The spiritual geography of 11 Canadian cities

17 December 2018

The EFC’s resident theologian reviews a new book about the spiritual realities of our cities.

The Soul of the City: Mapping the Spiritual Geography of Eleven Canadian Cities
Edited by Leonard Hjalmarson
Skyforest, California: Urban Loft Publishers, 2018. 246 pages. $20. Excerpt at

Reviewed by David Guretzki

A shorter version of this review will be published in Faith Today (Jan/Feb 2019).

Whether or not you live near one of the eleven Canadian cities highlighted in this book (Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Montréal and Halifax), if you are a Christian who wants to better understand the nature and challenges of ministry in our cities, this is a good place to start.
But be warned – this book is quirky, Canadian, engaging and represents a genre of contextual theology rarely attempted. My assessment here will also be quirky because the book managed both to inspire and irritate me.
I certainly don’t want to end this review on a sour note, so let’s get the irritants out of the way. I hate to complain about what is otherwise a really delightful book. It’s just that the “delight quotient” was marred by some things that could have been avoided.
For example, this book was poorly edited to the point I wondered whether it had been edited at all. Typographical errors, inconsistent formatting, strange changes of font and inconsistent chapter naming conventions unfortunately gave an impression that someone didn’t really know what they were doing. That’s really too bad, because I really do think this is a book worth digesting.
It’s also disappointing that there were no biographical profiles of the contributing authors. For a book seeking to do contextual theology, it’s sadly ironic that the authors are no more than abstract names who come out of nowhere to write about the “spiritual geography” of very real Canadian places.
More substantially, the editor (Leonard Hjalmarson, author of the award-winning No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place) describes how he intentionally gave latitude to the authors to describe their assigned city using the terms and frameworks they thought most apt. I can understand and appreciate the freedom such an approach allows, but the end result is a rather uneven collection of essays.
Some organizing themes or motifs would have helped. For example Hjalmarson helpfully defines “spiritual geography” of a city as the “interweave of attitudes and environment, posture and politics.” But this definition did not seem to make its way to the chapters. Most of the authors chose not to interact with this definition, and a few ignored it and made up definitions of their own.
A small minority never even seem to have gotten past describing the city in its social, historical and demographic constitution, leaving one to wonder whether they missed the “spiritual geography” part of the title. (It didn’t help either when the editor threw in the language of “spiritual topography” only never to speak of it again – another needless minor irritation.)
But that’s enough griping, because I also found the book surprisingly inspiring. Here are three reasons why.
First, Hjalmarson and his cadre of practitioners cum urban scholars have attempted what I hope will be just the first of many attempts to think theologically about our Canadian cities. It’s a project I’d gladly and enthusiastically endorse.
Too often ministry practitioners think theologically in terms of their local congregation, but demographically and sociologically about their city. Ministry, in other words, needs to think about demographics, economics and sociology, but then push through to what these things say about a city’s “spiritual” dynamic – the true “soul” of the city which cannot be ignored. In short, this book pushes practitioners and strategists to move beyond mere demographic symptoms to understand the deeper spiritual challenges.
Second, having lived in or near four of the cities in the book, and having been in every one of them at one time or another, I was both delighted and challenged in the spiritual geographies so presented.
Having spent my first quarter century near Edmonton, I “aha’ed!” at Seibel’s characterization of Edmonton as a frontier city – rough on the edges and rugged as it is.
I lived near Regina for another quarter century, and so found Root and Helliwell’s metaphor of “circles and squares” to be strikingly apt. When the fundamental circular orientation of First Nations culture clashed with the grids and squares of the Euro-Caucasian settlers, well, that’s Regina.
And having now moved to the nation’s capital, I find myself going, “Oh, now I get it!” when I compare Long’s chapter on Ottawa with our own brief experience of the Ottawa religious and political culture.  
Beyond the chapters already described, I also thought the well-chosen metaphors by other contributors were extremely enlightening and pedagogically useful. It was unnerving but effective to read Martinson’s description of Kelowna as a “White-bread” culture, hilarious yet tremendously insightful to learn that Winnipeggers, according to Howison, are Prairie pragmatists marked by ambivalent pride in their city – a city they love to hate and yet which results in a resilient hopefulness for its future.
I was also surprised to learn of Halifax’s somewhat paradoxical embodiment of the transcendent and immanent in both physical and spiritual geography, and Watson’s use of the biblical Samaritan as description of Toronto and its “ambiguous ethnicity, questionable religiosity, and compassionate intent.”
Of course, you’ll need to read the book to understand and benefit from these metaphors.
This leads to my third point, what I think may be the book’s most important contribution – none of the authors (all of whom appear narratively to be somewhat humble and under-assuming) seem to presume their city-portraits are definitive, let alone comprehensive.
For example I think of Seibel’s use of three communities along 118 Avenue in Edmonton as representative of the city as a whole. Without denigrating these narrations, I can only imagine that practitioners in other parts of the city might counter with narratives of the communities in which they work.
This impulse to respond reveals the real genius and usefulness of this book: it can spur others to think deeply and inform themselves about the spiritual realities in the cities that they themselves inhabit.
We need not replicate what these authors have done, nor do we even have to agree with their portraits. But we should thank them for modelling ways we need to learn to think about our own cities for the sake of the gospel of Jesus and the shalom of God and the peace of the city.
David Guretzki is resident theologian at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and also its executive vice-president. Read more reviews like this in Faith Today).
Author: David Guretzki

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