“Incarnating Christ in our Places”
A review of
Where Mortals Dwell:
A Christian View of Place for Today
By Craig Bartholomew.
Review by Chris Smith.
Where Mortals Dwell:
A Christian View of Place for Today
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2011.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
About a year ago, a friend of mine who has access to a good seminary library, showed me a small stack of books on theology of place that he was in the process of reading. As I recall, most of the books (including, most memorably, John Inge’s A Christian Theology of Place) were from publishers outside the United States, and I bemoaned to myself that such works were so hard to come by here. Thus, I was very excited to hear about Baker Academic’s release of Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today. A few years ago, I had read and appreciated Bartholomew’s The Drama of Scripture (co-written with Michael Goheen), so I was eager to see how he developed a theology of place. And Where Mortals Dwell did not disappoint. The book offers a historical approach to the theology of place in three parts, scripture, church history (and the Western philosophical tradition) and the contemporary era – in which Bartholomew broadens his approach from theology to ethics and explores how Christians might be engaged in the good work of placemaking.
All three parts of the book are good, solid introductions to their respective topics. The first part, however, is in my opinion the most useful as there are key flaws that detract somewhat from the book’s second and third parts. Before I examine the content of the book, allow me to interject a couple of opinions about the writing of the book. I knew before I picked it up that this book was aimed at academic audiences, but I read academic books all the time, and there are many such books that are written in a style that is fresh, compelling and engaging. Unfortunately, Where Mortals Dwell is not one of these books. I’m sure that Bartholomew is passionate about his research, but the passion was all but lost in the dryness of the medium for this reader at least. One specific example of a stylistic form that might seem minute to some, but drove me batty over the course the book was his habit of referring to other writers by their first initial and last name (e.g., J. Ellul or W. Berry). Part of what I find compelling about theology of place is the attention and honor that it gives to the distinctive of the particular, and when one reduces a given name to an initial (when the writer himself or herself would not do so), there is a level of abstraction at work that loses a wee bit of that distinctiveness. I can appreciate the expediency of using this sort of reference within the text of a work, but even Bartholomew’s bibliography utilizes the first-(and sometimes second or third)-initial-last-name format.
The first part of the book, which comprises over half the book’s content, is an excellent survey of the deep significance of place throughout the biblical narrative. Throughout this part, he examines the work of key biblical interpreters and assesses and critiques facet of their work, and in conversation with these interpreters, he develops a robust biblical theology of place, which by itself is likely worth the purchase price of the book (or at least the discounted purchase price on Amazon, if not the full suggested retail price). The bulk of this part of the book is focused on the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, to which Bartholomew commits four chapters, focusing with particular emphasis on the early chapters of Genesis in which humankind learns to live amidst God’s creation and in which human rebellion leads to the formation of the earliest cities. The remainder of the chapters in this part of the book, overview the remainder of the Old Testament, the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles and the General Epistles.
I found the second part of the book – which is also the shortest of the three parts – to be the least helpful. Bartholomew offers a fine overview of place in the Western philosophical and theological traditions, but does so in brief snapshots of the work of key figures from the Church Fathers to the present day. While I would love to see a richer account that wasn’t so fragmentary, I think the bigger issue with this section was its fundamental failure to critique the abuses of place that have been essential to the formation of Western culture. Although there have been some Western thinkers who have some important ideas about place, I think that Western culture has fundamentally rejected place and the work of those who critique this rejection is theologically much more interesting to me than what Bartholomew offers here. One superb example of such a critical work would be Willie James Jennnings’s recent work The Christian Imagination, the focus of which is a historical and theological examination of the vast destruction wreaked by Western practices of displacement (of both the colonializer and the colonialized) over the last half-millennium. Jennings’s work, which doesn’t even merit a mention in Where Mortals Dwell, is a much more compelling historical account of theology of place (or lack thereof) in the Western tradition than the largely Constantinian set of snapshots that Bartholomew offers here.
In the third part of the book, Bartholomew turns to sketching what the ethics of a Christianity that took place seriously might look like, and I appreciate that he has done so. As with the previous part of the book, one wishes that it could have been fleshed out more fully, and of the three parts of the book, I think this one is most ripe for expansion into another book (Or perhaps, churches could take seriously their call to enter into the work described in books like Making Healthy Places – reviewed below). Although he acknowledges the work of the church in placemaking, noting Lesslie Newbigin’s idea of the local congregation as the “hermeneutic of the gospel,” he do so only in passing as one of a variety of “various facets of life,” through which the Christian can be involved in placemaking. There is a deep need for an ethical account of Christian placemaking that is fundamentally ecclesiological, or in other words, that recognizes that a primary work of the local church community is catalyzing local culture and seeking the common good of her particular place. Walter Brueggemann starts to point in this direction in his recent book Journey to the Common Good, but his focus is still largely on the biblical texts and not on ethics and praxis for church communities today. Despite Bartholomew’s insufficient ecclesiology, the chapter on placemaking and the city is one of the best in the book, and one to which urban churches and urban theology should pay very close attention. In this regard, I am particularly grateful for Bartholomew’s introduction to Philip Bess’s book Til We Have Built Jerusalem, a book he describes as engaging new urbanism theologically.
Overall, Where Mortals Dwell is a good book on an important subject, but I think the flaws of the second and third parts that I have described here keep it from being a great book. The book’s first part is especially good, however, and worthy of being read in churches, universities and seminaries.