balance between seeking to make present the Kingdom of God here on Earth and understanding that we who are making it present are human, and therefore fallible. Mont St Michel is a glorious example of what happens when people build for the Kingdom, and the flat, insipid Chicago suburbs are exactly what happens when we are consumed with ourselves.

But, there seems to be a trap in thinking that we can institute the City of God ourselves. I think the way to avoid the despair that often happens when our Mont St Michels start crumbling into the sea is seeking the virtue of humility. What we create may be destroyed; we ourselves may unwittingly destroy it; but, by focusing our lives upon the Incarnation, we can start to build anew.

I was reading parts of St. Francis de Sales "Introduction to a Devout Life" a couple of nights ago, and this quote in particular strikes me as apt:

"Raise up your heart then again whenever it falls, but fairly and softly, humbling yourself before God through the knowledge of your own misery but without being surprised at your fall, for it is no wonder that weakness should be weak or misery wretched; detest, nevertheless, with all your power the offense God has received through you and return to the way of virtue, which you had forsaken, with great courage and confidence in his mercy."

I am very sympathetic with the overall thrust of your post. In fact we attempt in our family to implement what you are talking about; I'll spare you the details of it for now. So I hope I don't come across as too much of the proverbial anti-fan by posing the following questions:

*Given that we live in a time where US population is now over 300M and world population is over 6B, what, exactly, are our alternatives to housing many of these people in large cities with their attendant suburbs?

*While the overall effect of the Chicago suburbs may be ugly, bland, etc. (I'll be going there next week, and I much prefer Beecher IL, to Oak Park for example), may the 'burbs not be simply a mosaic of many small landholdings and houses which are loved and cared for by those who make homes of those houses? IOW, isn't it possible that this mosaic is less appealing in aggregate than the sum of the individual parts would indicate?

*What do we make of the prophetic voice of Isaiah presenting the lion as eating straw and laying down with (an undevoured) lamb if God originally created the lion(through millions of years of evolution) to be a carnivorous and fearsome devourer of lambs? Isn't He sort of robbing the lion of his ontological lionness?

Hey Cheesehead,

I don't think I have anything against large cities. Indeed, I don't think of the New Jerusalem as being small. I don't even think I have anything in principle against attendant suburbs (insofar as we are careful to preserve a substantial chunk of true rural life). What I abhor is the utter lack of vision and creative energy in the bland concrete sameness. It isn't that we develop, but how we do that makes me so mad.

For instance, when a developer wants to make a new neighborhood, do they even look at or think about the unique features of the land they are developing? No, they just take down every tree, raise every low point and lower every hill, to make it fit into their cookie cutter plan. It is "living units" packaged for consumption, not homes created for people to love.

Now, that we can find love and joy even in staleness and ugliness is a testimony to the greatness of God's image in us. There are FAR worse places in the world than American suburbia on pure aesthetic grounds. But I don't know that anyone has us beat in the category of squandered potential. It wouldn't take so much in the way of resources for us to build wonderful hamlets around our breathtaking cities. It would, however, take a revolution in the way we understand our relationship between us and our world. And it would take some vision and leadership.

As far as the lamb/lion thing - I don't think I've said any new information than what was said in the Leviathan post. I mean, "isn't He sort of robbing the lion of his ontological lionness?" I suppose so - for everything there is a season, maybe. But again, the ontological lionness problem exists quite independently from 6-day literal creation vs evolution. I take it you want to revisit this?

RE: the building of cities and suburbs. Suburbs came about as a result of light rail passenger conveyances, and was accelerated by the advent of the automobile and the limited access highway system. Admittedly Evanston and Winnetka are more aestetically pleasing than Streamwood. OTOH, there is just so much Lake Michigan shoreline available. (My guess would be that the half-mile of frontage currently for sale between Thompson and Manistique is probably the largest stretch available on the whole lake.) Anyway, what are our alternatives? I suspect that any alternative that achieves the desired ends will be predicated upon the end of the automobile as a common feature of daily life.

RE: preserving rural lifestyle. I am all for this. This objectives requires the successful implementation of remunerative sustainable agricultural enterprises. We are in the process of trying to create one of these ourselves. It won't happen en masse. It requires a lot of capital, a lot of sacrifice, and a considerable amount of skill, and dare I say, luck on the part of the family trying to do this. The alternative is 3,000 cow herds tended by immigrants of questionable legality.

So my point is not to disagree with your ideal, but to elicit thought about what the ideal would actually look like and how it could happen.

RE: lion and lamb. I have reread all our preceeding discussion and I think on this point you punted. Rather than address the passages in Gen. 1:30 and Isa. 11&65 and wrestle with them you introduced passages from Job and sort of stole the base on the animals doing no harm to each other. Call me a crank if you will. I'm just sayin'... :)


I suspect that any alternative that achieves the desired ends will be predicated upon the end of the automobile as a common feature of daily life.

I think you may be misunderstanding what I'm longing for. I don't see anything inherent in the automobile that prevents our being creators rather than consumers. Indeed, ideally it ought to increase our ability and means to create.

The bigger problem is how transient we've become - to the point that we don't value the places we live because we aren't going to live in them for long. This is a deeper issue, that I see as harder to solve.

As far as our Genesis debate goes, I think you probably are missing my point if you suppose I am avoiding wrestling with Genesis and Isaiah. Why not go back there and continue the discussion, if you think there is more I need to wrestle with?

Wonders for Oyarsa:

Thanks for posting a link to this on my blog. It's interesting to see a Christian tackling this issue, as it is so often overlooked. I feel that too much emphasis is often placed on echatology in modern Christian thought (and for that matter, in ancient Christian thought!) - but Christians would be derilict in their duties if they did not look after the world that has been left in their care.

Best wishes!


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