Tuesday, February 10, 2009

God of the City

To hear people talk sometimes, you’d think that God is barefoot, wearing a straw hat and bib overalls. You’ve probably never heard God described in that exact way, but you’ve probably heard this, “I feel most close to God when I’m out in nature.” People talk about how they don’t think they can find God in a church building but they can find God when they’re camping.
You get the impression, from this kind of talk, that cities must all have a “God Free Zone” sign (like cities with “Drug Free Zone” and “Nuclear Free Zone” signs) and that God honors those posted signs. Sadly, drugs get past those signs, and I don’t think a sign would stop a launched thermonuclear missile. Fortunately, even if someone posted a “God Free Zone” sign, I think God would pass it by. He’s not just a country God. He is the God of the City.
I was thinking of this while watching a recent movie, Paris, Je T’Aime (2006). The film is really a series of very short films made by a variety of prominent writers and directors. There are also a variety of actors, and the only character in all of the stories is the city of Paris.
I hope this doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise when I say one of the best things about this film is the establishing shots. “Establishing shots” in films are those short bits of footage that we see before the action proper begins, shots that establish where and the scene take place. This film has wonderful panoramic views of the City of Lights as well as more focused views of streets and alleys. We see the Eiffel Tower as well as an underground railway station. There are lovely views of the Seine River and markets and restaurants. A variety of cinematographers filmed a love letter to the capital of France.
The stories within the film are a bit hit and miss. I’m a big fan of the work of Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men), and they wrote and directed a segment about a tourist getting to know some Parisians more intimately than he would have hoped. Their contribution to the film is funny and cynical, as one who knows their work would expect. Alexander Payne’s segment about a provincial American tourist seems like a female version of his About Schmidt. My favorite segment of the film comes from Isabel Coixet, a Spanish writer-director, about a man who considers leaving his wife but changes his mind after he learns that she has a terminal illness. A narrator notes that he began to act, again, like he loved his wife and soon discovered that he felt that love again. It captures quite well the thought C. S. Lewis had that we must act on God’s command to love before we will ever feel that love.
There was an old TV show which ended with a narrator saying, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” In this film there are eighteen little stories in Paris, some quite wonderful -- and those that aren’t, are at least over quickly. And after watching the film, one does wish the Concorde was still flying. The title is accurate; the film makers obviously love the place.
Other cities have received cinematic Valentines through the years.
On the Town (1949) with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra was one of the first musicals to film on location in New York City. The film follows three sailors on leave who explore the big city where “the Bronx is up and Battery’s down and the people ride in a hole in the ground.” The film was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen and written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden -- the same team that made Singin’ in the Rain. It’s funny and has great song and dance numbers. And it is one of many films that make NYC look like heaven on earth (which could be set alongside films such as The French Connection and Serpico that picture the city as hell on earth.)
Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) opens with a wonderful image of a helicopter carrying a statue of Jesus over the city of Rome. The arms of Jesus are open wide, and the look on the face of the statue is one of love. Throughout the film we see characters that are lost and confused, but we remember that opening image that intimated that these characters are being looked at tenderly from above. And again, after watching the film, the viewer wants to go online to see how cheap one can get airfare to Rome.
Steve Martin’s L.A. Story was obviously made with Fellini’s film, parodying that famous opening shot. The film mocks the pretensions of the rich and famous of the film world, but also highlights the wonderful museums and quirky architecture, and even finds beauty in the freeways.
There is even a film that pays loving tribute to the city of Santa Rosa. There are many reasons to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), from the master’s trademark chills to Thornton Wilder’s subtle screenplay to Joseph Cotten’s chilling portrayal of a killer. But if you live in Sonoma County, the chief attraction of the film may be to see World War II era Santa Rosa, from the library to the train station. It was a small city then, but a city nonetheless. (Hitchcock obviously loved the area. He came up again to film The Birds [1963].)
These films capture the beauty of cities, and that beauty is not separate from the presence of God. The most wonderful thing about cities is the abundance of people and their creations, and those people were made in the image of God.
Scripture makes it clear that God loves cities and cares about them deeply.
In Luke 19: 41 – 44 we find Jesus weeps when He looks over the city of Jerusalem because the people of the city are like sheep without a shepherd.
And if we look at the description of God’s final creation in Revelation 21 (verses 9 – 14), the place He made for us to enjoy for all eternity, we find that He made a city:
“One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
So the next time you think that you can only find God by a mountain stream, on the desert sand or on a snow capped peak, remember…in the seediest hotels in the darkest parts of Gotham, one can usually find a Gideon Bible.

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