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City Meditations: 3

Tim Keller

Rudolph Giuliani assumed office as Mayor of New York City in 1994 (the same year that Vanya on 42nd Street appeared). Five years earlier a young pastor named Tim Keller had been sent by the Presbyterian Church in America — an evangelical denomination strong in the South — to plant a church in Manhattan. Unpromising soil; but today about 5,000 people attend the various services held by Redeemer Presbyterian Church each Sunday, and Redeemer has helped to plant more than a hundred other churches in the greater New York City area.

Tim Keller’s message to the people of New York has always been: God loves you, and wants you to flourish. And his message to his fellow theologically-conservative Christians — whose image of the city often derives from those “cities of the plain” in Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah — has been: Move to the city. “Evangelical Christians have been particularly unwilling to live in cities,” he has noted. But, he wrote in 2002,

God’s future redeemed world and universe is depicted as a ‘city’. Abraham sought the city ‘whose builder and maker is God’ (Hebrews 11.10). Revelation 21 describes and depicts the apex of God’s redemption, as a city! His redemption is building us a city – the new Jerusalem.

In fact, when we look at the New Jerusalem, we discover something strange. In the midst of the city is a crystal river, and on each side of the river is the Tree of Life, bearing fruit and leaves which heal the nations of all their wounds and the effects of the divine covenant curse. This city is the Garden of Eden, remade. The City is the fulfilment of the purposes of the Eden of God. We began in a garden but will end in a city; God’s purpose for humanity is urban! Why? So the city is God’s invention and design, not just a sociological phenomenon or invention of humankind.

In a 2010 speech in South Africa Keller said, “Human beings, according to Genesis 1, are made in the image of God and reflect God’s glory more than anything else in creation. In these cities you have more image of God per square inch than anywhere else in the world. So God makes the numbers argument.”

And in a 2006 essay he was especially straightforward:

My first strategic point is simple: More Christians should live long-term in cities. Historians point out that by A.D. 300, the urban populations of the Roman Empire were largely Christian, while the countryside was pagan. (Indeed, the word pagan originally meant someone from the countryside — its use as a synonym for a non-Christian dates from this era.) The same was true during the first millennium A.D. in Europe — the cities were Christian, but the broad population across the countryside was pagan. The lesson from both eras is that when cities are Christian, even if the majority of the population is pagan, society is headed on a Christian trajectory. Why? As the city goes, so goes the culture. Cultural trends tend to be generated in the city and flow outward to the rest of society.

So Christians who want to shape their culture (as Christians in general should do) need to head for the cities.

It’s a powerful argument, and for all I know Tim Keller was making it when he came to New York in 1989. But it’s an argument with a much stronger appeal in Manhattan today than it might have had in those pre-Giuliani days. Bearing witness to the Gospel in relatively safe places with world-class museums and professional sports teams and live music of every variety and first-rate restaurants where you might see movie stars: What’s not to like?

(for all installments, click the citymeditation tag below)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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