Books on a theology of place are becoming popular, attempting to marry theology and missiology to one’s geography. No doubt, in a culture that’s become highly mobile and now increasingly digital, a yearning for roots and place is popping up in our discussions at community groups or the pub.
Canadian Leonard Hjalmarson’s latest book is something of a travel guide to understanding humanity’s longing for place. Part journal, biblical theology, cultural analysis and vision casting, No Home Like Place helps us understand why and how we lost our roots. Hjalmarson then paints a biblical framework for why place matters, so we can rediscover it and live it out in the everyday and the strategic.
Adjunct seminary professor at three schools and graduate of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Hjalmarson dialogues with a plurality of voices and literary genres. His previous three books focus on missional spirituality and the church.
In this book, he weaves through Walter Brueggemann, Michel de Certeau, Philip Sheldrake, John Inge, Craig Bartholomew and more. He seems equally comfortable in the fields of anthropology, culture, urbanism, missiology and theology. This interdisciplinary work appeals to the theological and missiological mind, but is equally practical for Christ followers who long to understand why the call to discipleship is not merely beyond the walls of the church but within the borders of their city and street.
Hjalmarson admits his own longing for roots increased with his constant moving across provinces and states. He understands the importance of place.
One of his main concerns is that “our loss of ability to see place as a category in its own right, preferring the universal over the particular, daily impacts our ability to partner with God on mission.”
He desires that we can “move beyond the dualism of sacred and secular to recover a sacramental way of seeing,” so that our understanding of holiness becomes “much larger than heaven, because ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’”
Hjalmarson helps us explore what place is by attempting to peel off the blinders to what’s right in front of us. Too often “the ordinary is transparent to us; we tune it out.”
He first builds his theology of place through the biblical themes of creation and covenant in the Old Testament – which includes sub-themes of Sabbath, shalom and land. He emphasizes the creation (and cultural) mandate of building society where our vocations lead us to be like priests in all spheres of life – business, transportation, medicine, homes, etc. This is tied to mission: “a Christian theology of mission is inherently creational – is placed.”
Hjalmarson believes the themes of covenant and land continue into the New Testament. Where authors like John Inge only see land as a backdrop in the Old Testament, Hjalmarson believes it demands more of our attention because of its importance in biblical history.
I haven’t made up my mind if a priority of land continues into the New Testament. The theological foundation Hjalmarson builds could have equal strength through his attention to the incarnation and eschatology. “Incarnation is more than a radical entry into materiality,” he writes, “it is a radical affirmation of the particular.”
Regarding eschatology, Hjalmarson reminds us that the new heavens, earth and Jerusalem will reflect a redeemed community. This demonstrates that place will still matter in the restored creation. He calls us – as we anticipate the coming kingdom – to act now, in our place, for its good, with an eye for God’s future while keeping a stake in our present ground.
Hjalmarson encourages the reader to begin practising place through parish ministry, the Eucharist and local discipleship.
He then expands the reach of an understanding of place to politics, the public square and the urban landscape. He goes on to call our attention back to tradition, sacred symbols, church architecture and the arts.
Coming from a church that has met in rented facilities and homes for more than 10 years and served the community through more locations than I can count, I have found that local mission and community is possible without some of those values. However, his points are well taken.
Church planters and pastors who’ve adopted the popular expression of God’s mission as the “restoration of all things” will feel at home here, but with much to challenge and encourage them.
Pastors will find needed inspiration and insight to help lead their church to more holistic incarnational ministry, but not in a latest trend kind of way. They’ll discover a more robust biblical framework for why.
This book can help any follower of Christ understand the value of place in their own life and how they can follow Christ into their neighbourhood, city and world.
David Manafo is pastor at Westside Gathering, Montreal. He blogs at www.davidmanafo.com.
Note: an updated edition was release in March 2015.