The Persistence of Place: Reflections on Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell
Some of the most important aspects of life are those we often overlook. Many of us, to some extent, acknowledge that it is during illness that we realize we’ve taken good health for granted. For example, looking death in the eye, even the wealthy and famous often concede: “I wish I had spent more time with my family.” Committed Christians also find themselves repeatedly confronted with the theme of remembrance as they read the Scriptures. We simply forget things.
Some could point to the frenetic pace of modern life as an excuse for our forgetfulness and myopia. Still others could blame the American educational system. Whatever the scapegoat, finding a culprit for these subtle sins won’t mitigate the damage created by failing to notice the important parts of life. Such is the plight of place.
In Craig Bartholomew’s words, “Place is a rich, thick concept which is notoriously difficult to define” . Yet thankfully, in his new book Where Mortals Dwell, he attempts to thoroughly explore and articulate a Christian view of place for today. In the introduction, he helpfully provides three fundamental descriptions for what is meant by ‘place.’
- First, what it means to be human at its heart is to be in place. Because we are embodied creatures, being situated in a physical context is unavoidable.
- Second, place is something that “results from the dynamic interaction of humans and their particular locations” . It is also “shaped and constituted by the activity of the humans who dwell in it” .
- Third, like number two, place is a “part of our actual lived, everyday experience” . We might say that place is historical, geographical, social, and cultural in nature.
It is from these three key descriptions that Bartholomew embarks on a 300+-page journey to describe place in the Bible (part 1), place in the western philosophical and Christian traditions (part 2), and a practical Christian view of place for today (part 3). Thus, Bartholomew will be my key conversation partner throughout this essay.
Place as Identity
One would be hard-pressed to argue that place is insignificant. After all, why is it that Baptists are largely a phenomenon in the southeast, and Lutherans in the Midwest? Why do United Methodists in rural areas tend to be more conservative than those in cities? Why do people enunciate their vowels differently in South Carolina than those in Washington? These are just a few of the thousands of trends in American culture one could probe historically, socially, or theologically. Regardless of one’s findings, from a simple observational standpoint, these social and religious patterns tend to hold true. Places then matter in the most practical sense because they all are unique.
We don’t think, love, work, or flourish apart from meaningful places. This is why professors care whether their offices have a window or not. It is why the young man ponders, with great anxiety, where best to propose to his prospective wife. It is why we cover bare walls and are territorial about our personal space. Space is tied to the social dimensions of who we are as selves. That is, we are defined by more than just genetics and immaterial souls, but by a body that has a history as well. Fundamentally, the places of our lives are related to our self-understanding—our identity.
Christians see their identity as rooted primarily in their union with Christ (Eph. 2:5-6, 13, 20). However, they have good reason to see physical place as biblical as well. From Genesis to Revelation, place matters. God does not relate to people in some otherworldly vacuum, but in the contours and structures of places. In Exodus 24, “Mount Sinai is the place where God is present in a dynamic way to his people, who are encamped around the mountain” . Later it is the Tabernacle and then the Temple that are the unique places of spiritual orientation for Israel. In the New Testament, it is the assembled people of God that constitute the church wherever they may be . And while worship does not require a specific place set aside for the gathered church, “neither is a house essential to a family or an auditorium to an orchestra” . However, clearly normal social and cultural development “as we experience it would require that a church would sooner or later require a building of its own” . Finally, a crucial aspect of our spirituality is to long for the place that God has prepared for us (Isa. 65:17-25; 66:22-24; 2 Pt. 3:10-18; Rev. 21).
Place as Belonging
As mentioned above, our identity in some way is wed to the place we inhabit or from which we originate. Interestingly, this conclusion tends to function as an unstated assumption in all our minds. While some would argue that place is merely ‘social’ or ‘economic’ in nature, I would contend it is very much a theological assumption. While the secular-minded in America would deny this, Christians know that humans were made and emplaced by God’s very design (Gen. 1-2; see ch. 1). Yahweh exiled people from a perfect place for their disobedience. This God covenanted with a particular people, calling them out of one place while leading them to a special, promised place (ch. 3) . When given the opportunity to enter that place and inhabit it rightly, they made a mess of things (chs. 4-5). It is to the future that they now look for a renewed place in which to live.
This theological backdrop is important because (a) it is God’s story concerning humanity and place, and (b) it informs our reflection on contemporary problems. We’ve been vividly reminded of what those problems are because of the current housing crisis in America. It began a few years ago with the government insisting that lenders offer low-interest mortgage loans such that more families could purchase homes as opposed to renting or living elsewhere. Regardless of how one views these developments politically, legally, and economically, they should not obscure the important assumption shared by those involved: Where people live matters. It has an inestimable bearing on whether people will flourish or flounder.
Place as a Contemporary Challenge
Without question, sorting through all the implications of place is a challenge. There are many ways one can take certain social observations and then forge sweeping, domestic policies to address the issues. I agree with Bartholomew in that our theology of place should certainly inform how we envision public life in the world we inhabit. What Bartholomew is aiming toward in Where Mortals Dwell, however, is a bit different. He believes that when Christians ignore the profound significance of place, their practices and habits can denigrate this place God has made for us to enjoy and steward . While we could ignore how crucial attending to places and spaces of life are, this is an all-important challenge we must confront.
The question of time and space will continue to form our perception of place. As modern technologies increasingly facilitate our efficiency and fuel our penchant for speed, our ability to attend carefully to the importance of place in life will be diminished. Yet there are still other forces with which we will have to contend. Globalization, like modern technology, is another force that erodes spatial and cultural distinctions once peculiar to particular places. We must acknowledge these patterns if we are to recognize our unique challenge: the challenge of creatively pushing back against cultural forces that we, unwittingly, may embrace or assume despite the dangers .
Bartholomew rightly calls his reader to balance. He says that while we must be careful not to lapse into some form of nostalgic romanticism about the past, we must also resist accepting all disordered aspects of the creation as “just the way things are.” God is making all things new. We must be careful in our emphasis on God’s Kingdom rule not to lose sight of the fact that that rule is extended over an actual realm . In light of this, followers of Christ must recognize that the New Jerusalem is a physical reality that does not abrogate our attention to place here and now. Rather, it reminds us that the central way that God shows us His unfailing love, perhaps, is by giving us a place in which to live, know Him, and worship Him.
 Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 2.
 Bartholomew, 3.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 293-297.
 Ibid., 293.
 Jeremy Craft’s recent essay on the covenantal framework of Scripture provides some helpful insights in this area.
 Bartholomew, 309-313.
 Ibid., 248.
 Ibid., 99-101. I suspect some would be a bit anxious over what I mean by “realm.” However, I think everyone who emphasizes the “rule” aspect of the kingdom of God presupposes that rule extends over the realm of creation, and the earth specifically. However, some downplay realm, lest it be inappropriately applied. See Bartholomew for more on this.
Further Recommended Reading:
Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
Walter Brueggemann, The Land
Ed Casey, Getting Back into Place
T.J. Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment
John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place
Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred