by Brian Walsh
A meditation on Isaiah 2.5-22
I’m pretty sure that my former colleague, Calvin Seerveld, coined that phrase.
Culture is not optional because there is no such thing as human life together that is not at heart a culture-forming enterprise. Human language, family structures, gender relations, economies, agriculture and creative expression is all culturally founded and culturally formative.
And for ancient Israel, culture making is at the very foundation of human identity. We are mandated to be fruitful, to multiply and to “fill” the earth.
That’s what culture is all about. It is a filling exercise. Not that the earth is empty, but that the human creature has the unique call to fill creation with cultural artifacts, traditions, institutions and relationships that serve to open up creational potentials. My friend Bob Goudzwaard calls this a process of disclosure.
And cities, are a societal, spatial, economic, political and aesthetic concentration of such cultural filling. Cities fill their geographical space with people, with transportation systems, with the arts, with buying and selling, with political structures, with homes and neighbourhoods, celebrations and community.
And so, it seems to me, that just as culture is not optional, so also is urban life not optional. For good or ill, the culture forming creature is invariably also a city-building creature.
Culture is not optional and cities are not optional.
Culture may not be optional, but neither is it determined. There are various ways in which we engage in culture-forming, various ways in which we can build cities. Indeed, there are various ways to engage in cultural and urban ‘filling.’
For example, if you fill your cities with fossil fuel burning automobiles, paving vast tracks of the land and prioritizing the automobile over public transit, bicycles, and pedestrian traffic, then you will create a noisy and smelly city with poor air quality that will be decidedly inhospitable to human species on foot and other species on wing. And this automotive filling of your city will have devastating implications for neighbourhood life (if you don’t walk, you don’t meet your neighbours), health and safety (just look at the statistics on injury and death, not to mention respiratory disease because of the car) and the city budget (the infrastructure for the automobile is decidedly more expensive than that of other modes of transportation).
Not all urban ‘filling’ is created equal. Indeed, much urban filling is decidedly deformative, closing down a rich urban life of diverse communities in a city that is socially, economically, ecological and culturally fruitful and sustainable.
And that is precisely what Isaiah is on about in our this text that hardly ever gets any attention.
The prophet perceives a city that is full.
There are the intellectual elite from various cultures, serving as advisors to the ruling authorities. The city is full of these consultants, all paid a handsome wage.
That they are earning their keep is evidenced by the economic wealth of this city. It is full of silver and gold, there is no end to their treasures. Isn’t that what cities are all about? Civic machines that generate wealth for the economic elite?
And once you’ve got that kind of wealth around, well then, of course you will need a strong police and military establishment in order to protect those treasures and those who hold that wealth.
But this prophet sees more.
This prophet sees past the shining towers of the financial district and the proliferation of condos for the wealthy while homelessness continues to plague thousands in his city.
He sees past the well-spoken educated classes with their fine economic analysis and cultural tastes, while the poor continue to struggle with literacy.
He sees past the rhetoric of tax reductions for the owners of cars and the smoke of budget cuts to libraries, homeless shelters and other social services.
He sees past the security establishment that keeps the G20 protestors in their place.
He sees past the ideology of the ruling classes with their endless treasures and security apparatus.
He sees past all of this and sees a city full not only of soothsayers, gold, horses and chariots – this is a city full of idols.
Humans are created in the image of God and called to fill the earth. If, in sin, we choose not to image God, we will still fill the earth.
Remember, culture is not optional.
But we will fill the earth, construct our culture, and fill our cities in the image of idols.
If we do not image God, then we will necessarily and inevitably bow the knee, subject our lives and construct our cities in service of graven images.
Call this “Biblical Anthropology 101.”
So far, this prophet is just a man with clear vision.
Anyone with eyes could see that this city had bowed the knee to idols in its urban planning, its priorities, its understanding of what makes for a ‘world class city.’
Anyone could see that lying behind that self-interested ideology, civic self-aggrandizement, and urban planning for myopic economic growth was idolatry.
But this prophet sees even more.
In the face of this world class city of education, wealth and security, in the face of this city full of idols, the prophet conjures up an impossible scenario.
It all comes crumbling down.
In a series of prophetic reversals the haughty eye is brought low,
…the proud and arrogant are humbled.
“It’s time for the horizons of the universe to be glimpsed even by the faceless kings of corporations” – and in that glimpse, it all comes crashing down.
“It’s time for chaos to win and walk off with the prize which turns out to be nothing.”
The civilizational order of this city, built as it is on idolatry, will collapse and chaos will reign.
Why? Why can’t such an urban experiment succeed?
Because God aligns himself against this city in all of its splendour,
…against this culture in all of its beauty,
…against this economy in all of its wealth,
…against this built environment in all of its arrogance.
Ten times, the prophet repeats that word – against, against, against.
And beyond the range of normal sight in this city of idolatry, the prophet sees that “the idols shall utterly pass away.”
These idols that exude such power, such permanence, such authority, will utterly pass away.
They will be so useless that when the collapse comes, when the arrogant and powerful are looking for a hole to crawl into, they’ll have to throw away their idols to the moles and the bats.
Empty handed, they will leave these unclean symbols of cultural filling for the pleasure of unclean animals. That’s all that they will be good for.
So culture is not optional.
And cities are not optional either.
But that means that we must struggle to maintain real options for our cultural and urban lives.
…Real options for a sustainable city.
…Real options for the shaping of communities of neighbourliness.
…Real options for a city full of creativity and imagination.
…Real options for a city of justice for the most marginalized.
…Real options for democratic freedom of expression.
…Real options for homemaking in secure housing.
…Real options for those excluded from power and opportunity.
…Real options for kids to play, to learn, to grow.
Culture is not optional, but idolatry will always close down our real options.
And so the prophet offers an alternative:
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord. (Is. 2.5).
Culture is not optional and urban life is not optional.
Let us be a people who seek the shalom of the city,
who seek a city of peace,
and who will build the city of God, in the light of the Lord,
in the light of his Word.