Seeking to understand and confront the aching needs of urban life?

Theology for an urban world
By David Smith
IVP. 288 pages. £16.99
ISBN 978 1 844 745 319

This is a magisterial book from David W. Smith, Senior Research Fellow at the International Christian College in Glasgow.

He is a former pastor, missionary lecturer and college principal. The book has a particular relevance in the light of two major events that have dominated the news in recent days, namely the riots in English cities and the fall of Tripoli. This, for me, added to the book’s value as it gave to it a prophetic edge. Not that it is an easy read, for it makes demands upon the reader that will repay the effort. The target readership is four-fold:

* Christians engaged in ministry in urban context;
* Christian academics in disciplines such as sociology, geography, architecture;
* Non-Christian academics and activists;
* Students taking courses in urban theology/ministry.

Two halves

This is a complex book that deeply challenges the reader. The author challenges the status quo and this is a fruit of his missionary service and years of deep reflection. The book is in two halves.

The first traces the challenges of an urban world, the birth and growth of the city, urban visions and nightmares, concluding with city sky lines and city meanings. This section was by far the most demanding part of the book. There were fascinating quotes by Aristotle such as on page 57: ‘Human beings exist within communities in order to “serve the purposes of moral prudence and virtue”, but if they lose their way and abandon those moral ends for which they are made, then man is a most unholy and savage being, and worse than all others in the indulgence of lust and gluttony’. And talking of citizens of a virtuous community, according to Aristotle: ‘Such a community depends on friendship; and where there is enmity instead of friendship, men will not even share the same path’. I read this while the riots were creating mayhem on English streets, CCTV was picking up hordes of young men mugging and stealing from an injured foreign student. The sight remains an indelible image of those terrible days. Not only the UK, but the civil war in Libya and the resultant horrors discovered following the fall of Tripoli to the rebels, tells the same story.

Biblical theology

The second half is more accessible as it is a biblical theological perspective of the city. Again the recent events made the reading of this book more urgent, more pressing. The author quotes from John Goldingay on page 146: ‘The pain, suffering and oppression of the psalm of lament are often those of the city… The city is supposed to be a place of safety, but it is not; so the Psalms challenge God to do something about it’. These quotes could be added to, and combined they are deeply challenging. The book will reward serious study.

Complex issues

David Smith encourages deep reflection on the many complex issues the city brings to us, and in this he would engage with others with multiple disciplines, Christians or not, such as geographers, historians, sociologists, planners and architects (see page 42ff). This is a controversial aspect of the book not all would appreciate. One such difficulty is the massacres in the Book of Joshua. Non-Christian academics would find this exceedingly distasteful. The author makes a good job of answering potential critics (see pp.135-137). For a fuller treatment of the massacres and other such ethical issues, see Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. In December 2008, a remarkable article appeared in The Times by Matthew Parris: ‘As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God’. This has to be regarded as the most amazing secular justification for mission that has been published in recent years. We need to pray for a similar piece of work to come from serious observers as to why the cities of the UK and beyond need God. And yet our hope is not for such an ‘honest’ secular appraisal (am I being cynical in not really expecting such an appraisal, as the competing clash of world views would make such an impartial analysis highly unlikely?), but for the living God coming in power to authenticate the gospel again in the hearts of his people and then the world. The fruit of this will occasion social justice, and urban renewal.

Time running out

But, as David Smith indicates throughout the book, there is not much time left. The simple truth is — we cannot go on as we are, although Western political rhetoric, ideological consumerism, and insecure global economic growth forecasts deny this reality. The riots in the UK and events in Libya cannot be ignored. Such events cast long shadows over this book, which is recommended reading for Christians who are serious in seeking to understand and confront the aching needs of urban life here and abroad.

Geoff Gobbett, 
retired urban pastor