A City Is A Magnifying Glass

by Glenn on August 15, 2017

I didn’t know life here in Portland was so bleak that it warranted an actual road sign. This can be seen headed Eastbound on Burnside coming up to 32nd, near Music Millennium, whose owner, Terry, was leaving the office as I was heading back to the car. (Had to stop and take a picture.) We know each other from commercial activities and as we chatted I asked him about the sign. He had had to do some detective work and told me his theory, which has been reported in Willamette Weekly: http://www.wweek.com/music/2017/07/11/the-city-of-portland-made-a-sign-reading-heartbreak-dead-ahead/

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Someone from a small Midwest city (population c. 215,000) once told me they thought there was a lot of sin here in Portland (population c. 640,000). I didn’t have a great response. Mostly, it was silence as I tried to process the statement.

For starters, a prideful look of disdain toward others makes me wonder who truly is more sinful. Obviously, there are more people in Portland than this other city, which means there are more sinners here, but I don’t think that that was what was being said.

As I’ve thought about the question, on the one hand, I don’t disagree. There are things about Portland that you can’t really defend—the abundance of strip clubs, for starters (this website calculates that Portland has the highest ratio of clubs/residents in the nation)—whether you choose to call them sin or not.

And if you measure sin by the rate at which people attend church services, we here in the Northwest (Gallup says the rate in Oregon is 25%) are definitely more sinful than other parts of the country.

On the other hand, the statement that my fellow Portland residents are more sinful than the residents of another city may be a misread of the situation.

For one, it is a pointless comparison. The main message of the gospel, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” indicts everyone. In other words, since no one is perfect what is the point in claiming less imperfection? As the old saying goes, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” When it comes to our standing before God, there is no advantage in saying that you or your city are better than someone else or their city. If one day, inexplicably, Disneyland didn’t open, would it really matter if you were first in line or a couple of thousand people back or still finding your way into the parking lot? The Bible teaches that no one gets in without God’s grace.

For another, it felt like part of the statement might have been about poverty. If this person meant they saw more poverty in in Portland than their city, I would have to agree. (We certainly have more homeless people, due to a much milder climate and a high tolerance for urban camping.)

But I wondered if perhaps they were equating poverty with sin, which isn’t right. I’m reminded of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, who says that “it’s no shame to be poor… but it’s no great honor either,” which takes poverty away from the realm of morality. Poverty sometimes can be traced to individual choices, sometimes it is a product of a culture.

Whatever the intention, the statement that Portland had more sinners left me, in the moment, without much of answer.

*  *  *

Timothy Keller, the retiring/transitioning pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, recently made a statement about cities that I think is relevant, here, and I love people who are able to frame issues so well.

Keller says that the concentration of people in cities “aggregates” both good things and bad things. You get “the greatest works of culture” and you get “human sin.” He used the metaphor of a magnifying glass, “bringing out both the best and worst in human beings.”

In his article, Keller identifies three approaches people take to the city:

Some people “love” city life, “romanticizing” the experience of living in a city though they may not be doing much to improve its overall health and live largely sequestered from problems within the city.

Some people don’t like cities for the crowds or the noise or the politics or the expense or the “dizzying plurality.” They stay away or “hold their breath” until they can get out.

Some people are “indifferent,” and don’t see why a city should be “treated any differently” than any other place.

Keller says that “each of these attitudes fails to be informed and shaped by all of the biblical teaching” concerning cities.

We can’t romanticize the city because we “forget the spiritual darkness that cities generate: the power in the city of the human idols of sex, money, and power.” These people can “make believers who are not called to city living and ministry feel guilty.”

For those who have “disdain” for the city, Keller reminds them of the story of Jonah, where God says, “Should I not have compassion on the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty-thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left …?” By failing to respond to the spiritual needs of people in the city, Jonah neglected God’s command.

Finally, Keller writes, “Those who are indifferent to the city forget the importance of the city” as shapers of culture. If you’re not working to shape the culture of the city, you can’t really complain about how the culture of the city doesn’t represent Biblical wisdom.

In short, we are to love the city “itself,” and not just the experience of living in the city. We shouldn’t look down on people who don’t, for one reason or another, want to live in the city. And we need to take a high view of the importance of city life.

Here in Portland, people are moving in at the rate of 80/day and the church needs to keep up with the command to go into all the world, which includes cities.

Keller’s final thought is this:

 “We need churches everywhere there are people — but the people of the world are moving into cities much faster than the church is. Jesus told us to go into the world to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20). If we fail to go where the world is going then we are not heeding our Lord’s command.  So certainly we must never rigidly insist that everyone should do city ministry, nor that gospel ministry in one place is intrinsically better than in another place. But we should not shrink from emphasizing city ministry as never before.”

*  *  *

I have a complicated relationship with Portland. My wife was born here, but I am a transplant. I think I’ve had each of the responses to Portland that Keller says people have to the city in general.

I have visited the Japanese Garden repeatedly, browsed Powell’s City of Books and Music Millennium countless times, and attended concerts at “The Schnitz” and Edgefield. Portland has brought me a lot of pleasure. I have had much less exposure to the poverty of outer Northeast or the homeless shelters throughout the city, except for the meals I have helped serve with my Central East Portland Rotary Club.

But I don’t really enjoy living in Portland. A big part of this is the weather. While the summers are glorious, the other ninth months are gloomy, often with a damp, windy sort of cold that can go right through you. But part of it is feeling overwhelmed by it all. It feels crowded and I think I am a small city kind of person. I like a little breathing room.

Is Portland more sinful than anywhere else? I have no idea. I do know that wherever I live I am called to engage with others redemptively.