Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How Heaven Is Like a Small Town

There is a tendency to idolize both one's upbringing and the small town, and it is not my intention to do that. I know full well the ugly side of small town life: the provincialism, the petty infighting, the divisions, etc. I also know that the small town itself is dead or dying in many places. It is the rare small town today that is a self-contained society, with a vibrant communal life and commercial and career opportunities.

When I was younger, I could not wait to get away from the small town. I grew up in a small town not too far from Grand Rapids, a mid-sized city. My parents had moved away from the city before I was born, seeking a smaller town in which to raise their family. My cousins and grandparents lived in Grand Rapids, and I was always curious about that life. Everything was so convenient. My cousin and I could ride our bikes to a convenience store. There were restaurants and movie theaters. As I got older, I discovered the cultural life there. I loved trips as a young child to the big downtown department stores, which have since perished.

Being from a small town, and now living in a suburb, I have discovered they are two very different things. Small towns are far enough from cities to have their own community life, while the suburb leeches off the city. No, heaven is not like a suburb. We live in one of the best suburbs I could ever imagine, and yet I profoundly hope that heaven is different than the suburb.

It is hard to imagine heaven being like a megalopolis either. We are told to look for the city that has foundations, which is a new Jerusalem...Jerusalem, like a city that is compact together. Even Rome, the largest city of the ancient era, was scarely larger than Grand Rapids. I'm with Jacques Ellul on this one --cities can dehumanize, as much as I love to visit them and experience them. Probably community used to happen in cities, but I sense that probably met its demise with the death of self-sufficient neighborhoods, which were like small towns within cities.

Being from a small town gives one a sense of place. You knew who you were in a small town, and other people did, too. You were somebody's child, who want to this or that church, and had this or that teacher. All the spheres of your life overlapped: some of the people you saw at church were those you saw at school, you worked for people who knew your parents, life centered on family, church, school and community events. You had a sense of place, a feeling of belonging. There was life there, and it was lived, not in isolation, but community.

My graduating class had about 65 people. We were not all friends. We did not all get along. There were pecking orders and popularity contests. It all seems so petty now --because it was. Yet, you knew everyone, for good and bad, you were bound together.

This is how heaven is like a small town, though shorn of sin and pettiness: everyone there stands in intimate, unbroken community forever. They all go to the same places. They all do things together. You know and are known. There is no anonymity, no isolation.

Lewis said heaven felt more like home than any earthly home. I'm looking forward to that.


  1. Living in a HUGE urban/metropolitan area gives the "amen" to your thoughts. This environment is very unfriendly, everyone is in a hurry, and no seems to be happy about a thing. It is any wonder there are more crimes in angry big cities?

  2. Hi Ken--

    You tempt me but I won't bite! Here's two thoughts. First, what makes a city in the Bible is not population size but density. The Hebrew word 'iyr meant a settlement with a wall, and a wall forced people to live in close proximity to one another. Second, the biggest center-cities are much more like villages than like suburbs, exurbs, or even more smallish municipalities. In a center city you can walk from your residence to workplaces, stores, schools, and theaters or other places of recreation. That's the way it is also in a village. But in the suburbs and most other towns you have to drive everywhere. I've found that in big cities and small villages you have to know your neighbors personally--you see them on the street regularly, face-to-face.

    Just some thoughts...

    Tim Keller

  3. Tim,

    I was hoping to draw you out on this one! I think NYC (and probably Chicago) would be special cases, unlike say Charlotte or Dallas.

    Glad to hear from you brother. It would seem to be the demise of neighborhoods and rootedness that might be the problem, as well as the ability to live progressively farther apart (like Lewis's conception of Hell).

  4. Can I ask whether Hopewell or Manhattan was more like heaven? Between Jackson and Wytheville, VA, it's no contest :-)