Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What Gives? Or No Space for God

Written by: on May 15, 2015

As I began to read Social Geographies: Space and Society by Gill Valentine, my thoughts drifted toward how space has played an important role in my local church. I remember several long, heated meetings with our church’s founders about whether to remove one front pew to extend the stage in the sanctuary. The issue revolved around “personal space” required for visitors to feel comfortable. Would removing the pew reduce the allotted space for maximum comfort? Simply put: personal space for visitors was important if we hope to grow church. (Strangely, Jesus had little to do with these discussions.)

I also found myself reflecting on the geography of space captured within the larger cathedrals that I had visited around Europe. Here again, space was more than just an area enclosed by walls. Space reflected a clear and powerful message of the majesty of almighty God; of holy and sacred ground; as a place that organized a community and speaks of who I am. Here was space where, for much of history, people found their social identities. Even the location suggested that the church was more than just brick and mortar: it was a central focus for the community, giving meaning, purpose, and direction, and for many, comfort and self-understanding. The church was the primary source for defining both the identity of individual and the community.

With these thoughts in mind, anticipated reading Social Geographies, looking forward to some discussion on the “church space” to surface. Into the chapter dealing with family and homes, there was nothing. I thought surely it would appear in the chapter on institutions. No such luck. How about in the chapter on communities? cities? Again, there was nothing. Now, over half way through the book, well into the rural communities, there was still no mention of the church. (However, I did find one religious references about an Asian Muslim community in London.[i]) I quickly headed to the index, and to my utter amazement, I found not one reference for “church.” I further looked for Christianity and religion: Nothing! This entire book that deals with pretty much everything imaginable, about ever kind of conceivable space that gives meaning, from home to apartments, from business to prisons, cities to fields, hospitals to offices, made not a single mention of the church as a significant space for individuals or communities. What gives?

My only conclusion is to suggest that Gill Valentine and the project of Social Geography is simply a post-modern program with clear social agenda. Though I find the concept that space contributes to identity and influences individuals and society, as well as our communities and identities equally influencing how we create space, a highly fascinating concept, this particular book seems to very much a product of our present moment and for a particular audience. I found this most evident in what was included and what was excluded. First, in the plethora of issues addressed all under the heading of Social Geography suggests that literally everything might be included as space or be impacted by space. This all-inclusive approach is highly postmodern, which allows everyone a voice. As K. J. Vanhooven suggests: “Postmodern exegesis has become a thoroughly pluralistic and political affair where no one is able to say one’s interpretative community’s reading should count more than another’s.”[ii]

Social Geographies reflects this postmodern need to be all-inclusive and non-critical. This makes Social Geography a hugely complicated and massive unwieldy, because it seems to encompass everything (that is, everything except the church). For example, Valentine includes the following disciplines without any value statements, nor arguing for their validity as sources: psychoanalytical theory (31), phenomenologist (28), philosophies (27), sociologist (25), social theorist (24), disabilities theorist (45), ethnographic studies (50), cyberenthusiast (55), cyborutopians (56) cybercritics (58), information and communication technology (58), feminist designers (67), architects and planners, plant ecologist (106), human ecology (106). Valentine also includes research from demographers, city planners, business, biotechnology, marriage and family life studies, criminology, and so much more. Here is pluralism at its best. This begs the question of what then is Social Geography? Is it sociology? Psychology? Communication? Family Studies? Architecture? Philosophy? Biology? Ecology? My conclusion is: Yes, it is everything. But if everything is included, then what can it really say? If every field mention requires specialization, then how can a “geographer” ever hope to manage so much material and knowledge? Or, does practicing Social Geography (being a geographer) mean simply having the ability to find someone who has done a study that can give credibility to whatever point I am making? And from Valentine’s perspective, her points seem to have a strong feminist, gay-lesbian and racial focus.

So, back to my original question: Why is there no church here in this book that discusses everything else under that sun? If nothing else, it highlights how modern academia and society have learned to discuss all things without any reference to God. Here is proof that the Enlightenment experiment of displacing God and Christianity from the table of intellectual discussion has succeeded. When important questions concerning society, family, marriage, embodiment, homelessness, community, race, and nationality, can be accomplished without ever once referencing God, religion or the church, I think it says that Mark Noll is right, that Christians are no longer influencing or inspiring our major fields of academic study today. Further, it highlights the fact that Christianity is not on the radar of the postmodern social agenda.

[i] Gill Valentine, Social Geographies (Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., 2001), 125-6.

[ii] K. J. Vanhooven, “Exegesis and Hermeneutics,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 55.

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

5 responses to “What Gives? Or No Space for God”

  1. Ashley Goad says:

    John, you clearly felt the same way about the book that I did. I was not impressed with Valentine’s academia, and I disagreed with him on his synopses of community and home. While he appeared to be thorough in his textbook, he left out a key ingredient…GOD! I loved how you worked in Mark Noll. Noll’s books have been haunting me ever since we read them. How can we, as ABD’s, contribute to changing the tide and intertwine academia with Christian perspective?

  2. John Woodward says:

    Ashley, that is a great question! After reading Valentine – who clearly ignores anything “god-like” — it really does cause one to pause about the lack of Christian influence in academia. It seems that today philosophy alone is an area where Christians are bringing their voices, some in history (as Noll and Marsden and others) we find a Christian influence. But, here in sociology (which is really the starting point for Valentine), there is no signs of influence. We have a long way to go, I am afraid!

  3. John,

    Wow! Brilliant, eloquent post! Loved it! Thanks for sharing.

    I don’t know Valentine, so I can’t speak to your comments about the author. But I do agree with you; there were missing elements in this book and, yes, it was very biased and single-focused. You are spot on here.

    So what would life be like without God, without the Church? I think this is an important question. And there are places where the Church is not supposed to be — like China. But what is the truth? The truth is that God is very much alive in China, as is the Church. So in spite of Valentine’s lack of awareness, these missing social geographies are still very much alive and well.

    In regards to Ashley’s question, perhaps one of us can write a Christian version of Valentine’s text. I wonder how the table of contents would be different? John, maybe you have discovered your new calling, my friend.

  4. John,
    I’m with Bill … and to get you started or as a reference check this out, “The Church Building as Sacred Space: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternal” (it’s available on Amazon for oh… over $60).

    I wonder what else the lack of the religious might mean? It’s published in the UK – one that reveals where we perhaps are headed. That the Church or religious space is not reflected makes me wonder why is that? What is it about the decrease in Church structures as places of worship reveal? When churches were constructed to lift our eyes (and posture) in worship, what spaces do that today? Did the Church fail to hold the intention? Your post helps me to think more reflectively, intentionally and to ask questions I was not when I was reading. Thanks John for your push!

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    John great post! I think Gill deliberately left out religion or the church because Christianity and religion seem to out of sight and mind in the UK in general especially with the challenged of the “New atheism” movement.

    You raise important questions and are worth thinking through especially if the Church is going to engage in a meaningful way.

    Thank you

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