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November 2012

A Theology for the Ruins: A Response to "Detroit City Is the Place to Be," by Mark Binelli

166367894While there are certainly cities and towns in the United States that have experienced decline, no major city has experienced such rapid decline as that seen  in the last decades by the once prosperous city of Detroit. With a large land area of nearly 140 square miles, its blight is stultifying in its immensity: 30 percent of the city is vacant land, there are 90,000 abandoned buildings, including massive automotive plants, 25 percent of the population has left in just one decade, it's the most violent city in the United States. And the tragic list of statistics goes on.

Many come to gawk, to tour the ruins, taking a morbid curiosity or attaching a certain weird sense of hipness to the decline. Not so with Mark Binelli, the author of the recently released Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis.  Having grown up in Detroit, his is a more sympathetic telling of its woes.  In 2009 he moved into the city and settled in to walk, bike, talk, and gawk --- to, in his words, ask "what happens to a once-great place, after it has been used up and discarded?" More than that, he says "I wanted to know if my hometown could be saved," and, if Detroit could be saved (though he might not put it this way), if we all can be saved. Binelli is a good writer, powerfully sustaining a narrative of ruin yet ultimately failing in finding a sustaining basis for hope.

There are several mini-narratives at play in Binelli's book, all well-known to those who have studied the city and its decline, and the author does a good job of bringing these stories home by recounting the particulars of people and place. For example, to give us a sense of the kind of violence that is routine, he recounts the story of the gruesome murder of David Morgan, Jr., 61, murdered and dismembered by two twenty-something cocaine dealers as a message to other drug dealers eager to move in on their turf. He finds plenty to write about under the heading of political corruption and mismanagement, from the bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement, cronyism, and sex scandals of Kwame Kilpatrick to the financially-challenged city council President Charles Pugh. And weird art? He ventures into the ruins of the old Packard plant to see an installation by artist Scott Hocking, which consisted of empty television boxes (found on site) on top of exposed columns.  Scrappers (scavengers of old buildings), firefighters, arsonists, and washed-up auto union workers are just some of the characters that people the rest of his tale --- to the extent you begin to ask where the "normal" people live (if they do) or where there is a real community, intact neighborhoods.  Detroit seems to bear not only physical ruin but a human ruin with very little in the way of hope.  The lingering question is whether it is but a harbinger of Ameircan decline.

But perhaps the author just didn't know where to look. He could have talked to Lisa Johansen, Executive Director of the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC2), an organization staffed by Christians who live and work in the community, who work on bringing resources for housing, job skills, education, and community-building back into the neighborhood where they all live. Surely there are other churches, non-profits, and volunteer organizations making a difference.  But they're not recounted here.  Where in fact are the people of faith in Binelli's tale? Did he deem them irrelevant? It is curious to read such a powerfully descriptive story that entirely omits any reference to the spiritual temperature of the city. Binelli evinces no hostility toward religion or the church, but its absence makes incomplete his telling.

Underlying the mini-narratives of the author's book is an unspoken, underlying non-narrative: one of meaninglessness, of a decline and despair which is only temporarily relieved by an existential glimmer of hope, one he finds difficult to sustain. In fact, in a book of 288 pages, that glimmer of hope he allows himself bleeds out, finally, in only the last nine pages, a telling indicator of its ephemeral quality.

In another continent, in another time, another people saw decline.  Some of that story is told in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. At the heart of Jerusalem's ruin was a people who were spiritually bankrupt. Casting off God, they were abandoned, for a time, to captivity in Babylon, taken from their lands, their city destroyed. And yet not finally abandoned. A broken man, Nehemiah repented of both his sin and that of a nation and cried out to God for help. In the end, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 52 days, much to the surprise and chagrin of the surrounding peoples, and a people came home.

None of this is to suggest a particular judgment of Detroit or that Detroiters or Americans are God's chosen people. It is, however, to suggest that the narrative that underlies all others is a spiritual one, a theology of ruin from a people who have abandoned God and forsaken what is good, true, and beautiful, a fallenness that manifests itself in violence, corrupt politicians, unbridled greed, racism, and moral degeneracy. Deeper still, though, is a narrative of grace, of a God who can heal and rebuild a city and its people, who can even rebuild a nation committed to Him.

Neither the Government nor capitalists can save Detroit. God can. Detroit doesn't need post-modern artists who have no basis for a sustaining hope, who have no answer for hopelessness. It needs a  city on its knees.  It needs people committed to living, praying, and working alongside its people, building communities that look upward for hope and move outward in love. Now that would be a story. That's a theology for the ruins.  That's the place to be.

The Solace of the Quotidian

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall---
what should I do?  And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

("I Go Down to the Shore," by Mary Oliver, in A Thousand Mornings)

The economy of a poem is its virtue.  Every word of a well-crafted one must count so much that the acres of blank space on the page pour out meaning as well, rich in its absence of words.  At least it does with Mary Oliver's poems, poems which are deceptively simple yet profound.

So she goes down to the shore.  So do we all.  This is not a going just to walk, to gaze on beauty, to enjoy the sea air. She is going to the edge and staring out into Creation with questions: Why? What now?

And so I have been down to the shore, the edge of the city, to a forest in the early morning, alone.  Last year, in April, I went to a nearby state park alone on several mornings in the space of several months.  These were not nature walks, in the sense that I was there to observe the forest, the river, the bird life and fauna.  I was there to be alone and hear and see the regularity, the mundanity of a rock and stream and forest that pre-existed me and will live on after me, that will keep on. My mother was dying.  I walked a long sentence, stretching out the length of the path, a sentence saying what shall --- what should I do?  And the ancient river and stones and trees said, as they always say, Excuse me, I have work to do.

In her essay, The Quotidian Mysteries, Kathleen Norris reminds us that the "divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life," that "it is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is 'renewed in the morning'" (Ps. 90:5).  And so I walk.  I do the mundane work of putting one foot in front of another even when that is all I can do.  I dig a path with my question.  Some questions have to be taken out and walked, given space in which to percolate.  The rhythm of footsteps, like the beat of my heart, answers my restlessness.  What should I do?

Some have said that poetic meter --- even the common iambic pentameter of so many poems and songs --- originates in the bodily rhythm of arms and legs in motion.  Even more, in the beat of our own hearts.  So when we walk, we hear music, we make music, reconnect with the song at the heart of Creation.  We consider the barely perceptible rhythms of a natural world whose work is excruciatingly slow: trees inch upward; maples and sweet gums shed their leaves reluctantly, oaks resist; rocks are sculpted ever so gently by wind and water and their ceaseless caress.  Excuse me, I have work to do, they say.

In the end, when I go down to the shore, when I step out on the earth and walk, I am reminded of the God who made me, of Christ who holds all things together, of the Spirit who works unceasingly, who stirs my heart to worship.  Walking becomes liturgy, a regular path to praise.  My breath, my heart, my stride, my motion --- they all remind me of my creatureliness, and that of my Creator whose image I bear.  And then, like today, something enters that rhythm, that mundanity of my existence --- a dog, smiling, approaches; a gargantuan leaf flutters down and catches in my wife's unsuspecting hand, as if God placed it there; a lone white birch tree sways slightly against a sharp blue sky (look up, it says); the gnarled roots of a what seems a prehistoric tree clutch the river bank; leaves crunch underfoot, announcing our coming.  Skipping rocks in the riverbed, I accidently plunge my foot, boot and all, under water.  I laugh.  What shall --- what should I do?

It is God who answers: Excuse me, I have work to do.

As do I.