How Should Christians Engage with the Built Environment? A Review

The year after I graduated from college, I lived in an apartment in the West End of Richmond, VA. There was a public library about a half mile away from my apartment. Occasionally I would walk to the library, but it was an unpleasant experience. In that half mile, I had to walk along two busy roads, neither of which had a sidewalk. Like many parts of cities that developed in the United States after World War II, the West End is primarily designed for automobiles, not pedestrians. “If you want to go to the library,” the city planner is telling you, “you’re supposed to use your car.” Even if the library is only a half mile away.

Following my time in the pedestrian-unfriendly West End, I lived in three places that were much more pleasant to walk in: Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; and Vancouver, Canada. In the six years that I lived in those places, I did not have a car. I didn’t need one. With the help of public transit, I was able to go everywhere I wanted to go on foot.

Being a Christian who recognized that my quality of life was affected by how different places I’ve lived were constructed, I was eager to read The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment by Eric O. Jacobsen. Jacobsen is a pastor who has done a lot of thinking about what human-made elements make a place pleasant or unpleasant to live in (you can read an interview with him about the book here). This is his second book on the subject, his first being Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. Not having read the earlier book, I’m not competent to say how they differ. I can only say that this one is longer than Sidewalks in the Kingdom, and while it does talk about New Urbanism, that is not the primary subject. It seems broader in scope.

Jacobsen sets out in this book to introduce the built environment to the Christian community, and to make the case that Christians ought to care about creating built environments that lead to human thriving. The book comes in three parts: The first part is Orientation, in which Jacobsen asks readers to think about who they are, and how they are situated in space and time. His primary audience is North American, and he gives a lot of history on how and why North America has been built in the way it has. The second part is Participation, in which Jacobsen asks readers to think about the different agents who enact community life in a particular place: families, political groups, and churches. The final part is Engagement, in which Jacobsen challenges his readers to ask hard questions about how their Christian faith ought to interact with the built environment, creating places that are sustainable and loved.

This is a book both for those who already know and care about the built environment, and for those who have not thought about it much, but are curious. I fall into the latter camp, and over and over again I found that Jacobsen gave me language to name things that I already felt. I knew that certain built environments made me comfortable or uncomfortable, and now I know more why that is. It could be a challenging read at times, since a lot of the vocabulary was new, but it was worth the effort. Jacobsen’s chapter on sustainability was challenging in a different way; some of what he writes about human thriving, environmental stewardship, and justice will challenge assumptions held by some of his fellow Christians. That, in my opinion, is a good thing.

For people in my generation, “The Space Between” is, first and foremost, a Dave Matthews Band song. But it is now also a welcome invitation for Christians to form convictions about how their faith should affect the built environment, and begin to act on those convictions. Not everyone will have the time or the ability to make large-scale changes in the places where they live—after all, the built environments we live in now have taken shape over generations, and sin is present with us even as we seek to build better places to live. But everyone can begin to make small changes that help to “seek the peace of the city” where God has placed them (Jer 29:7), as we ultimately look forward to the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

Note: Thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Publisher: Baker Academic
Reading Length: 277 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Should Christians Be Environmentalists? Absolutely.

For a lot of people, the phrase “Christian environmentalist” sounds like an oxymoron. At least since Lynn White’s famous 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” many people who care about the environment see Christianity as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Dan Story sets out to change this perception in his book, Should Christians Be Environmentalists? Story himself was part of the beginnings of the environmental movement in the ’70s. When he became a Christian in the early ’80s, he didn’t leave his interest in and concern for the environment behind; it became deeper because of his commitment to Christ. The purpose of his book is threefold:

1. To “encourage godly environmental stewardship by systematically developing a Bible-based theology of nature, including an environmental doctrine and guidelines for environmental ethics” (11).
2. To “present an apologetic to anti-Christian environmentalists who claim that Christianity is the ‘root cause’ of environmental exploitation and degradation, and that other religious traditions are better suited morally and theologically to push for environmental stewardship” (11).
3. To “explore the potential evangelistic opportunities embedded in Christian environmentalism” (12).

Story argues that, while Christians have not necessarily had a great track record when it comes to environmentalism, the fault does not lie with Christianity. Rather, Christian opposition to environmental concerns have traditionally been politically and ideologically based (28), not based on the Bible. A biblically faithful Christian is a Christian who cares about the environment, because God created it and entrusted humans with the task of faithful stewardship. Not only that, but God’s plan for redemption includes not only humans, but the entire created order (Rom 8:19–21; Rev 21:1). Along the way, Story addresses questions surrounding Christian environmentalism (or, as my former professor Loren Wilkinson would prefer it, “creation care”), and urges Christian care for the environment as not just something Christians ought to do, but also as an opportunity to spread the gospel.

This is a wonderful introductory book on the subject of Christianity and environmentalism. While it is introductory, it is not full of fluff; Story quotes academic sources, but still manages to maintain a reading level that non-experts would be comfortable with. I would recommend it to both Christians and non-Christians who are interested in getting behind the rhetoric to see what the Bible really says about the created world, and what life on earth would look like if we took it seriously.

Note: Thanks to Kregel Publications for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.