Craig BARTHOLOMEW. Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011. Pp. 310. Cost $29.99 ISBN 978-0-8010-3637-8.
Reviewed by Nathan KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY 14618

Craig Bartholomew claims that Christians have a different view of “place” than non-Christians. That being said two things remain: to clearly describe or define what “place” means and to clearly present the Christian view of place.

Bartholomew immediately tells us that place is difficult to define. He will do a great deal of describing but a clear definition of place never comes. Why? Because, he says, it is “…a quintessentially human concept” and thus “Place is what takes place between body and landscape.” It is the result of the interaction between humans and their particular location. It is a particular concept, unlike space which is an abstract concept, derived from the lived experience of place. So he begins the book with what may be to some a vague definition. Definitions aside, we all have some idea of what we mean by place. So, like Bartholomew, let us continue with trying to understand what the Christian view of place is even if it is difficult to define.

He presents the Christian view of place in three parts: Place in the Bible, Place in the Western Philosophical and Christian Traditions, A Christian view of Place for Today. In total there are eighteen chapters. The first two thirds are a search for a theology of place; the last third is an application of this theology. The first third takes up almost half the book.

Bartholomew’s theology (a.k.a. Christian) of place is built upon biblical foundations, especially the first and last books of the bible: Genesis describes the first human placement by God and Revelation (Apocalypse) describes the final, eternal, redeemed place for humanity. We go from a garden given by God to a city made by God and embraced by humans. Common to both are land, people, and a loving God. In between is the story of displacement, the search for a proper place for God’s dwelling with us, and human placemaking. Bartholomew, and others who are part of the placemaking movement, feel that Western culture has slowly lost its sense of place. Migration, ill constructed cities and suburbs, and a general placelessness consequent upon the use of modern technologies has left us without our roots, without a sense of place or of history. We have lost the necessary particular landscape that provides us with identity. Consequently we are lost.

What we need to discover, or re-discover, is what was evident in humanity’s first place: God, land, and our authentic humanity. In Bartholomew’s theology the discovery of Jesus as the risen Lord is essential to human placemaking. For someone who holds the H. Evan Runner Chair at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario this would seem a natural conclusion to a Christian theology of place. However, many people believe that Christianity is responsible for Western culture’s destruction of the environment – the landscape necessary for being in place. Bartholomew, commenting on Sanatmire, suggests that Christian theologians have responded to this belief in four ways: Reconstructionist, those who reject their tradition and seek to build a new Christian theology from scratch; Apologist, those who defend the ideas and processes that have resulted in our current quandary; Revisionist, those who acknowledge the critique and seek to build a new theology from classic sources; Reformational, those “…who seek to re-form their consciousness by the work of the Spirit through Scripture and tradition.” Bartholomew is certainly in the Reformational camp.

This book is packed with information. At times it seems like a quick review of everything in print that deals with placemaking, a movement that began in the 1960s, is in it. As an older academic I really appreciate his publisher’s allowance of footnotes at the end of the page. At the same time, the large number of them attests to the enormous amount of reading that was done to write the book. It would have helped if there were better summaries at the end of each chapter to provide the reader with a clearer path to his conclusions. I do wonder whether our human life is more paradoxical than Bartholomew allows. Aren’t we always pulled in two seemingly contradictory directions: one to be in place, our mortality; the other, to transcend place, our soul making? Isn’t placemaking and soulmaking always inherent to the human condition?

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books