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.