The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built EnvironmentWritten by Eric O. Jacobsen Reviewed By Matthew Sleeman
In this fine addition to Baker's 'cultural exegesis' series, Jacobsen bridges the gap between biblical exegesis and urban studies. As such, this book will open our eyes to the world around us which we have made and which daily makes us. It challenges the exegete to ground their work within the built environment and extends a daring invitation for urbanists to consider the Bible as a meaningful contributor in their work. On both these fronts, Jacobsen's book is fruitful, and worthy of a wide readership.
The title, 'The Space Between', carries a double meaning. It alludes both to the built environment which, as more than architecture or town planning, is also concerned with relationships between buildings within a wider sense of 'enacted space', and to the eschatological time and space which our urban forms occupy, between Christ's first and second comings to earth. It is perhaps too much to expect one book to fill this space, but Jacobsen certainly spans the gap and heralds ongoing theological reflection and praxis. As a biblical scholar-pastor I find his book very stimulating, and would have rejoiced over it when I was a young Christian geographer. It builds well on its assertion of one unified kingdom, not two kingdoms, lived coram deo, before the face of God. This framework implicitly owes a lot to Dutch neo-Calvinist Reformed thought and is very apposite for the topic in view as it threads through the course of Jacobsen's work.
The frame of the book is wide-ranging. After an introduction to the built environment, which deftly introduces this focal concept, three sections follow. The first, 'Orientation', consists of four chapters which set the big picture in place. At its essence, this opening section probes who we are in our world: are we human beings or merely automobile operators? This dichotomy is firmly grasped and cast as reflecting a conundrum facing twenty-first-century America. Jacobsen's perspective is clear: we are made for embodied existence and for bodily faithfulness to God, and our locations are not to be sped through nor structured in such a way that life in them is impossible without a car. Such built environments diminish life for both pedestrian and driver, whether assessed at the scale of functional zoning or on the ground in widening curb radii on road junctions. A porch on the front of a house, where passers-by can be greeted, is to be preferred over a Porsche in the garage, ready to drive to other, relationally disconnected spaces. This big picture includes a history of modern urbanism, especially as developed in post-war USA, interwoven with a Christian worldview within a creation-fall-redemption framework.
These chapters develop well, and these two poles are well-integrated within a cultural exegesis. The pay-off is mutually enhancing and generative for further engagement. At some points, however, I wondered to what extent this was a Christian engagement with the built environment or, more limitedly, an engagement with American built environments. The degree to which this is description or criticism of this book will vary for different readers, but for this transatlantic reader terms such as 'exurb' needed explaining when they were first used (p. 34), rather than some pages later (p. 49). 'Strip mall', I don't think ever was explained. There is some potential for misunderstanding in cultural translation, and timely and adequate explanation of terms would enable the readership this book deserves. Such gripes are small-usually a quick trip to Wikipedia is enough to gain clarity-but this rootedness in the North American context also endured at a larger analytical scale. Quite likely, this will be a strength for this book if North America is its target audience. But further works more reflective of, for instance, a British setting remain to be written. If this book provokes their writing, that will be a fine thing.
The book's second section, 'Participation', contains chapters addressing family, politics, and church. Again, this worked well within its North American context. As earlier, this strength can tilt into a weakness, with non-American examples such as Wilberforce and the Clapham community remaining isolated from their contexts, and there was, I thought, a risk of romanticising a 'parish' model of church. Nevertheless, again there is much in these chapters to feed thoughtful application into non-American contexts, even if the usefulness of Jacobsen's engagement will be all the stronger closer to home.
A final section, 'Engagement', is wide-ranging and less immediately focused, but draws out many and varied implications from the preceding chapters. Overall, it and the final chapter on 'a geography of rest' left me better equipped to live in, and to read, the built environment Christianly. The book finishes strongly, with the hope that readers 'are beginning to see new possibilities for the redemption of all creation' while waiting 'expectantly for Christ to reign over all in the space between.'
As mentioned above, I hope this book will be a spur and catalyst for far more Christian engagement of this kind, whether that be at the macro-scale of policy and lobbying, or at the local-scale of lives lived Christianly within the built environments we have at present. Jacobsen has clear likes and dislikes within the built environment: functional zoning with its car-based dependencies and corrosions of community is rebuffed, but New Urbanism is not fully and uncritically embraced. This nuanced deliberation, especially when run though the multiple scales and lenses in the book's second section, promises much engagement yet to come. We all need more engagement such as Jacobsen offers and demands, characterised by his helpful synthesis and vision, and warmed by his pastoral concern mixed well with analytic insight.
Oak Hill Theological College
London, England, UK