A few days ago I received an email from my good friend Dave Strunk. He referred me to an “excoriating” review of Why Cities Matter written by blogger Keith Miller. Since I recently reviewed the book for Christianity Today, and Mr. Miller and I rather different focal points for our reviews, let me respond to his critique.
Argument: Mr. Miller points out a central weaknesses of Why Cities Matter: the slippery definition of the word “city.” In Keller’s introduction to the book, Miller deduces that Keller uses the word “city” to mean at least three things:
1. “The Top 100 City”—a metro area at least as populous as Wichita, Kansas;
2. “The Not-Rural Farmland City”—everything with a greater density than homestead farming;
3. “The Urban Center City”—places like Manhattan.”
He draws this conclusion from Keller’s use of a Gallup pole and a UN statistic claiming “180,000 people move into cities each day.” Um and Buzzard switch between these slippery definitions throughout the book, at times referring to a major urban center like Los Angeles, and at other times referring implicitly to small towns that are not rural.
Response: Good critique. Miller is right to point out “sloppiness” here. There needs to be a standard way for evangelicals (and others) to talk about “cities.” It may be a pipe dream to think we could agree on such a thing, but the authors should at least lay out their own view and stay consistent.
Argument: Um and Buzzard are extremely liberal with the word “city” in the biblical review. Jesus was born in the “city”, say Um and Buzzard, but Miller points out Bethlehem had a population of 300-1000 at the time Jesus was born. He also critiques their claim that the Garden of Eden “may well have had buildings,” among other exegetically fanciful moves to find “cities” throughout the Bible.
Response: Again, this critique is also fairly well founded. In an earlier draft of my review, I pointed out that Um and Buzzard seem to substitute the word “city” for nearly any kind of human community, from Bethlehem to Babylon to the Church. Comparing the modern city to ancient settlements of nearly all sizes is problematic – to the point of needing correcting. Again, well said.
I would argue, however, that the Bible does have significant things to say about urban centers – particularly large ones. From Babel to Babylon, and Eden to the New Jerusalem, it’s no coincidence that cities take on either heavenly or hellish characteristics in the biblical narrative. Precise definitions are needed, surely. But a gloss of his own over the importance of cities in the Bible does us no favors either. Dense groups of people are uniquely important in the Bible as today.
Argument: One of Miller’s final critiques is that Buzzard defines Silicon Valley as a “city.” He points out that it is actually a suburban sprawl, and that Buzzard’s own church moved from an urban center in downtown San Jose to an area that looks a lot like a suburb in Santa Clara.
Response: If the critique here is primarily of defining Silicon Valley as a “city” – that is mixed use space and “denseness” and “proximity”, an idea that Um and Buzzard borrow from Keller – then good. Buzzard is perhaps too in love with the idea of “cities” and wants to live in one even if he’s not in one.
But I’m inclined to push back against Mr. Miller. If city can also mean “center of regional influence,” then Silicon Valley certainly qualifies. It’s hard to imagine a more culturally influential suburb than the tech hub of the world (Um and Buzzard are right here). And perhaps this leads us to a closer definition of what we mean by city. After all, the plainest definition of “city” is: “a large or important town.” By that standard, which is more of a “city”: San Jose or Silicon Valley?
Final Thoughts: Mr. Miller’s critique of their sloppy use of the word “city” is right on, both as applied to the ancient world and the modern world. We need to draw the line better.
But, unfortunately, Mr. Miller skipped over nearly all the valuable pieces. First, cities are growing, both in size and clout. As Richard Florida points out, the lines between suburbs and cities may be dissolving, but “mega-regions” are growing, attract a disproportionate number of talented, creative people, and churn out far more economic output than in past generations.
Second, Um and Buzzard have valuable things to say on both how the characteristics of cities as well as how they work; concepts, for example, like “connective diversity” and “clustered diversity” are helpful for non-urbanologists trying to understand urban areas.
Third, their ministry applications are helpful. They counsel readers to try to understand a city’s storyline through five questions. We may squabble over the definition of a city, but “large or important towns” certainly take on unique characters over time. I’m from the Denver area, and its focus on outdoors and adventure is crucial to understand for pastors. Cities have “gods”, and they must be understood if they are to be confronted. It’s hard to say that where I live, Littleton, exerts anywhere near the influence of Denver.
If it makes Mr. Miller feel better, perhaps we can substitute the word “city” for “metro area” and be rid of the whole argument.
But don’t listen to me. I live in a suburb. But then again, Mr. Miller lives in Hillsdale, Michigan: population 8,278.