The course that I mentioned to you last week on Christian Faith, the City and the Arts ended this week. We spent considerable time in the conclusion to the class exploring New Testament texts and God’s project in human history seeking to discern both the place of city and the arts. Rather than hidden themes as many exegetes contend, the very forms of the texts themselves, indicate the high place that narrative – therefore the arts – play in the unfolding of God’s great love affair with humanity and the city. We explored parables as stories. We saw how Paul profited from a very unique vocation as a leather worker to do mission. Re-read the story of Lydia in Acts 16 and visualize this entrepreneurial woman involved in the import-export business developing purple dye to create fine linens for a bourgeois crowd in “the leading city of the district.” But one cannot leave the texts without contemplating Revelation 21-22 and seeing the utter beauty of the celestial city that God is building for his people right now.
All of this was accompanied by hours of listening to free jazz concerts in the centre of the city. It makes for a wonderful context to learn how to listen to jazz and appreciate it as North America’s indigenous musical innovation. A true gift of Afro-American culture to humanity!
But cities are not always contexts of invigorating learning – they also suffer. I am writing from Toronto where I have spent two days with a wonderful group of Canadian colleagues exploring what sustainable urban community development looks like in our nine largest cities. The last two nights I benefitted from the stay to walk neighbourhoods in distress; communities in the shadows of one of the worlds’ most fascinating multi-cultural contexts. Toronto is in day 25 of a municipal workers strike so there has been no garbage collection. Because I work and teach in Haïti, this is not all that unique in the global scheme of things – but it does raise the level of stress in which the poor of Toronto live.
All of this reminds me of the final question that God raises in a rhetorical fashion at the conclusion of Jonah. “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” In Mesopotamian cultures, cows represented the economy. God had a double concern. He cares for the great populations of our cities but he also cares for the very structures of our communities.
Urban missiologists have fun in their vocation – they also ache for people and places.