I have wanted to write this column for quite a while but could never figure a clever way to evoke a suitable interest in the titles I am about to describe. I make no apology for my unfettered enthusiasm and my intentional effort to get these books sold and read. I will not try to be clever, but will hopefully have the quality of the books and the urgency of the topic speak for themselves.
I am thoroughly excited about a handful of books, though, and I want to start a movement of Christians reading them. There is a movement, actually, and I am confident that CCO staff and students, Jubilee conference groupies, “Christ & Culture” book junkies and other Hearts & Minds readers should join in. Yes, let me say it right from the start: you should buy these books, or get them from a library, start a book club, a reading group, a Sunday school class — read ’em with local business leaders, sociology majors, downtown pastors, hippies at the co-op, soccer moms and Nascar dads. Tell others. These books need to be known, these ideas applied, this movement advanced. I’m pounding my pulpit here, and I hope ya’ll listen.
What am I talking about? I am reluctant to say it — I’ve been holding back for months — for fear you will just stop reading, or find me too eccentric, suggesting you should read books on this. Please, hear me out: I am about to tell you about a great writer whose important books are very enjoyable and truly important on a number of levels. They are, I believe, deserving of all sorts of accolades (and I am not alone in thinking this). These books are really remarkable, as is the character who has written them.
For those who may not have heard of him, please allow me to introduce you to James Howard Kunstler, and to a few others in a constellation of authors who care about civic life, architectural space, and the inhumanity of suburban sprawl. They promote cultural renewal based on town and urban design, based on the aesthetics of charm, ecological sustainability, and resistance to growth and ugly landscapes.
The place to start is doubtlessly the tour de force of Mr. Kunstler, Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century (Touchstone, $13.00). It is caustic and nearly nasty, yet hopeful and at times quite pleasant. (It dawns on me that this is one of the things I so enjoy about his writing style — the pacing, here angry, there sympathetic, often prosaic and then powerfully flamboyant. What fun!) It is the best book to read about the movement now called “New Urbanism.”
After this, I’d recommend backing up to his first book of this sort, the historical analysis of the problem, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (Touchstone, $11.00). This hilariously and furiously slam-dunks the history of the ravaging of the human landscape created by auto-centric engineers, mega-planners and cartoonish suburban developers with no taste and little sense of moral duty.
Complete his trilogy with the recent City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, which beautifully describes some of the best cities on Earth. (Beautifully written, that is, except when he skewers unlivable places and clogged highway arteries, like Las Vegas, which he calls a “Utopia of Clowns” and Atlanta, which he thinks is nearly unredeemable.) I can’t promote these books too much or recommend him too heartily. He is right in so many, many important ways and you will understand your life and our times and the places we spend our times in and around better if you read him.
In a previous column, I mentioned the one-of-a-kind book, which offers a distinctively Christian approach to this movement, Sidewalks of the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith by Eric Jacobson (Brazos Press, $16.99.) It, too, is wondrous, urgent, prophetic and hopeful. It is a Godly call to faith-based renewal efforts at thinking through new ways of constructing and ordering our lives in towns and cities, villages and townships. It is the only book from a biblically-infused worldview which offers input into the conversation which has been so dramatically carried on by Kunstler et al. It offers theology, Bible study and an excellent summary of the work of the new urbanist movement. With a preface by Eugene Peterson, it makes an ideal study for adult Christian ed groups, campus fellowships or downtown workplace book clubs. As much as I commend it, and as useful as it is, there is something about Kunstler’s passion, rhetoric and deep, deep insight that is very compelling. I’d say you should read ’em both.
James H. Kunstler is where it’s at. He is witty, wise, and knows the big picture stuff. That is, the Big Picture Stuff, by which I mean, I guess, history and philosophy. Without appearing too academic, he takes side trips into the history of American expansion — frontier individualism and the lore of log cabins, the rise of railroad towns, the horror of American immigrant slums, post World-War II scientific optimism, the rise of the car culture — and the impact of all of this on the American imagination. Our literal civic space, our man-made environment (think dorms that look like fertilizer plants or concrete parks so unpleasant even the homeless don’t frequent them) is developed largely in light of (that is, driven by) certain philosophical presuppositions about right and wrong, about the role of beauty and the arts, about what constitutes progress, about truth. He explores these ideologies and practices, but always in the very most practical of terms; he talks about the width of streets and the shape of the typical household window, for Pete’s sake! (And he makes you care, too!) It is rare to find a book so learned, historically rich and aware of deeper philosophical questions that is so very down to earth. These books are examples of what we often try to promote in our bookstore (and what the CCO tries to live out in campus ministry): ideas that matter, deep thinking for the sake of responsible social change, prophetic cultural criticism rooted in a hopeful imagination.
Without intentionally standing in the Judeo-Christian tradition (he interestingly brings this up himself occasionally), Mr. Kunstler knows that ideas and principles matter and that confessing our presuppositions about right and wrong, beauty, truth and goodness is part of the game. He valiantly (with great volume at times — you can nearly hear his fist pounding the desk as he writes) exposes the arrogance with which we have discarded traditional ways of doing things over the past century as we’ve capitulated to the New Way of Modern Thinking. He knows a bankrupt cul-de-sac when he sees one.
For instance, listen here to this little whack, illustrating the ways in which contemporary worldviews are promoted through the universities who teach our urban planners and housing designers:
“This extraordinary incompetence [of not knowing older ways of wise practices] can be attributed to the education of architects rooted in Modernist dogma — which encourages them to be heroic geniuses before they become adept practitioners. The buildings of heroic geniuses must be like nothing ever seen before in history. They are also designed to exist in splendid isolation. They therefore occupy space rather than define space. They are anti-social by nature. They necessarily cannot fit into an established fabric of buildings by non-heroic non-geniuses.”
Yet, he does not come across as an old-school conservative, lambasting Democrats. He is more profound than that. In his fascinating and sensible proposals for different sorts of zoning codes, allowing small business and homes and public buildings to co-exist (universally forbidden in ubiquitous zoning laws across our land and the key to classic town life), he laments that we’ve thrown insights developed over centuries into the trash heap. In his description of the sorts of buildings that honor a street, and the sorts of streets that honor a town, he shows that this is not new thinking, but a return to tried and true wisdom, based on evolving experiences in civic art over hundreds of years. This really is amazing insight. It has literally effected my daily worldview.
After helpful pages giving helpful historical overview, he sometimes will summarize and lament:
“By the 1920s the stage was set for the wholesale abandonment of the cities, the adoption of a view that lead ultimately to the extreme separation of uses and the perversities of contemporary zoning laws, and the establishment of the anti-city known as suburbia. It was a view of the city as a place fit only for work and vice, and the suburb as the exclusive realm of the home — and a particular kind of home at that: the little cabin in the woods (and its mutant varietals), a recapitulation of the frontier experience, a way to avoid the burdens of civility.”
Not all of his social criticism is that general, though; just as a small sample, note his observations about the specific scam of too-small front porches:
“The front porch is regarded as an important and desirable element in some neighborhoods. It can be stated categorically that a porch less than six feet deep is useless except for storage. There is not enough room for furniture and the circulation of human bodies. Builders tack on inadequate porches as a sales gimmick for “curb appeal” so the realtor can drive up with the customer and say, “Look, a front porch!” The porch becomes an appliquÃƒÂ© cartoon stuck onto the house, like the little fake cupola on the garage. This saves the builder money in time and materials. Anyway, it is assumed that the street will be too repulsive to sit next to.
“Why do builders even bother with pathetic-looking, half-hearted cartoon porches? Apparently Americans desire, as least, the idea of a porch in order to pretend that they live in real communities. It reassures them symbolically that they’re decent people living in a decent place. Of course, the cartoon appliquÃƒÂ© only compounds the degradation of the public realm, making it evermore phony and unappealing.”
After an exceptionally germane rant on flat roofs — don’t even get me started! — he continues:
“To aggravate matters, the United States was so affluent after World War Two that we began to regard buildings as throwaway commodities, like cars. They weren’t built to last for the ages. So it didn’t matter much that flat roofs tend to leak after a few years, because by then the building would be a candidate for demolition. That attitude has now infected all architecture and development. Low standards that wouldn’t have been acceptable in our grandparents’ day — when this was a less affluent country — are today perfectly normal. The New Urbanism seeks to redress this substandard normality. It recognizes that a distinctive roofline is architecturally appropriate and spiritually desirable in the everyday environment.”
I heard Kunstler recently (do go if he ever comes near you — he does a great slide-show presentation), and he seemed haunted by the notion that our land may soon no longer be worthy of our affection to such a degree that it is no longer worth defending. He is dead serious about this stuff, and wants to recruit us all — you know that tipping point stuff — to be agents in a cultural reformation. Listen to his concern in the first pages of a great chapter simply called “Charm” and ask yourself if this isn’t worth discussing at your next small group meeting or Sunday school class:
“It is hard to imagine a culture less concerned than ours with the things that make life worth living. Much of what we esteem as life-enhancing and pleasure-giving tends toward the childishly self-destructive: fast cars, goopy micro-waved cheese snacks, prolonged television viewing, compulsive shopping, playing with guns, heavy drinking, kinky sex, to name a few. These are the fruits of political liberty in our time, and, so, tragically, liberty itself begins to seem a rather trashy thing.
“The physical setting that we Americans have lately constructed for our everyday lives reflects this trashiness. It is probably self-reinforcing, meaning the worse it gets, the worse we act, and the worse we act, the worse it gets. One could almost state that the everyday world of the United States seems designed to enable us to dwell in a condition of ever-diminished humanity”Â¦”
One of the reasons I so like Kunstler’s work is his awareness that our experience of daily life should matter, that our caring about things is related to their worthiness. Those of us who write about God’s presence in the ordinary and the spirituality of the mundane must surely recognize that the God of the Bible — creator, sustainer, redeemer — truly cares about the stuff of life, the artifacts of culture, the organization of living. Those choices are always more or less ordered in a coherent way, matching God’s intentions, or are developed in a more or less disordered manner, violating God’s creational ordinances, built into the fabric of things.
Therefore, choices about housing, rules about zoning, roof pitches, the upkeep of sidewalks, the placement of billboards and the like are never neutral or value-free. They are certainly not inconsequential. They reflect our deepest ideas and ideologies and idols. Christians know that Jesus Himself wants to be honored by the ordered of societal life (see Colossians 1:16-20 just for instance) and that neighbors are either served well or dehumanized by our civic spaces, public habits and cultural mores. A safe and well-designed street is a gift to not only our neighbor, but to the next generation who will inhabit our social structures. Shabby infrastructure creates cultural ennui and poisons the social fabric. Without using such theological rhetoric, Kunstler seems to know this. As he derides the secularized and gross materialism which makes for inhumane communities and calls for coherence to norms for charm and beauty, grace of design and human scale, I wondered if he has read Calvin Seerveld. Or John Calvin, for that matter.
I admit that there are a few pages of The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere that may be a bit too detailed for some reader’s tastes about the specifics of city design or home construction. A lot of folks will disagree with his condemnation of the automobile and the way cities have developed to accommodate traffic (and I am sure many will not agree with his repulsion to suburban cul-de-sacs). Still, even his telling of the TND ordinances as proposed under the New Urbanism is brief and entertainingly told. His story (in Home“Â¦) of the model city of Seaside, Florida (“Redesigning Hell”) is itself fairly technical about the details of a healthy town, but is nonetheless inspiring. All of us live in towns or places, after all, and we all have some sort of residence. I believe you owe it to yourself (and your neighbors, your children and, well, God) to spend some time thinking about the state of all of this. These books are the place to get started.
Like some ancient wise man, he tells us what we must know:
“We ought to know how to assemble a human habitat of high quality that equitably allows citizens of all classes to get around in a dignified, comfortable, even pleasurable manner, that gives children and old people equal access to society’s civic institutions, that produces safe neighborhoods for the well-off and the less well-off, that promotes a sense of belonging to a community, that honors what is beautiful, and which doesn’t destroy its rural and agricultural surroundings. This habitat comes down to us from history in the form of villages, towns and cities. The suburban sprawl model that has temporarily replaced these forms must be understood to be an aberration, an extreme and abnormal condition, as cancer is an abnormal condition in the tissues of the human body.
“”Â¦The transformation I propose will not be possible unless Americans recognize the benefits of a well-designed public realm and the civic life that comes with it, over the uncivil, politically toxic, socially impoverished hyper-privatized realm of suburbia, however magnificent the kitchens and bathrooms may be there. I don’t believe that we can be an advanced society without cities. Tragically, American cities have become unworthy of the American republic. Our task is to make them worthy, to reconstruct them in a physical form that is worth caring about, and to reinhabit them”Â¦
“The common good demands a public realm in which to dwell. It can’t sustain itself merely in our hearts or memories. This is, finally, the sentimental fallacy of the suburban patriot: that hanging a cast-iron eagle over the garage door proves you care about your country.”
Some of our readers have heard that I spoke at the CCO-sponsored Jubilee conference last year, inviting students to integrate faith and life, to think faithfully — like Daniel in Babylonian exile — and take up their callings and careers in service of Christ’s Kingdom. I ended with what I hoped was a moving modern reflection on the promise in Isaiah 58:12 that says that such people will be known as those who repair the broken down walls and rebuild the uninhabitable cities into a new Earth. I played the wonderfully passionate Bruce Springsteen song “My City in Ruins,” which becomes a prayer that God would use our hands to accomplish just such a big, healing task of restoration.
Perhaps Jackson Browne’s mid-’70s anti-nuclear anthem, “Before the Deluge,” would make similarly appropriate listening as you ponder how to get home from nowhere. If we are to rebuild the fallen cities — even those that still gleam in the bright day of suburbia — we will need such poets. (U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Names” isn’t a bad tune to recall, either, since it is widely known that Bono and the boys come from a city terribly disfigured, mostly from the names of the streets — the Catholic side, the Protestant side — and they dared to dream of that City where such injustice is no longer feared.)
And, again, we will need such thinkers and analysts and prophets as James Kunstler. Add in some Wendell Berry (nearly anything — poetry, novels, essays, but perhaps start with the fine collection Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community), Neil Postman (especially his Technopoly, which reminds us to be “loving resistance fighters”), books by Christian urban activists like Bakke, Campolo and Sider, and stir in the essential At Play in the Fields of the Lord: A Calvin Seerveld Reader (mentioned here often) to get a reformationally-gritty and biblically-informed vision of the role of the arts and beauty and quality — heck, pick up the quick-read and deliciously sarcastic Addicted to Mediocrity by Franky Schaeffer to recall how people of faith once nourished an authentic renaissance.
Regularly re-read the nature writers like Wes Jackson (Becoming Native to This Place reminds us to care well for our own backyard) and check out the essays of Brian Walsh that are often recommended in this column, Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time, along with a couple of evocative Bible studies by Old Testament heavy-weight Walter Brueggemann — say, The Prophetic Imagination and The Hopeful Imagination and you have yourself a recipe ripe to change our world.
If you’d like a very pleasant entry into some of these concerns in a delightful and easy-to-read book (the sort you might send your grandma), dip into the engaging Wasn’t the Grass Greener? Thirty-three Reasons Why Life Isn’t As Good As It Used to Be by Barbara Holland. Like her great Endangered Pleasures, she is having not only a good time doing brief journalistic pieces on “the good old days,” but is doing serious-minded cultural critique of the ravages of modernity. See what she has to say in her short meditations on everything from idleness, election nights, desks, playing cards, sneakers and even pranks.
Get back into the flow of studying the trends and the cultural consequences of ideas — with a hilariously witty and extraordinary writer — by looking at the admixture of philosophies in American culture. Devour the stunning Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks. This amusing and pointed study reflects on the odd combination of the bourgeoisie and the bohemian (rationalists and romantics) who have now found a unified expression in “bobos.” This is a book that has to be read to be believed — he calls it “comic sociology” — and I think it is dead on.
Cap off this plan with some heavy reading, such as the varied and important pieces in the collection Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance, edited by Don Eberly (Eerdmans; $35.00). That, as I have said before, is an important handbook covering so many different topics — concern for the poor, communitarian strategies, concerns about journalism, the arts and the media, even stuff on the reformation of manners, fashion and matters of modesty and the like.
Reading like this is the mandate and struggle for those who have a Kingdom vision broad enough to honor the Lordship of Christ across the whole spectrum of society. These are the sorts of books we must read if we are going to be agents of authentic and lasting transformation in our lifetime. I hope I am not misunderstood when I say that these sorts of books are weapons in the war of our times. Now, more than ever, we must arm ourselves well.
What does it look like?
There is an expression I hear a lot these days, mostly from my younger friends. When confronted with a new idea, doctrine, dream or notion, they ask, “What does it look like?” It is a good question, having to do with practicality, next steps, concrete application. I must say that the trilogy of books by James Kunstler surely include answers to that question, on two levels.
Firstly, as I have said, Home From Nowhere explains just what sort of equipment is needed for a humane habitat. That is, do we need more franchise Fry-Pits, giant parking lots for the Big Box stores and multi-lane expressways to connect our suburban pods to all these monstrosities? Or do we need good cafÃƒÂ©s in well-made buildings, a variety of independent shops and sustainable transportation systems? We all know of the need for community, but what kind of places facilitate caring human contact? The ideas and ideals of the new urbanism really do answer these questions with very wonderful, material specificity.
In the above review, though, I did not describe the remarkable second half of Home from Nowhere, which answers the question, “What does it look like to make this a reality?” These latter chapters include story after inspiring story of citizens who made decisions to care about their communities. It highlights the dogged and creative work of city planners, civil engineers, architects and environmentalists, each fighting in their own way the battle to create normative social space. These stories are not, granted, Band of Brothers in scope, although they all have a heroic David vs. Goliath feel; these are heroic folks, fighting against the heavy odds of vested interest and old paradigms, working, quite literally, to create a new world.
Those of us who desire to see people of faith enter the fray of local politics as agents of God’s restorative intentions could learn much by studying these final chapters, which document the hopes and hazards of local politics (learning about what Kunstler calls “the preposterous and appalling”). This is where the battle for decency is often fought — against specific developers, cajoling local zoning boards, negotiating with hot shot bankers.
Sooner or later, good friends, we and our students will have to learn the art of this battle. The closing stories, the lessons learned, the colorful characters that Kunstler tells about are an essential part of this book. To see “what it looks like” finally means joining organizations and movements to make it happen. You can even road trip to the neighborhoods and cities he describes. Not only does Kunstler show us exactly where and how this is happening, but he makes it sound, at times, like a whole lot of fun.