My favorite house we owned started out a salmon-pink bank-owned foreclosure on the corner of 800 East and 900 South in Salt Lake City, Utah. When we sold that house to move to the California suburbs six years later, my husband had refinished floors, built me bookcases along the stairs, knocked down a wall to make a bedroom, and we’d painted nearly every wall in the house (the salmon pink was changed to a lovely gray). We knew the floorboards that creaked, the steepness of the stairs, and the quirks particular to a 100-year-old home in the city. The home was more than an address; it was part of who we were and had become.
But it wasn’t just the home. It was the address that meant something. Every address in the Salt Lake valley proceeds from the LDS temple. Our home at the corner of 800 East 900 South was nearly eight blocks east and nine blocks south of the temple. Our homes splayed out along the valley in a grid, where you always knew where you were in relation to the temple—and it was easy to find where you needed to go.
While Salt Lake City grew in racial, cultural, and religious pluralism, our addresses told a different story. We all—Mormon, Christian, atheist, none, secular humanist—had to coexist in a system and geography formed around the LDS faith. Places shape us. The geography of a place affects how we live and what we’re oriented around. While we may not have an address that overtly acknowledges a place’s cultural or religious center, our places nevertheless revolve around ideas, values, and institutions.
Places form us. It would be easy to wax poetic about place (from the goodness of farm-to-table local cuisine to neighborhood little libraries), yet ignore how many of us default to the unmoored, rootlessness of “space” over the specificity and banality of place. Let’s start here.
Space Over Place
Our habits of constant movement—from our car-centric lives to our distractibility—shape our souls.
For example, as a whole, we are a nation of commuters. Americans spend more time per year on their commutes than on vacation, where mega-commutes are common. More than 600,000 people spend at least three hours on their commute daily. The car (and our constant movement and our addiction to busyness) isn’t simply the way we get to work; the time spent bumper-to-bumper forms us. Drawing us away from local communities, commuter culture puts us in the no man’s land where we’re untethered from community and place. We exist in boxes of our own consumeristic makings—we choose the song or podcast and the temperature.
Our online habits similarly move us away from human connection and into liturgies of consumption. We scroll through Facebook and pause to comment on the politics of someone we used to know, swipe up on Instagram to buy, and consume someone’s life on YouTube as if a person were a flattened fictional story. Over the course of a week, the average internet user spends at least24-hours online and social media usage averages approximately 2.5 hours daily. We’ve read how Google is changing our neural pathways and the rate of teen depression increases with time spent online, particularly on social media platforms. While our experience of technology is complex, let us not think that the way we spend our time—whether in cars or on our phones—would bear no imprint on our souls.
The problem with our commuting or internet usage isn’t just environmental or social; it is spiritual. If, as Abraham Kuyper, said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!,” then our commuting and our internet habits aren’t just neutral factors that make up a life.
What is the allure of space over place? When we choose space over place, we believe we’re choosing the path of freedom: Here there are more options open, more purchases available to us, more connections with real people behind screens. We imagine that freedom is a life without constraints.
Yet freedom is never a freedom from; it’s a freedom for others. Wendell Berry helpfully articulates how the individual has two ways to turn: either to this rootless “space” typified by the “relatively unconditional life of the public” (where we pursue self-interest primarily) or toward the life of the household and community. Patrick Deneen writes in his fascinating book, Why Liberalism Failed, of the temptation of rootlessness: “We are increasingly shaped by technology that promises liberation from limits of place, time, and even identity.”
Our temporal habits that put us on autopilot not only inhibit our creativity but also numb our souls. As we detach from real people, real places, and even the ordinary banal moments of life—when we choose space over place—we also lose our spirituality. The spiritual life is always a concrete, embodied life. Might we re-imagine freedom to be less about me and more about us, more about choosing (when we can) the rooted, specific, concrete over the abstract?
Clearly, technology and commuting aren’t going away and neither are they the only challenges to faithful Christian witness in 21st-century America. But let’s carefully consider how such habits might form us more into consumers than rooted disciples.
A Theology of Place
Walter Brueggemann writes of the importance of place in The Land:
Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is a space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is a space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space.
In short, “place” in the context of faith is about relationship, history, covenant, and is one thread in the gospel narrative. Place is one way we know God, are enfolded into community, and are sent on mission.
Recovering place as a theological category (not simply as the setting where we live or “do ministry”) is a vital avenue for knowing God and his mission. It’s one framework to understand how we might begin to push back against the allure of rootlessness.
Rootedness in place is a part of the biblical story from the beginning. God gives place as a gift and as a way to know God. Humans are given Eden, the first home, the land, a place to steward and work in concert with God and each other. Part of God’s benevolence and care came through place, from the gifts of blue skies and dahlias to the surprise of pomegranates and cauliflower, through “every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” (Gen. 1:29).
More than that, the land was a way to know God’s character as provider and sustainer. God could only be known through the particular as he was “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). As we follow the story of Israel, the land—and not just land in general but a very specific patch of earth in the Middle East—becomes increasingly important in the story of redemption. With the Abrahamic covenant, the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17), is the tangible reminder of God’s care, provision, redemption, and restoration. A theology of place proceeds from creation.
A theology of place also proceeds from the incarnation. The “incarnation is also the death of abstraction,” writes Jen Pollock Michel in Surprised by Paradox. The incarnation shows us that God made himself known through the particular person of Jesus (as a first-century Jewish man in the Roman province of Judea). While we might long for an abstract God we can hold at a distance, the material particularity of Jesus shows us God comes to make himself known to his people in flesh and bone, blood and water.
Perhaps the stories feel worn, yet Jesus shows us how God heals and hallows the particular: He touches lepers, spits in mud to heal a blind man, breaks actual loaves that are then gathered up in baskets on a hill in Galilee. If Jesus entered into our world in a specific time, place, and body, then we cannot ignore these in a fabricated sacred/secular divide but instead recognize that the scandal of particularity is the vehicle for grace.
We know God in the particular rather than in the abstract. God still makes himself known through the concrete: through the natural world when we’re stunned by a hawk soaring overhead or the small pathway of a passing snail, when a line of poetry strikes us or a verse leaps from the page, through the gathering of his people throughout the world with handshakes, hugs, and our common experience of singing, hearing the word, and partaking week by week of bread and wine.
Similarly, we cannot love people in general; we can only love people in particular. I learn more of Christ by my husband, our four children, and our church, and I learn more of Christ as I walk my streets, meet my neighbors, and experience the beauty and pain of this particular neighborhood. We cannot simply know in a vacuum and without consequences; this type of abstracted knowledge won’t change the shape and form of our lives (or else we’ll be like what James calls a man who looks into a mirror and then forgets what he looks like).
When we’re tempted to abandon the knowing and loving of God and others for the (false) promises of limitless freedom, valuing a theology of place is an anchor to hold onto—something to tether us back into the community of the church, into our bodies, and into greater intimacy with God.
How Then, Shall We Live?
We are a placed people, existing in the middle space between the arrival of God’s kingdom in the person and work of Christ and the final fulfillment of his kingdom when God will again dwell with his people, not in an abstract placeless space, but in a particular place: a city whose measurements have been taken (Rev. 21:16). We long for rootedness and community, and yet we look for it in the empty promise of limitless space—in technological innovation or the dreams of unfettered freedom from all constraints so we may pursue our pleasure.
Our limits of time, place, and body are constraints that actually help us flourish as humans. They orient us to the fact that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that we are recipients of God’s showing up in the incarnation and his redemption of people, places, and things, not the gods of our own making.
As we struggle with frail bodies, as we bring a meal to our neighbors, as we walk dogs, and as we show up to city council meetings, we create a texture of belonging to a place. In countless mundane acts of staying put, we presume upon a narrative of grace—that God is already active and present where we are and that we are joyful participants in his kingdom.
Staying put in a place is one way we acknowledge our smallness before God and work toward the redemption of all things. One such story starts in 1986, when a native of Los Angeles, Father Gregory Boyle, chose to commit himself the neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles when he was ordained a priest.
Founding a school, daycare program, and then Homeboy Industries, Gregory Boyle showed by his life that he was committed to his place. Doing so means he is often considered on the wrong side: He did not follow the rules according to the police force, he seemed to be taken advantage of by former gang members, and he now suffers from leukemia.
When Boyle set down roots in Boyle Heights, gang membership in the city topped 90,000. Since then, that number has dropped significantly and amazingly, in a portion of the city known for the highest rates of juvenile gang violence, the neighborhood gangs didn’t riot in the 1992 riots.
When the LA Times asked Boyle why there were no riots in his neighborhood, he stated, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” As Homeboy Industries hired rival gang members and had them work together, slowly the landscape changed. The challenge of staying put is staying soft to the challenges and dependent on God as you recognize your small part of God’s larger plan.
Boyle’s compassion shines brightest in his tenderness toward the particularity of his place and calling. A reporter noted, “They [gang members] confided in Boyle like they would a priest inside a church confessional. He called each of them ‘mijo’ or ‘mija,’ and gave them a hug. Some he handed cash to help them out.” Daily, Boyle chooses to love the outcasts of his place through concrete action. When we commit to a place, we commit to people. To borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson, we commit to a long obedience in the same direction and in one spot.
Like Adam and Eve, we want to press against our limits of time, body, and place. We chafe against the particularity that God has given to each of us and yearn for the freedom to decide those details for ourselves. Yet, there is a higher call: to stay put rather than running away from place or problems means we have the invitation, as Scott Russell Sanders says, to “align oneself with the grain of your place and answer to its needs.”
Ashley Hales holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She is the author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP).