place, placemaking, Divided We Fall, partisanism

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Make Place, Not War

The left. The right. Blue states. Red states. Placemaking doesn’t have to be tribal. It may actually be a necessary step for mending far-reaching wounds.

The novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner, in his book Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, reflects that: “Place is not a place until people have been born into it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, and died in it — have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities. ... Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”

This kind of year-by-year accrual runs in striking contrast to what we’re seeing around us right now. The most visible parts of American social life are fractured and polarized. We’ve lost our ability, even appetite, to risk ties across party lines. According to the giant online dating service, Match, relational preferences are changing dramatically. In its comprehensive 2012 Singles in America survey, one-third of respondents believed it was not possible to date someone of the opposite political affiliation. By 2020 the percentage resisting cross-party dating had risen to over one-half.

In Divided We Fall, David French probes these deep fractures, even implicating himself as part of the problem. More and more, American political alignments arise from hatred of the other side rather than allegiance to unified beliefs. French argues that clustering — physically and digitally — is increasing and will lead to more extremism and cycles of anger and fear.

Clustering was first observed by Bill Bishop in the Big Sort, who noticed trends in “landslide” counties across the country that voted disproportionately Republican or Democratic. Conducting research over several decades, Bishop discovered that after 1976 the sorting was not only political but cultural. People were relocating geographically based on values, beliefs, and tastes, not just economics and familial ties. 

As French sees it, we’re making the same mistakes James Madison foresaw in Federalist Papers, No. 10: the “violence of faction.” How does a nation confront the challenge of factionalism? The same way, French argues, that Madison advised in 1787: vigorous pluralism. The encouragement and protection of voluntary associations that enable a wide array of communities and groups to thrive.

How do we best chart this path? The role of placemaking — rehumanizing the places we are called to inhabit — is part of the solution. Applying placemaking principles to our communities and workplaces is a necessary step for mending our far-reaching wounds. 

The Physicality of Scripture

The “slow accrual” of place unfolds in Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, God forms his people through their experience with the land. As Jürgen Moltmann observes, we’re created as both imago Dei, divine image-bearers as “God’s proxy in the community of creation,” and imago mundi, because we’re formed from dust and return to dust — image-bearers of the earth and representatives on behalf of creations.

After Eden, the journey of people and place is seeded in Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, who awakens at Bethel one dream-filled morning to declare in Genesis 28:16 what many of us have also experienced, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Through a legacy of faithful judges, prophets, priests, and kings, Israel endures and at times thrives — even as exiles in Babylon, where they’re commanded to “build houses and settle down,” and “plant gardens and eat their produce.”

The centrality of place in the New Testament is located first and most particularly in the Jerusalem temple but then more universally in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The kingdom, both a rule focused on people and a realm centered on place, finds its fully consummated form in the New Jerusalem — a garden city replete with beauty and culture, where God dwells directly with his people. Hence, the physicality and importance of place doesn’t end with Jesus’ return, but is magnified through the cosmic restoration of God’s entire creative order. 

Place is and will always be vital for human flourishing.

Space or Place?

Theologian Jennifer Allen Craft, from whom I found Stegner’s reflection on place, defines place holistically — a physically located experience, landscape, community, set of relationships, memory, period of time, history, or habit. Space, on the other hand, is an abstraction of place, which often leads to fragmentation. Place demands accountability through relationships; space does not. Place is particular; space is comprehensive. Place invites somatic response. Space doesn’t necessarily do so. Place tethers us to the ground in ways that bring deeper meaning and purpose. Space often locates us in a kind of no-place that threatens our truest sense of personhood. As John Inge wisely observes, space and place exist on a continuum: “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.”

We often confuse space for place, seeking from space only what place can give. Our confusion is intensified by the digitized and mediated worlds we navigate for work and leisure. 

During the pandemic, most places of in-person gathering were shuttered, but video conferencing, social media, and streaming services remained open day and night. Helping others recommit to place after a prolonged season of space is a critical leadership task, for it is in place, not space, that we find our deepest personal attachments.

Even an object can hold placemaking potential. In her article in The Atlantic, “How the Loss of the Landline is Changing Family Life,” Julia Cho explains how cellphones — now used exclusively in more than half of American homes — have “liberated” communications to largely private domains. Rather than telephone poles that visibly linked us to our neighbors, cellular infrastructure is largely imperceptible. Landline phones — once so central to domestic living that homeowners constructed benches, vanities, and dedicated rooms to aid in their use — served to unite family members,” but now, Cho concludes, cellphones “silo them.”

In our digitized, globalized, and commodified world, placemaking counters prevailing currents of abstraction. As Allen Craft observes, placemaking locates “us in time, space, and community in ways that encourage us to be fully and imaginatively present, continually calling us to pay attention to the world around us and inviting us to engage in responsible practices in those places.” Placemaking asks: How can love for God and neighbor in a particular locality bring greater meaning and purpose?

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“‘God blesses everything He creates ... this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of his presence and wisdom, love and revelation.’ A sacramental mindset imbues holiness into otherwise mundane objects, routines, places, and events.”

Placemaking as Vocation

Placemaking is central, not incidental, to our lives as community members and leaders, and it comes to life in at least five deliberate actions.

Live Sacramentally. Mainstream evangelicalism tends to minimize the role of sacraments and other sacred rituals. Extracting aesthetic experiences from religious observance can carry over into other realms of life. A way to combat this deficiency is to frame ecclesiology holistically. Eastern Orthodoxy is a tradition that broadens our sacramental way of thinking, seeing, and being. As Alexander Schmemann observes, “God blesses everything He creates ... this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation.” A sacramental mindset imbues holiness into otherwise mundane objects, routines, places, and events. This is the appeal of Tish Harrison Warren’s book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, where she avows the hallowed nature of everyday practices such as making her bed, brushing her teeth, and sitting in traffic.

The Eucharist is a particularly powerful act for understanding the deeper meaning of sacramental living. Rather than viewing the Eucharistic table through a zoom lens — zeroing in on the metaphysics of Christ’s body and blood in the elements — Peter Leithart encourages the use of a wide-angle lens, focused on the beauty and mystery of the shared meal. Leithart observes, “At the Lord’s table, we eat bread and drink wine together. And this is the way things ought to be: the ideal world is not a world of atomized individuals but an irreducibly social reality. Biological needs can be satisfied in isolation; we can eat in a car, at a desk, in front of a computer screen, but a feast is a social event … Because we eat together of one loaf, we are one Body, members not only of Christ but of one another.”

Cultivate Local “Soil.” Placemaking contributes to healthy ecosystems, and healthy ecosystems honor regular rhythms of work and rest, planting and fallowing, living and dying. In his essay, “The Work of Local Culture,” Wendell Berry reflects on these cadences, recalling an old, galvanized bucket that was, for decades, suspended on a timeworn fence row. “The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus.”

Human communities serve a similar function by collecting, turning, and recycling stories through the “slow accrual” of new, enriched life. Leonard Hjalmarson — reflecting on the same Berry text — sees the promise of local churches to excel in this role. The galvanized buckets that represent our neighborhoods, churches, cities, and workplaces can be neglected and forgotten, or otherwise seen for the rich humus they provide. The good “soil” of communities needs healthy retention to exert an outward, life-giving force to serve the world.

Strive toward Permanence. In Holy Spokes, Laura Everett writes of her surprising conversion to urban cycling after her car died. Seven years later, she reflects: “The regularity of my bicycle commute has formed me. If I leave at 7:45 a.m. precisely, I see the same woman with an old-school Walkman and purple spandex pants walking alongside the bike path, swishing her hips to music only she can hear. I see the same trees go from barren to bursting as the seasons change. My regular route has given me a small piece of land to watch over. I know these potholes and trees and odd people. Seeing them every day allows me to see them change, and in that process, to grow to love them.”

If we’re attentive, we can find meaning in what’s familiar and routine. A Benedictine precept — Rule 58: The Procedure for Receiving Brothers — emphasizes stability within a particular locality and community. The expectation for a Benedictine monk is to live out life with his brothers in the monastery. This fifth-century rule offers wisdom today. We cannot establish places of nurture and formation without some degree of permanence.

Take Cues from Missional Network Churches. The Missional Network, and guilds like it, have helped churches understand place as a primary locus of God’s activity in the world. Attentiveness to place enables congregations to hear and follow God more faithfully. To these churches, there is no missio Dei without love of place.

Protestant churches could take cues from the Catholic parish system, which is rooted within the neighborhoods they serve. As Lee Hardy observes, “Since the 1950s, many Protestant churches have abandoned city neighborhoods altogether and followed their congregants out to the suburbs and even the uttermost parts of the exurbs.” As a result, he argues, exurban churches — fashioned on the regional shopping mall — are often accessible only by car. Because they are isolated, participation is often driven by specialized programming, high-profile teaching, or personality, not a yearning for neighborhood impact.

Christopher James, through his multi-year study of church planting in Seattle, identifies the Neighborhood Incarnation model — framed on Missional Network principles — as the most resilient. Characterized by missional strength and contextual relevance, Neighborhood Incarnation churches embrace local identity within their diverse ecclesial ecology by extending hospitality and even launching dynamic third places such as coffee shops and bookstores that deeply enrich their neighborhoods and restore lost social capital.

In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter wrestles with the question: What constitutes faithful presence? On its grandest scale, Hunter concludes, it’s “the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity. It represents a quality of commitment oriented to the fruitfulness, wholeness, and well-being of all.” At a prescriptive level, Hunter suggests “that a theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly.” Neighborhood Incarnation churches demonstrate that faithful presence is primarily local.

Consider the Built Environment. Our built environment influences how we see and care for our neighbors. A commitment to placemaking that celebrates our shared humanity and unique endowments of our communities inspires how we design streets, homes, businesses, churches, parks, and other public spaces. Lee Hardy reminds us that “streets not only form the outward appearance of the city,” but “also perform important functions intrinsic to the city.” 

As Jane Jacobs famously writes in “Downtown Is for People” in 1958, “The street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights.” Against the modernist architects and urban planners of her day, whose building projects were “symmetrical and orderly” and “clean, impressive, and monumental,” Jacobs likens their efforts to “a well-kept, dignified cemetery.” Rather than revitalizing downtowns, they deadened them through “no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that there is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.”

Churches, businesses, and municipalities should take heed. Good urban design always serves people. 

Just as streets are vital and interconnected to walkways, shops, parking spaces, traffic lights, and residences, so too is all design. Each part of a symbiotic relationship is strengthened by its connection to the other components in the system. One body, many parts. A good design, Matthew Frederick and Vikas Mehta suggest in their 101 Things I Learned in Urban Design School, is like a fabric “made by weaving many individual threads into a whole. The resulting cloth, observed broadly, has a uniform makeup. But observed closely, it exhibits great variety — in the color, thickness, and spacing of threads; in slubs and other local deviations; and in embedded twill or jacquard patterns.” We make space into place by weaving.

Thin Places in Every Realm of Life

Celtic Christianity describes the hallowing of physical space as thin places — a dissolving of boundary lines between heaven and earth. Thin places are often experienced in nature, such as the Lourdes of France or Isle of Iona, but a deeply sacramental way of seeing and being can lower the experiential barriers in all realms of life. The veil between space and place is also lowered as we cultivate the unique gifts of our local communities, practice stability, extend hospitality, and foster innovative design.

We must continually ask ourselves: Are we creating places — at home, in our communities and workplaces — that generate covenantal, meaningful, and purposeful relationships? Or are we creating distance by seeing people and places through a largely instrumental lens? By committing to the former, we can mend our divides — slowly converting factionalism to life-honoring pluralism that makes room for all and stands the test of time. 

“We must continually ask ourselves: Are we creating places ... that generate covenantal, meaningful, and purposeful relationships?”

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