CathBlog - Leaving our mark on the city

BY MATTHEW JOHN PAUL TAN

First year Students at Campion College are studying Scripture this semester. An initial component of that course involves a short expose on the various theories of reading, dispositions that work in the background every time we read and greatly influence the way we read Scripture. 

Students would learn of the legitimacy in subjecting the Biblical text to a critical – even scientific – reading in order to better understand the meaning of the text. This is a legitimacy enshrined in the writings of Church Fathers, the declarations of Ecumenical Councils and the encyclicals of Popes. 

Yet, this critical way of reading scripture is legitimate only insofar as it assists us in another way to read the Biblical text. This is a method of reading where, instead of subjecting the text to the authority of our knowledge, we subject our knowledge to the ultimate authority of the Word. 

Going further, we not only should submit to the authority of the text, but even allow the text to inscribe itself onto us. The words of the Biblical texts should, when read rightly, move beyond the pages and be sealed upon our very selves, transforming us into extensions of the text and drawing us into lives that image the God who ultimately authored the text. 

Strangely, this way of understanding Scripture as inscribing itself onto us can be a useful way of understanding the impact cities have on Christian living, particularly cities in a highly secular postmodernity.

At first glance, this might strike the reader as strange, seeing that cities are usually perceived as assemblies of concrete, buildings and infrastructure, something that facilitate the living out of one’s desires, ambitions and aspirations. 

However, in a book entitled Cities of God, the Anglican theologian Graham Ward drew a very intimate link between urban life and writing. Indeed, Ward regards the city as a kind of writing, which is not only written by citizens, but also writes itself onto the lives of citizens and forming them into extensions of the city, often as they assume to assert their independence with cries of “look out (insert city name here), here I come”.

Thus, one’s desire, ambitions and aspirations are more likely to be those imprinted onto us by the city, rather than the other way round.

One can take this further with reference to a rather illuminating advertising campaign by an Australian university’s opening day. The university prides itself in being one that prepares students to leave their mark on the modern world, and tries to portray that symbolically with its central graphic, a student facing the onlooker confidently whilst moving away from one of the university’s iconic buildings. 

This building, with its bold display of straight lines, smooth glass and steel, symbolically expresses the aggrandisement of human rationality over the physical landscape. Upon closer inspection, however, one notices that this student’s shirt, and by implication the student’s body, blends in perfectly with that building.

Pictorially, the confidence of the student is counterbalanced by his seeming disappearance into that celebration of human rationality, a virtual erasure of the person of the student and his absorption into the machine-like architecture of the building. The end product almost seems like an inversion of what is intended.

The advertisement can act as a reminder of a trope within Augustine’s City of God, where he speaks of the earthly city being profoundly marked by a libido dominandi – a lust to dominate. He also gives the reader a warning: that in acting on his desire to dominate others and the world around him, he would not know that he would become dominated by that very desire.

While the late 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would describe this as being “all too human”, Augustine warns us that in acting out on one’s desire to dominate others, one would actually corrode his very humanity.

Like the student in the advertisement, Christians should be sensitive to the formative forces circulating in their urban environments, its attempts to write themselves onto the lives of Christians and in doing so absorb them into the landscape of the city. 

Trying to escape the city by escaping to the countryside will not solve this problem, for the countryside in postmodernity has evolved to obey the logic of the city. A surer form of resistance must come from the recognition of the city’s attempt to write itself onto the Christian, and recognise the need to be inscribed by another text, one that ensures the blueprint of humanity rather than erase it. 

For the Christian, the surest of these alternative texts has to be the Text of Scripture, for the blueprint of humanity is to be found in the object of the biblical texts, Jesus Christ (who is none other than the Word made Flesh).

Our immersion in the Biblical texts, which we experience in the Church’s many Liturgies, is what inscribes the text onto our very selves (St Paul in his Letter to the Romans did speak of the need to write the Law onto our very hearts, and in his Letter to the Galatians spoke similarly of the need to “put on Christ”). 

Scripture thus is not just something that saves our souls, but also every aspect of our material lives. In so being inscribed by the Word of God, we can be gradually aided not only in resisting the dehumanising scripts of the postmodern city, but also be aided in our mission in rehumanising our streets, by bringing to public consciousness the template of Humanity, Jesus Christ, in our everyday living.


Matthew John Paul Tan is a lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College, a Catholic Liberal Arts College in Sydney. He has published articles in theology, politics and culture and blogs at The Divine Wedgie: Church. Culture. Politics.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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