Americans often fall into two camps (I like dichotomies, they make the world much easier to understand) when it comes to wondering what Europeans think of our nation and culture: we faun over their every word or we have a difficult time locating Spain on a map which betrays some very profound things about our nation and culture… (Isn’t it amazing how three dots are now allowed in print simply because of their use in email!)? With this in mind The Atlantic (May 2005) has retained the services of Bernard-Henry Levy – someone who is very smart but made smarter given that he speaks a few languages and is an European with a hyphenated name, a hyphenated first name nonetheless.
It seems the editors at the Atlantic gave this Frenchman a rental car and an expense account and told him to have at it. Which he has in both the May and June issues with more on the way. Some of it is pretty depressing stuff but some of it is quite interesting. To be honest, I was a bit under whelmed by it though are some good tidbits here and there; one of these which I’d like us to interact with.
Let me begin with a little autobiography; as some of you know only to well I’m the pastor of an urban church in a Seattle neighborhood known as Capitol Hill. Having been here about seven years I constantly wonder and ponder the realities and peculiarities of being an urban church. We’re different than rural and suburban congregations, not to mention exurban (is that the correct demographic category for those exploding suburbs in the middle of nowhere?) but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not simply about churches but a manifestation of a larger cultural phenomenon. Anyway, enough about me let’s get to Levy’s quote:
An observer who knew nothing of the history of the city and the riots that forty years ago accelerated the exodus of the white population to the suburbs might think now that he was in a bombed metropolis. But no; it’s just Detroit. It’s just an American city whose inhabitants have left, forgetting to close the door behind them. It’s just this experience, unique in the world, of a city that people have left as one leaves a spurned partner, and that little by little has returned to chaos.
The mystery of these modern ruins. Enigma of an America about which I discover that certain old feeling (essential to Europe’s civility, consubstantial with Europe’s urbanity) is perhaps foreign to it: a love of cities.
Now I don’t want to talk exclusively of Detroit; a cesspool I wouldn’t want to foist on my worst enemy. A little tip: if you ever have occasion to “visit” that city don’t make the mistake my friend and I did, breaking down in a European-made car having just left Ottawa, Canada the night before. Detroit is stark; the contrast between the two cities goes way beyond stark. And they don’t like Volkswagens.
So a question: are cities in the US merely utilitarian? That’s to say if they aren’t necessary for commerce they are completely despised instead of partially despised. Per Levy, we really don’t love cities. They are necessary evils which we tolerate.
Growing up outside Boston, a pretty nice city by East Coast standards, it was the place where my dad worked and where we went to do things only found in the city (Fenway park may be the height of American urbanity) BUT never did I view it as a place where one would live. The people who lived in Boston were people who couldn’t escape Boston. I viewed it as a collective prison for poor people somehow forgetting that my parents lived in Boston for the first few years of their marriage and had generally very good things to say about their experience.
So where did my very unoriginal sentiments come from? In addition to lacking a love for cities do many Americans resent them? I certainly don’t hate them but then I’ve been living in them for most of my adult life yet there are definitely many moments of tolerance as opposed to embrace.
By all means folks write what you want but I’m not so much interested in a theology of the city as with most Americans, or at least our, gut reaction to them and the place they play in our culture.