Is the Tower of Babel story an urban vs. nature story?

This is from a discussion on CRC-Voices that wandered into the urban vs. rural conflict. Are cities evil? Keller got mentioned so that’s how he got into the argument.

Keller inherits the urban ministry work done by Westminster East and the likes of our own Roger Greenway.

Here are some breadcrumbs you can follow:

1. Adam and Eve as gardeners is a metaphor for humanity’s cultural mandate. We are created to cultivate, take the wild and make it productive and glorious. This is really a very large theme in the Bible. Isaiah 5’s vineyard parable has it pretty clearly, especially in the NRSV: “wild grapes” vs. “cultivated grapes”. God is looking for culture making and culture making is the work of humanity (Mouw on Isaiah 60) and the destiny of humanity. Culture making will continue into the age to come:

2. Even Paul Schrader in his movie the Mosquito Coast gets all Calvinist on us when he suggests through the Harrison Ford character that creation is “unfinished” and it is our calling to complete it in a “telos” sort of way. We are stewards. This is contra kind of a romantic notion of creation that humanity is a virus in the natural world and an unwelcomed intruder (as the Agent explains to Morpheus in “The Matrix”). I’m always a bit amused by the argument that the world should be without us. Such an idea if taken even from a strictly meaningless biological evolutionary perspective makes no sense. Its a romantic idea but really doesn’t work. Our problem is how we’ve “laid hands on” nature in Tolkien’s words. We’ve attempted to possess it rather than steward it. It doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to its owner and faithful stewardship requires that we manage it in keeping with the will of the owner. We understand the distinction between managers and owners in the business world (as seen in Jesus’ parables) but we resist it in our management of creation. We act like owners because we’re really embezzlers.

3. “Garden” and “Paradise” are not fundamentally rural metaphors. A “paradise” is in fact a walled urban garden. I’ve heard that the Inuit have lots of words for snow and ice, all pertaining to attributes and qualities that those who live close to it on a daily basis realize, appreciate and avoid. A close reading of the Genesis language about land, earth, field, etc. reveals a similar dynamic with the Hebrews. The meaning persists in our language as well. A wild field is not a “garden”. “Wilderness” is also not a “garden”. A garden is a cultivated, trimmed, managed, pruned, worked place and all of that presupposes a worker, which is the man and the woman. Same with animals. Central to this vision is the assumption of place in the world. The natural world is loved, managed and cared for, but it is not untouched.

4. For all of the romanticism that persists in the environmental movement there is probably more of a realization today that “natural” is not romantic or untouched but in fact requires stewardship. Watch Ken Burn’s history of the national parks. What 19th century Americans did to these wild places is frankly natural according to our fallen condition. (We are not the only animals that devastate the environment through self-interested, instinctive use, we are the only animal, however, that has the capacity to realize what it is doing and is therefore responsible for the devastation.) We exploited it for crass personal gain. Our benefit at the creation’s (and therefore its owner’s) expense. The relational polarity of the age of decay.

What do we begin doing to preserve the majesty and wonder of places like Yosemite and Yellowstone, we urbanize them. We turn them into gardens. We turn them into “parks” and what that means is that we put a hedge around them (a very large hedge in some senses, again see Isaiah 5) and preserve them for the glory of the owner and the enjoyment and participation of his other stewards (because we know that the owners is generous in this way).

The vision of a city as the climax of creation is not an expression of the urban verse the natural, it is an expression of the fulfillment of the mission of God to express and share the appreciation of his glory vs. the abuse of his resources at the hands of rebellious stewards. In that light the story of the Tower of Babel comes to typify taking the resources of God, part of which is the capacity and desire within us to do culture making, and using those resources for our own wellbeing at the expense of the source of the resources (the creation) in rebellion against the owner of the resource. In that sense all God does is selectively frustrate one incredible asset we possessed and were employing in our rebellion. In that sense the Tower of Babel is a wilderness/barrenness story in which God puts his people in a wilderness or brings them barrenness, shows them the limits of our capacities in order to re-calibrate our disoriented sense of our ability to accomplish and remind us that we are stewards, not owners, always dependent upon the owner and his gracious provision not only for our needs but also for the accomplishment of his mission. pvk

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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