Friday, November 30, 2012

Conn the Optimist

More on Harvie Conn's last published work - written with Manuel Ortiz - Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God  (Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 2001). 

There is much that is very helpful in this book. Part 2 contains a number of insights into the biblical persepcitves of the city. In complete contrast to Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), however, Conn is at pains to point out the positive of city building in the Bible. He asserts that the cultural mandate may just as well be termed an ‘urban mandate’ (p. 87). “...the founding of the first city will be one of the first achievements of this enduring mandate to expand the borders of the garden (Gen 4:17,” says Conn, rather than the act of rebellion as Ellul sees it as. But he is not completely optimistic; the city can symbolize contrasting attitudes: “So the heart builds a city either in defiance of God (Gen 11:4) or out of covenant obedience” (p. 93).

In Part 3, Understanding the City, Conn wants to repudiate a negative view of the city that sees it purely as a place of chaos. So he reports the finding of the classic 1968 study of Taylor Street in Chicago by Gerald Suttles: “He noted a social order structured around ecologically settled ethnic areas” that produced a “stable moral order” in which “graffiti at the strategic corners was a means for youth gangs to mark off their territoriality and zones of safety” (p. 171). One wonders whether the graffiti also marked off the territory of gangs and their control of the drugs trade but Conn doesn’t even suggest that as a possibility. Is Conn being naive here? I think so. The city is a place of order that we often may not be able to discern. That reflects on our prejudice and lack of careful observation and reflection. But, as Conn would no doubt have acknowledged, it is not a sinless order. Where there is order, there is also disorder, the inevitable consequence of rebellion against the ordered Creator. While not being unremittingly down on the city, we must avoid the other extreme of urban naivete.

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