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Thursday, September 13, 2012

"The Space Between" (Eric O. Jacobsen)

TITLE: Space Between, The: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Cultural Exegesis)
AUTHOR: Eric O. Jacobsen
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (304 pages).

Is there a link between physical buildings and human relationships? What is the connection between geography and community? Why is it so hard to get Christians to care about the physical environment? After all, with all our technology and communication devices, does physical space still matter?

These questions and many more are considered in-depth in this book. Written with the Christian in mind, Jacobsen makes some reflections on the physical buildings in our neighbourhoods of work and home, offline and online interactions, and what the built environment is and is not. The key thesis is that an "enacted space" we are living or are designing is a place for a particular purpose and time. We are urged to see built environments as places in which God's salvation plan is being played out, and then Christians have a vital role to play.

A) Thinking Theologically About "Enacted Space"

Thinking theologically about such physical spaces and geographies, whether it is a rural garden or an urban city, or mixtures of both, requires us to recognize God's purposes in it all. Creation's mandate is to steward what is given to us. Rather than living out a false dichotomy of two kingdoms, one world, and the other heavenly, Jacobsen argues for a united kingdom of one care and concern. In other words, we cannot be too heavenly that we are of no earthly good. Neither do we be too earthly that we fail to have a heavenly perspective. How Jacobsen does this is via three thrusts. Firstly, he begins with orientating our perspectives according to who, what, when, and where we are. Pictures of a "public realm" environment indicate to us what we value or what we are capable of. Like a fast-food restaurant in our neighbourhood that fills our need for filling our stomachs, or a huge multi-storey parking lot for a convenient place to park our cars. How do we bring about a "shalom" we get in gardens and transplant it into the concrete city? Together we string this with four gifts:

  1. The gift of "embodied existence"
  2. The gift of a place to thrive
  3. The gift of community
  4. The gift of time.
Even designing roads can demonstrate the priorities of the city designers. Small curbs are for pedestrains. Big curbs are for large automobiles.  In city planning, designers have to grapple with at least six considerations. 
  1. Where should the center be?
  2. How to design amenities for the maximum number of people within a five minute walk?
  3. How to design street networks for maximum flow and efficiency?
  4. Which streets are to be more neighbourhood friendly?
  5. Which streets are mixed?
  6. Any special sites for special buildings?

Secondly, Jacobsen talks about the purpose of "participation" of family, politics, and the Church with regards to living in such built environments. Any community comprises of two components, a "hardware" (eg buildings, cars, houses), as well as the "software" (eg. people, activities). The role of the family, the politics involve in the society, and the purpose of the Church need to go toward the welfare of the city or community. All three are agents of shalom.

Thirdly, Jacobsen describes how "engagement" can happen in these spaces between. Two critical components are needed. First, it needs to have a sustainable culture. Designers and planners have to consider ways to maximize the use of limited resources, avoid wastage, and develop "social stability." Second, it requires love and care. A key idea is that a sense of belonging or an appreciation of beauty in a built space is not something accomplished, but something that is happening. In other words, it is not an achieving of some static goal, but the living out of dynamic life. A key application is how we treat strangers, or care for strangers who visit our neighbourhood. This can mean having common shared areas where people can interact safely and casually. Hospitality is key. Having a space to build friendly relationships will help better the life.

My Thoughts

This is a very special book that talks about something we normally take for granted: Our built spaces. There is a lot of wisdom in Jacobsen's book as he takes on the uphill task of helping readers see meaning of the design of cities and neighbourhood spaces. With brilliant cultural analysis and theological engagement, Jacobsen gives us a piece of work that is not only very original but very practical too. The perceptive reader will be able to see that there is a sense of movement in and out of both time and space in the book. While there is ample description of the physical space, there are many references to the age of time and timelessness, especially in the segment of Sabbath rest.

Jacobsen helps us trace the biblical narrative as well. By beginning with the garden to the city, from the city to the built initiatives, and finally to Sabbath rest, Jacobsen is essentially telling the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation through the lens of "The Space Between." Space is important. People do not simply need space. We need to make space for one another. This is an essential component of neighbourliness, toward the Christian duty of loving one's neighbour. The lesson on the Sabbath rest indicates to us a hope of profound rest in the future, what Christians call the eschatological moment. Having the availability of hospitality and the care for common shared spaces, and to design structures to be more personal, living will become more beautiful. Relationships will be more bountiful. We can all be more restful. That is the goal, even as we live in the space between the corridors of Genesis and Revelation.

Ratin: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic, a member of the Baker Publishing Group and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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