Ikonbelt – Glenn Jordan on Urban Theology

glenn jordanEvery city has its rough edges. In Belfast, apart from the social challenges associated with post-industrial urban poverty, the violent legacy of the Troubles continues to haunt those city spaces.

Philip Orr’s work on New Loyalties: Christian Faith and the Protestant Working Class argued that the flight of the Protestant middle classes from the inner city – and from the inner city churches – has contributed to decline in some parts of the city.

One notable exception is East Belfast Mission (EBM), and its innovative Skainos project. Scheduled to be completed on 17 September, EBM describe Skainos as:

“an urban regeneration project in inner East Belfast providing shared space for community transformation and renewal.”

Skainos director Glenn Jordan was one of the featured speakers at Ikonbelt, a Belfast-based alternative Greenbelt organised by the Ikon collective. Jordan opened his talk by saying he would resist providing an overview of Skainos (described here on the EBM website), choosing instead to focus on the imaginative theology that informs the project.

I think that theology could be summed up in a short Question and Answer couplet:

Q.What does it take to change the world?

A.Living as if that change has already taken place …

Of course, my couplet simplifies Jordan’s message, which was grounded in the theology of Walter Brueggemann on the prophetic imagination. Jordan’s plea for imagination was in many senses a call to the churches to make space for the artists and poets to contribute to reshaping the world – a principle which is embedded in the art and architecture of Skainos (explained in more detail on the Skainos webpage).

mark houstonJordan opened his appeal by appealing to Bruce Springsteen’s song My City of Ruins, which he attempted to play on Youtube to set the mood. The volume on his i-pad wasn’t adequate so he called on musician Mark Houston, who is also Mission Director at EBM, to perform the song from the audience – a beautiful contribution which added to the immediacy of the occasion.

From there, Jordan said that part of the prophetic imagination is ‘naming the fallen-ness’ of the city – recognising, and not running away from – the problems and the sins that beset it.

And just as the lyrics of My City of Ruins urge listeners to ‘come on, rise up,’ the next step is to choose to live in a way to transcend that fallen-ness.

Springsteen’s version of My City of Ruins

There is, of course, no set formula for ‘transcending fallen-ness.’ But Christians can work out, together, how they might model a different way of life. Jordan described this as living as if the ‘kingdom of God’ had already arrived in the world.

To provide an example, he explained how he has guided students and other groups through exercises where they considered particular locations which might easily be dismissed as urban blight, asking them to ‘imagine’ what these places would look like in a ‘kingdom’ world.

In one case, this led to a dis-used brown field site in East Belfast being transformed into a community park and gardens.

Of course, this ‘living the kingdom’ principle can also be discerned in Skainos itself, which is deliberately designed to mix living, social, religious, and retail spaces in a shared and pleasant environment.

And it’s evidenced in the biblical Greek word Skainos, which according to EBM:

… speaks of the importance of practical engagement with a community by figuratively pitching a tent in its midst, and it hints at the notion of hospitality and the extended family.  An alternative meaning for the word is as a description of the frailty of human beings. It stands therefore as a useful counterbalance to the temptation to focus solely on new buildings to the detriment of serving people.

Jordan’s examples provoked some further discussion about creative ways in which to change the urban environment for the better. The conversation instilled some hope that even what may appear small steps (in particular, on the part of artists or poets) can actually stimulate changes that have wider ripple effects.

I hope to post more on Ikonbelt in the coming days.

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