2 Days to Exegeting A City

I write this from a café in London. I arrived in this amazing city less than 24 hours ago, and am going to be getting on a train out of town in just a couple hours. Not a lot of time for all things touristy, which is fine by me, because I’m a terrible tourist (and proud of that).

Good tourists, though, use an array of guidebooks that can take you on a tour of any given city according to their favorite criteria – “London on $5 a Day!” or “Top Ten Restaurant Experiences in New York” or “The Two Day Guide to Copenhagen.” I haven’t ever read those guides, but I’m sure they’re fun ways of learning a city if you on a limited time frame and/or budget.

As a blue collar missiologist/theologian, I’m much more interested in the process of “reading” a city than I am in seeing the important tourist sites. I like to observe cultures, especially through the lens of the Kingdom of heaven. I like to look for signs of how people organize their lives, and where there are signals of the Kingdom breaking through, as well as some places where there are ripe opportunities for Kingdom breakthroughs. Since I’m only a blue-collar missiologist/theologian, I don’t have an elaborate, formal process I go through – instead, I just feel my way around cities. Excellent books have been written on this topic . . . but I don’t believe I’ve ever read any of them (lazy me!).

But here are a few things I look for when I’m reading a city, including my own city. I love the energy and movement of cities – they’re a never-ending movement of meanings. Caveat – I’m going to just rattle off a list from the top of my head in no particular order, so it’ll be incomplete. Feel free to add to my list in the comments, or challenge my approach.

– Transportation: How people move around in their daily lives says a lot. Do most people drive everywhere? Do they take the bus? Subway? Bicycle. This communicates how much physical contact they have with others, and how interdependent they are as a culture. There are many implications.

– Diversity: Is this city largely monocultural? In our globalized world, every major city has a vast array of ethnic groups present, but are they all visible? For example, Seattle has many subgroups of people, but walking around in 80% of the city, you’d never know it. It looks like a bunch of white people, who may like eating Thai/Japanese/Indian food, but they don’t necessarily like making friends with Thai/Japanese/Indian people.

– Local Media: Pay attention to the local newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, internet sites – both the “respectable” kind and the alternative kinds that you find for free at convenience stores. What kind of stories do they publish? Heavy attention on local politics vs. national politics vs. global issues? How interested are they in the arts? Do they thrive on gossip? What do the advertisements indicate about materialism (whether good or bad)? Is the local media content generated locally or is most of it imported from a different city/country/culture?

– Arts: Does the city value public expressions of art? What kind of stories do the public art pieces communicate? Mainly monuments to local/national heroes or abstract pieces aimed at engaging the imaginations of passers-by?

– Religion: How far down any given city street do you have to go before seeing a church/temple/mosque? Are these places of worship populated more by locals or by tourists? Do the locals identify themselves closely with the local religious expressions? Was the city very religious at one time, but now there are just relics of bygone eras? Do the religious leaders behave as though they have influence (whether they actually have that influence or not)?

– Money: What drives the local economy? Big businesses that were born in the city? Who are the major employers? How was the city originally established economically? Does the city continue to thrive on the power of the original version of the local economy? Answering these questions usually involves seeking out conversation with a local person, or the savvy use of Wikipedia.

– Power: What kinds of people gain political, economic, and cultural influence? Business giants? Politicians? Entertainers? Who are the insiders here? Who gets marginalized? Do people organize more around nationalistic identities or local/tribal identities? What is the nature of the active debates? What are the systems that keep the power holders in place? At first glance, this question may seem hard to answer in a short time frame, but if you pay attention to things like the cleanliness of the streets, or the number of homeless people you see, or the kinds of local businesses you see, you can make some general observations that give you a pretty good working hypothesis.

– Sins: What are the cultural vices? Is there a heavy influence of alcohol? Gambling? Sex? To be clear, I don’t ask these questions for the sake of judgment. But every city has its hang ups and black eyes? Some cities celebrate their vices (like Las Vegas). Some cities attempt to ignore them in public, but may thrive on them economically, below the surface. This is a place of Kingdom observation, not a place of Jonah wanting God to blast Ninevah.

As I said above, please feel free to ammend this list in the comments. Maybe I’m just a culture junkie, but seriously, this stuff never gets old for me. What’s your favorite way to read a city? Or do you even bother? Do you find yourself “consuming” cities or “engaging” them?

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