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City Vision: Tim Keller and Charles Williams

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In recent years, few voices have championed the place of the city in our gospel intentions as thoroughly as has Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  His passion for the city and city-dwellers can be gleaned from the many articles he has written and sermons he has preached over the last two decades.  But the articulation of Keller’s city-vision reaches its culmination perhaps in several chapters in his recent book, Center Church.  There Keller reminds us of the centrality of the city in the biblical portrait of redemptive history, from God’s rebuke of Jonah (“Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city . . . .”—Jonah 4:11) and his command to the Babylonian exiles through Jeremiah (“seek the peace and prosperity of the city”—Jeremiah 29:7) to the apostles’ focus on city ministry in the book of Acts and John’s vision of the eschatological city in the Apocalypse.[1]
            Cities, Keller argues, are the future of the planet, in terms of population and influence and therefore must be the future of Christian ministry.  In the chapter entitled, “The Call To The City,” he points out that “In 1950, New York and London were the only world cities with metro-area populations of over ten million people.  Today, however, there are more than twenty such cities – twelve of which achieved that ranking in the last two decades – with many more to come.”[2]  Such statistics are well-attested: In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins writes that “Today, around 45 percent of the world’s people live in urban areas, but that proportion should rise to 60 percent by 2025, to 66 percent by 2050.”[3]  Cities are not only the population centers but the cultural centers of society as well.  Keller writes, “[C]ities now influence the culture and values of the world more than ever.”[4]  For these reasons, Christians should seriously consider focusing their attention on the cities of the world in order to maximize the effect of their missionary and church planting activities.
            This makes good pragmatic sense.  But Keller goes beyond mere pragmatism in his championing of a city vision.  He insists that cities are valuable in themselves.  In his chapter on “The Gospel For The City,” Keller argues that cities have a unique ability to confront us with those like ourselves and those unlike ourselves, thus reminding us of the diversity of the world and forcing us to embrace the vast scope of the offer of the gospel.[5]  In arguing this way, Keller takes up arms against the prevalent anti-urban attitude of mid-America.  He gently rebukes those who would suggest that “the country is wholesome; the city is corrupting” or that “the country inspires; faith dies in the city,” etc.  Instead, Keller urges that since cities are “filled with people, are absolutely crammed full of what God considers the most beautiful sight in his creation” that we must not “idealize the country as somehow a more spiritual place than the city.”[6]  For all of their dangers, cities are still ultimately a good thing.
CW            This line of reasoning places Tim Keller squarely in the camp of another great Christian thinker: Charles Williams.  Williams was a lesser-known contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and is usually listed along with them as a central member of the literary group known as the Inklings.  Williams was a prolific writer who also had a special place in his heart for the City, which would, for him, always be symbolized by his own precious London.
            Williams understood what Keller has been trying to communicate to us, that the final vision of God’s interaction with humanity in Revelation is not conveyed through the image of a rural countryside but that of a glorious city.  In his theological treatise He Came Down From Heaven, Williams writes:
 The fulfillment of all things has been, traditionally, described twice in the Bible: once in the Song of Solomon, once in the Apocalypse. . . . The chapter-headings of the first refer the passion and the joy not to Christ and the soul but to Christ and the Church; and the very text of the other contains the vision not of the soul apostate or redeemed but of the City.[7] 
And again, in his seminal work of theology, The Descent of the Dove, he says, “The Kingdom—or apocalyptically, the City—is the state into which Christendom is called; but except in vision, she is not yet the City.  The City is the state which the Church is to become.”[8]  In an introductory paragraph to a work of literary criticism, The Image of the City in English Verse, Williams further defines his understanding the City: “[I]t is the sense of many relationships between men and women woven into a unity.”[9]  It is in this definition, perhaps that the connection between Williams and Keller can be most clearly seen, given Keller’s own understanding of the city as the place where an individual is brought into inevitable unique contact with many other people, both like and unlike oneself.[10]
            Charles Williams’ other works (including his seven fascinating novels) can hardly be understood without some concept of his city vision.  For Williams, the City represents the union of justice and order with mercy and exchange.  Consider the first two stanzas of his poem, The Two Domes:
            What are those domes? You asked in Clerkenwell;
            And I: One is the Old Bailey and one Saint Paul’s,
            Sitting up there like the broken halves of the shell
            Of the egg of life, whose overspilt yolk we are.

 

            Justice is perched on one, with her sword and scales,
            And over her shoulder the ancient commentary,
            The cross, in huge silence that neither hopes nor rails,
            Peeps,—all judgment’s ironical overthrow.[11]
Or these lines from The City of Man,
            Queens, and they rendered themselves to us!—
                        O but we knew them then,
            Republican in Jerusalem,
                        City and citizen.

 

            Thus will we toil at the city of men,
                        Whose name is liberty,
            Jerusalem, the mother of all,
                        That is above and free.

 

            Stand fast, stand fast for Jerusalem,
                        Stand fast in liberty:
            We are not sons of the bondwomen
                        But children of the free![12]
And, as an expression of John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation he writes in Dialogue Between the Republic and the Apostasy:
            That hour will I fulfill man’s liberties,
                        His imperfections with perfection close,–
            An hour which, save my chosen, none foresees,
                        Nor, save my Father, knows;

 

            When this opaque world shall by me be lit,
                        And I be manifest,—not to destroy,
            Not to destroy, but to transfigure it
                        With uncreated joy.

 

            Then visibly shall I be bound in walls,
                        Sink in foundations and in towers grow high,
            Then shall I stand and shine while no stone falls,
                        There shall be naught but I.[13]
Charles Williams was overcome by the image of the City as a symbol of God’s redemptive plan for humanity and he valued present-day earthly cities as the visible manifestations of that symbol.  Williams reminds us of the intrinsic value of the City and we would be well-served, both theologically and pragmatically, to cultivate a similar city vision.  I am thankful for Timothy Keller who is so faithfully picking up where Charles Williams left off.

[1] See especially chapters 11 and 12 in Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 154.

[3] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 116.

[4] Keller, 161.

[5] Ibid, 168.

[6] Ibid, 170.

[7] Charles Williams, He Came Down From Heaven (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2005), 97.

[8] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2002), 15.

[9] Charles Williams, The Image of the City (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2007), 92.

[10] See note 5.

[11] Charles Williams, Windows of Night (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2007), 27.

[12] Charles Williams, Poems of Conformity (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2007), 117.

[13] Charles Williams, Divorce (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2007), 42.

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