The Subversive City


We have an inbuilt, deep seated desire to belong.  Humans are social creatures, we look for company, we seek to build partnerships. We are at our best when we work together.  We have a desire to create, to build, to develop and improve.

That’s why we have towns and cities.  People cluster together in small villages but also in great urban conurbations.  It’s a global phenomenon.  Our urban conurbations in the UK include

–           (Population 8.5 million)

–          Greater Manchester (Population 2.5 mission)

–          The West Midlands (Population 2.4 milllion)

–          West Yorkshire (Population 1.7 million)

–          Greater Glasgow  (Population 1.2 million)

These are dwarfed by the populations of cities around the world.For example, Beijing has a population of 21 million, Delhi 16.3 million and Cairo, 18.2 million.

City building is also a historical phenomenon going right back to the early civilisations of Mesopotamia including Ur and Babylon.  It’s a Biblical phenomenon.  Adam’s son Cain is listed as the first City builder.

“7 Cain had sexual relations with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Then Cain founded a city, which he named Enoch, after his son. “[1]

The association with Cain gives city building a negative connotation.  This is reinforced by the next significant mention of a city in Genesis 11

“At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words. As the people migrated to the east, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia[a] and settled there. They began saying to each other, “Let’s make bricks and harden them with fire.” (In this region bricks were used instead of stone, and tar was used for mortar.) Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.”[2]

This attempt to build a city marks continued sin and rebellion against God after the Flood. It arises out of humanity’s desire to make their own name great and to resist God’s command to spread out in order to fill and subdue the earth.  Babel’s origins are rooted in the Genesis 3 temptation to try and be like God by going against his command.

What we are seeing here is that City building is an expression of a genuine felt need, out of good desires, dreams and aspirations for company, to create, to achieve something permanent and lasting. However, city building is characterised by idolatry. We look for these dreams and aspirations to be met in the wrong way and the wrong place.

The result is that cities become places filled with sin like Sodom and Gomorrah and Nineveh.  Cities are characterised by exploitation, pollution, crime, poverty, overcrowding and squalor.  Our desire to gather in cities competes with our responsibility to spread out and fill the earth but also with our responsibility to care for and steward the whole of creation. If Genesis 2 provides a garden as the paradigm of life in a good and fruitful creation then cities seem to provide the opposite. Cities are places with little space for rivers, trees, fruit and shade. If the highpoint of Creation is God’s sabbath rest, then cities counter rest with 24 hour busyness, long working days with little down time and the need to constantly pursue noisy pleasure.

In previous articles I have written about subversive fulfilment. This phrase was coined by Hendrik Kraemer and it expresses the missiology/apologetic approach of theologians including JH Bavinck, Cornelius Van Til, John Frame, Tim Keller and Dan Strange. The premise is that we have hopes, dreams and aspirations which

  1. Can only be truly fulfilled in Christ
  2. Need to be subverted, or changed around first because outside of Christ are idolatrous, sinful and distorted.

A little while back I started to sketch out an urban subversive fulfilment approach.  I wanted to revisit that here because If we want to develop a true urban subversive fulfilment, we want to think not just about the communities and individuals that live in our cities and their individual aspirations but also what makes cities/urban areas exist in the first place and the ideologies, beliefs, hopes and fears that they represent.

Furthermore, I believe that there is a specific Biblical theme which enables us to both to subvert and fulfil the urban dream.  We find it in Revelation 21-22

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

Our hopes, dreams and aspirations are fulfilled in the new, heavenly city, Jerusalem.  Revelation 21-22 show us how this City provides that. The city is a place where people can gather and find safety. It is a beautiful city built from precious stones and metals.  This city represents the truth that fulfilment is found in Christ alone. The city is centred on him.

And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light.”[3]

This City provides true fulfilment because it subverts the distorted and idolatrous desires of humanity. It is a city where there can be rest, peace and healing.[4] It is a place where evil people and evil deeds are excluded

 “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.”[5]

The result is that the need for a city and the need for a garden are no longer in conflict. As many Biblical Theologians have pointed out, the movement on Scripture is from Garden to Garden City.

“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the centre of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”[6]

Now, the image of a new Jerusalem is eschatological and it points us forward to the day when Christ returns and everything is put right.  However, it is also worth remembering that the description is not of a physical city. Rather, this is the bride, made perfect, dressed and ready to meet her husband on her wedding day. So, if true fulfilment will be seen when Christ returns, there are also foretastes and precursors already available now in the Church.

This is one of the reasons why we plant churches in our inner cities and on our urban estates. There in these local churches, city dwellers can start to hear about and to see something of an alternative city. A city that subverts their worst nightmares and fulfils their best dreams.

[1] Genesis 4:7.

[2] Genesis 11:1-4.

[3] Revelation 21:23. See also 22:3-5.

[4] Revelation 22:2-3.

[5] Revelation 21:8.

[6] Revelation 22:1-2.