Musings on urban/rural theology

Andrew Nugteren
Chicago from the sky

Town or country?

Most people have a strong leaning one way or the other. I spent most of my growing-up years on a small farm just out of Levin, and loved it, so I suppose I’m a country boy at heart – no mega-urban sprawl for me!

But then I got thinking. What would God choose, were he given the choice? Would he prefer the wild sounds of the great outdoors, or the vibrancy of inner-city life? Depending on whom you ask, you’ll probably get different answers.

To some, it would be an obvious choice for God. He’d choose rural, they claim. Away from the city. Back to nature. After all, God has revealed himself and his glory in his natural creation. And rural is as close to natural as you can get these days.

Besides, look at the alternative. Our urban environments seem to be dominated by the mighty modern townhouse – an invention that comes with as much asphalt as possible, to reduce the quantity of time-consuming green stuff we used to play on. Oh, there’s the odd bush, shrub or flowerbed here and there for the sake of good looks, but not really a lot of opportunity for God’s glory to shine. And if that still isn’t enough evidence, remember that it was on a garden that God set his stamp of approval (and called “good”) when he made the world, not a city.

Be that as it may, I’m not ready to be persuaded quite yet.

You see, while it’s true that God dwelt in a garden in the beginning, that’s not the end of the story. When we move forward to the time of King David, God chooses to dwell among his people in a city – in Jerusalem. Now if God wasn’t into cities, I’m sure he could have had David set up the tabernacle (and later, the temple) in some suitable and secluded rural location. But no, the ark which symbolised God’s presence is enthroned in a city.

Jerusalem isn’t a temporary storage location, either. God isn’t just grudgingly putting up with the city until Jesus returns to restore a sin-ruined creation. Rather, God even goes so far as to use the imagery of a city to picture the new creation (Revelation 21). The new Jerusalem will be pleasant to the eye, perfectly symmetrical, adorned with precious jewels; it will have streets of pure gold and will shine with the glory of God.

But what if you find yourself preferring rural, even though God is heading towards a city? Well, perhaps one of the main reasons some of us struggle to appreciate the beauty of the city is because all too often our cities lack beauty. Our building codes are littered with rule after rule, guarding us against fires and earthquakes, telling us how many car parks we need to provide, but requirements for beauty take a definite back seat. We’re good at functional, not so good at beautiful – here in New Zealand, anyway. They tell me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but, since I’m not a trendy relativist, that doesn’t wash on me.

J.R.R. Tolkien does ugly cities well, as any beholder of beauty ought to acknowledge. Take Bree, the industrialised Orthanc or the occupied Shire. Cities whose soul has been reduced to progress, efficiency and the mighty dollar. But Tolkien also gives us cities of unparalleled beauty. Places that thrill the imagination, even when adapted for the big screen. The grandeur of Minas Tirith. The splendour of Lothlrien. The Shire after the cleanup has taken place. Paradise was Lost. But then Paradise is Restored.

And it’s Paradise Restored that we see at the end of Revelation and that helps answer the question we began with. At the heart of the new city is God’s throne, and flowing from that throne is the river of the water of life, with the tree of life from the original Eden flanking its banks. Creation begins with a garden, and ends in a garden city. God may start rural, but he ends urban.

Andrew Nugteren was born in Stratford (pop. 5,000).