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Reclaiming Place in a Disengaged World: An Interview with Eric O. Jacobsen

Two books by Eric Jacobsen—Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Baker 2003) and The Space Between (Baker 2012)—have stretched my understanding of the role of place in our communities and why it matters for the church. Eric agreed to talk with me about his ongoing engagement with issues of place in our increasingly placeless world.

Jude Tiersma Watson: Eric, you’ve done a lot of thinking, writing, and living concerning the role of place in our world as well as the engagement of churches with their environments. How did you first get interested in the role of place?

Eric O. Jacobsen: I’ve always been interested in place, although perhaps not at a conscious level. I can, however, trace my clearest memory of an epiphany about the importance of place to my sophomore year in college. For spring break, I was visiting a friend who lived in a suburban community in Southern California. This was my first exposure to an automobile-oriented suburb and it kind of freaked me out. I had lived my whole life in compact, pre-WWII neighborhoods, where you could walk to any number of destinations and every house was different. I had never been to a place where you had to drive just to get a cup of coffee and every fourth house had the exact same design. It felt very disorienting and, well, placeless.

After that experience, I continued to think that my friend’s subdivision was the anomaly and my experience was normal. This changed when I moved to Missoula, Montana, and bought my first house. I realized that I was really drawn to these pre-WWII neighborhoods, but they were definitely the exception. Most of the houses that were available were in automobile-oriented suburbs. We had to pay a bit more for a smaller house in a walkable neighborhood. But this neighborhood was something like 80 percent noncompliant with current zoning codes. I realized our municipal codes were really tilted toward placeless places.

Jude: How has the Bible informed your understanding about place?

Eric: The whole story of the Bible can be told from the perspective of place. We were created and placed in a good environment where we could enjoy fellowship with God. When we rebelled against God and ruptured our fundamental relationship with our Creator, a key element of our punishment was removal from that place. God’s strategy to resolve the problem involved calling one man to become the father of a great nation that would dwell with God in a special place. On two occasions the people of God were removed from that place as a consequence of their unfaithfulness. But God sent his son to be born in a particular place to announce the coming of his kingdom and reconciliation through the forgiveness of sin. As Jesus was preparing to leave his disciples, he promised that he was going to prepare a place where they could be with him. Further, John the Apostle was given a vision of the New Jerusalem as a redeemed place in which Christ would return and reign forever. 

Jude: What is the difference between place and space, and the relationship between the two?

Eric: A slightly more precise way of talking about place is to distinguish between space and place. Space is undifferentiated terrain. There is a kind of emptiness to space, but also freedom. According to Walter Brueggemann, place is storied space. From the moment we begin to inhabit space, we start inscribing our lives and our stories onto the spaces where we dwell. It’s easy to see this in a college dorm room. Before the student moves in, it is a space. By the end of the first quarter it has become a place.

It’s essential to note this distinction because in the Bible place is important, but so also is space. In between that dominant thread of place in Scripture that I just described are significant episodes involving space. The wilderness is where space shows up in the Bible and it’s super important. God’s people are formed in the wilderness; God speaks to a number of his messengers in the wilderness; Jesus is triumphant over the devil in the wilderness. So it is really more accurate to say that place and space are significant biblical themes.

Jude: It seems our rootedness to place has diminished over time. How is this placelessness harmful to communities?

Eric: The place-related problem that we are seeing in our context is placelessness. A great deal of standardized architecture in both its residential and commercial form does not contribute to a sense of place because it could be anywhere. But it is also not space because it has either filled a space or destroyed a place in its construction. So often suburban housing subdivisions are named for the thing that they destroyed: names like Orchard Hills or Meadow Run usually point to special things that no longer exist in that location.

Jude: Why is it that the evangelical world seems less rooted in place than some other groups, such as Catholics and Lutherans?

Eric: I suspect that evangelicals have been less interested in place because of a deficient eschatology. Somewhere between “the earth will be destroyed by fire” (2 Peter 3:10) and “we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17) evangelicals have tended toward the idea that the Bible teaches the end of the story will involve the earth (including both the natural and built environment) being destroyed and Christians being taken from the earth to live some kind of ephemeral existence in heaven. Somehow, we latched onto some poor translations of those verses and faulty exegesis of a few obscure texts and missed the clearer passage in Revelation 21 about the New Jerusalem descending upon a renewed heaven and earth.

This kind of eschatology doesn’t inspire Christians to care about the natural environment, nor does it lead them to think about place. That may explain why gas-guzzling SUVs in the parking lot of a generic warehouse worship space is such a common evangelical trope. Now it is true that as Protestants we are likely to think about place differently than Catholics even when we believe it’s important. I can care deeply about place as a Christian without straying into the sacred space tradition of the Catholic faith. I have a lot of respect for the sacred space tradition, but it isn’t where I have landed.

Jude: You’ve written that the 21st century is about the recovery of the built environment. What prompted this recovery and why does it matter to the church?

Eric: If you look at demographic trends, you’ll see that interest in automobile-oriented suburbs peaked somewhere in the 1990s and people are becoming more and more drawn to walkable neighborhoods. The suburbs made a number of promises having to do with convenience and quality of life for which they simply haven’t delivered. Moreover, the suburbs were an attempt to use the built environment to disengage us from the particularities of place and from other people. They are failing because they are environmentally and economically unsustainable and because they are boring. As people begin to look again to the built environment to connect us to particular places and to people, it becomes more interesting. Also, during our automobile-oriented building phase, the built environment was being dictated largely by traffic engineers who thought primarily about moving automobiles efficiently. Now that we’re turning back to a human-scaled approach to the built environment, it has become a lot more interesting—and a lot more aesthetically satisfying.

Jude: Can you describe how identity and memory are tied to place?

Eric: Because we are embodied creatures, our identity is tethered to place. Our sense of touch and smell are particularly effective at holding memories. This is how it has been for humans and other creatures since the beginning of time. What’s odd is that now we have the possibility of forming some portion of our identity and holding some of our memories placelessly. A Facebook page or an Instagram account represents placeless identity. That kind of identity tether is not altogether bad, but as Christians who believe in the goodness of the body, we should be wary of conceding all of our identity and memory to disembodied settings.

Jude: How do you see the relationship between place and shalom?

Eric: In the Bible we discover not only that God created us, but also that he placed us. Both of these actions are part of the goodness of creation. When God created humans and placed them in the garden, they were able to experience shalom with him. The next time we witness shalom in such an unambiguous way is in the vision of the New Jerusalem, which is also a place where humanity can dwell with God. Shalom involves right relationships with each other, with God, and with creation in a particular place. To be dis-placed is part of the curse. We feel at peace when we are settled in place, and while we may enjoy traveling for a while, at some point, we long to return to our place.

Jude: As a pastor, how does your work on place impact your role?

Eric: I believe that people experience redemption even in placeless places and therefore a pastor can do good work without much regard for place, but place is absolutely essential to my pastoral identity. I have always lived within walking distance of the church I serve so that my sense of vocation can grow organically from the place where I dwell. I schedule my time and I make appointments like most pastors, but I find that some of my most important pastoral work happens when I am interrupted by bumping into someone on my way to somewhere. Whenever that happens, I am reminded of the fact that it wouldn’t have happened had I been driving a car. Jesus seemed to do a lot of “bumping into people” ministry as well, so there is a good precedent for this approach to ministry. 

Jude: Are there situations where place can be negative—even oppressive?

Eric: Yes, absolutely. Place, like any other realm of existence, is both good and distorted by the Fall. Place can be a nefarious realm of oppression. There is unfortunately a long history of a dominant group trying to keep another group “in their place.” In such cases, the gospel can liberate someone from the oppression of place. This was part of what was happening in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. She wanted to know if she could commune with God if she were barred from Jerusalem. His answer was that she could worship God in any place.

But this realization doesn’t diminish the power of place. It just means that place cannot be used to cut us off from God or to malign our dignity as creatures made in the image of God. It’s not altogether different from the realm of human relationships. We were created to be in relationships, but sometimes relationships can be toxic. That needs to be addressed, but we don’t give up on relationships in general. I believe that we were created to dwell in place and we ignore it to our peril. As a Protestant, I don’t identify with the sacred space tradition. That is to say, I don’t think that particular places make God more present to us. But I do believe that it is important that we worship God in a particular place. The body of Christ gathers best in place and the sacraments are rightly administered in place. My love for place makes me a little concerned about the multisite model for church, but maybe I shouldn’t get into that here.

Jude: You had a new book come out this spring. What inspired this new book and how does it relate to your former work on place and the built environment?

Eric: It’s called Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. I’ve noticed that people are starting to express concern for how our smartphones are causing us to get sucked into these devices and disengage with one another. While I agree with that sentiment, I don’t believe that this all began with the smartphone. I trace this societal habit of choosing disembodied over embodied experiences back through the television and to the automobile. Our decision to build an entire society around the automobile destroyed the human scale of cities and neighborhoods. It led to much more time driving our cars and much less time in face-to-face engagement with one another. We responded to this not by figuring out new ways to physically engage one another but rather by watching a lot of TV. We created a world in which we could drive our cars right into an attached garage and flip on the TV. The only time we had to engage with another person face-to-face was when we went to the store or had to pick up our kid from school. Now with our smartphones we can disengage with others in those settings as well. I don’t think that this is how most of us want to live, but we’ve been taken down this path of disengagement. My hope is that this book will help us see the connections between these things and then hopefully start to recover some practices for face-to-face interaction that we’d forgotten about.

Written By

Jude Tiersma Watson has lived and worked in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of central Los Angeles for 30 years as a member of InnerCHANGE, a Christian Order Among the Poor. The neighborhood and ministry have changed over the years, but one thing remains: God’s desire for us to live lives of worship and joy as we share life with our neighbors. She is an associate professor of urban mission in the School of Intercultural Studies. A key interest for her is the impact of the urban context on our spiritual formation. Jude and her husband recently moved to Pomona, California.

“My social location as I write this piece is as an educated, privileged immigrant of Dutch descent, struggling to listen to, learn from, and be changed by stories and places that are not my own.”

—Jude Tiersma Watson

Eric O. Jacobsen (PhD ’08) is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, and, most recently, Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. He has also written numerous articles exploring connections between the Christian community, the church, and traditional neighborhoods. He is the coeditor of the book The Three Tasks of Leadership and, with Richard Mouw, the book Traditions in Leadership. He also cohosts the Embedded Church podcast.

Two books by Eric Jacobsen—Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Baker 2003) and The Space Between (Baker 2012)—have stretched my understanding of the role of place in our communities and why it matters for the church. Eric agreed to talk with me about his ongoing engagement with issues of place in our increasingly placeless world.

Jude Tiersma Watson: Eric, you’ve done a lot of thinking, writing, and living concerning the role of place in our world as well as the engagement of churches with their environments. How did you first get interested in the role of place?

Eric O. Jacobsen: I’ve always been interested in place, although perhaps not at a conscious level. I can, however, trace my clearest memory of an epiphany about the importance of place to my sophomore year in college. For spring break, I was visiting a friend who lived in a suburban community in Southern California. This was my first exposure to an automobile-oriented suburb and it kind of freaked me out. I had lived my whole life in compact, pre-WWII neighborhoods, where you could walk to any number of destinations and every house was different. I had never been to a place where you had to drive just to get a cup of coffee and every fourth house had the exact same design. It felt very disorienting and, well, placeless.

After that experience, I continued to think that my friend’s subdivision was the anomaly and my experience was normal. This changed when I moved to Missoula, Montana, and bought my first house. I realized that I was really drawn to these pre-WWII neighborhoods, but they were definitely the exception. Most of the houses that were available were in automobile-oriented suburbs. We had to pay a bit more for a smaller house in a walkable neighborhood. But this neighborhood was something like 80 percent noncompliant with current zoning codes. I realized our municipal codes were really tilted toward placeless places.

Jude: How has the Bible informed your understanding about place?

Eric: The whole story of the Bible can be told from the perspective of place. We were created and placed in a good environment where we could enjoy fellowship with God. When we rebelled against God and ruptured our fundamental relationship with our Creator, a key element of our punishment was removal from that place. God’s strategy to resolve the problem involved calling one man to become the father of a great nation that would dwell with God in a special place. On two occasions the people of God were removed from that place as a consequence of their unfaithfulness. But God sent his son to be born in a particular place to announce the coming of his kingdom and reconciliation through the forgiveness of sin. As Jesus was preparing to leave his disciples, he promised that he was going to prepare a place where they could be with him. Further, John the Apostle was given a vision of the New Jerusalem as a redeemed place in which Christ would return and reign forever. 

Jude: What is the difference between place and space, and the relationship between the two?

Eric: A slightly more precise way of talking about place is to distinguish between space and place. Space is undifferentiated terrain. There is a kind of emptiness to space, but also freedom. According to Walter Brueggemann, place is storied space. From the moment we begin to inhabit space, we start inscribing our lives and our stories onto the spaces where we dwell. It’s easy to see this in a college dorm room. Before the student moves in, it is a space. By the end of the first quarter it has become a place.

It’s essential to note this distinction because in the Bible place is important, but so also is space. In between that dominant thread of place in Scripture that I just described are significant episodes involving space. The wilderness is where space shows up in the Bible and it’s super important. God’s people are formed in the wilderness; God speaks to a number of his messengers in the wilderness; Jesus is triumphant over the devil in the wilderness. So it is really more accurate to say that place and space are significant biblical themes.

Jude: It seems our rootedness to place has diminished over time. How is this placelessness harmful to communities?

Eric: The place-related problem that we are seeing in our context is placelessness. A great deal of standardized architecture in both its residential and commercial form does not contribute to a sense of place because it could be anywhere. But it is also not space because it has either filled a space or destroyed a place in its construction. So often suburban housing subdivisions are named for the thing that they destroyed: names like Orchard Hills or Meadow Run usually point to special things that no longer exist in that location.

Jude: Why is it that the evangelical world seems less rooted in place than some other groups, such as Catholics and Lutherans?

Eric: I suspect that evangelicals have been less interested in place because of a deficient eschatology. Somewhere between “the earth will be destroyed by fire” (2 Peter 3:10) and “we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17) evangelicals have tended toward the idea that the Bible teaches the end of the story will involve the earth (including both the natural and built environment) being destroyed and Christians being taken from the earth to live some kind of ephemeral existence in heaven. Somehow, we latched onto some poor translations of those verses and faulty exegesis of a few obscure texts and missed the clearer passage in Revelation 21 about the New Jerusalem descending upon a renewed heaven and earth.

This kind of eschatology doesn’t inspire Christians to care about the natural environment, nor does it lead them to think about place. That may explain why gas-guzzling SUVs in the parking lot of a generic warehouse worship space is such a common evangelical trope. Now it is true that as Protestants we are likely to think about place differently than Catholics even when we believe it’s important. I can care deeply about place as a Christian without straying into the sacred space tradition of the Catholic faith. I have a lot of respect for the sacred space tradition, but it isn’t where I have landed.

Jude: You’ve written that the 21st century is about the recovery of the built environment. What prompted this recovery and why does it matter to the church?

Eric: If you look at demographic trends, you’ll see that interest in automobile-oriented suburbs peaked somewhere in the 1990s and people are becoming more and more drawn to walkable neighborhoods. The suburbs made a number of promises having to do with convenience and quality of life for which they simply haven’t delivered. Moreover, the suburbs were an attempt to use the built environment to disengage us from the particularities of place and from other people. They are failing because they are environmentally and economically unsustainable and because they are boring. As people begin to look again to the built environment to connect us to particular places and to people, it becomes more interesting. Also, during our automobile-oriented building phase, the built environment was being dictated largely by traffic engineers who thought primarily about moving automobiles efficiently. Now that we’re turning back to a human-scaled approach to the built environment, it has become a lot more interesting—and a lot more aesthetically satisfying.

Jude: Can you describe how identity and memory are tied to place?

Eric: Because we are embodied creatures, our identity is tethered to place. Our sense of touch and smell are particularly effective at holding memories. This is how it has been for humans and other creatures since the beginning of time. What’s odd is that now we have the possibility of forming some portion of our identity and holding some of our memories placelessly. A Facebook page or an Instagram account represents placeless identity. That kind of identity tether is not altogether bad, but as Christians who believe in the goodness of the body, we should be wary of conceding all of our identity and memory to disembodied settings.

Jude: How do you see the relationship between place and shalom?

Eric: In the Bible we discover not only that God created us, but also that he placed us. Both of these actions are part of the goodness of creation. When God created humans and placed them in the garden, they were able to experience shalom with him. The next time we witness shalom in such an unambiguous way is in the vision of the New Jerusalem, which is also a place where humanity can dwell with God. Shalom involves right relationships with each other, with God, and with creation in a particular place. To be dis-placed is part of the curse. We feel at peace when we are settled in place, and while we may enjoy traveling for a while, at some point, we long to return to our place.

Jude: As a pastor, how does your work on place impact your role?

Eric: I believe that people experience redemption even in placeless places and therefore a pastor can do good work without much regard for place, but place is absolutely essential to my pastoral identity. I have always lived within walking distance of the church I serve so that my sense of vocation can grow organically from the place where I dwell. I schedule my time and I make appointments like most pastors, but I find that some of my most important pastoral work happens when I am interrupted by bumping into someone on my way to somewhere. Whenever that happens, I am reminded of the fact that it wouldn’t have happened had I been driving a car. Jesus seemed to do a lot of “bumping into people” ministry as well, so there is a good precedent for this approach to ministry. 

Jude: Are there situations where place can be negative—even oppressive?

Eric: Yes, absolutely. Place, like any other realm of existence, is both good and distorted by the Fall. Place can be a nefarious realm of oppression. There is unfortunately a long history of a dominant group trying to keep another group “in their place.” In such cases, the gospel can liberate someone from the oppression of place. This was part of what was happening in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. She wanted to know if she could commune with God if she were barred from Jerusalem. His answer was that she could worship God in any place.

But this realization doesn’t diminish the power of place. It just means that place cannot be used to cut us off from God or to malign our dignity as creatures made in the image of God. It’s not altogether different from the realm of human relationships. We were created to be in relationships, but sometimes relationships can be toxic. That needs to be addressed, but we don’t give up on relationships in general. I believe that we were created to dwell in place and we ignore it to our peril. As a Protestant, I don’t identify with the sacred space tradition. That is to say, I don’t think that particular places make God more present to us. But I do believe that it is important that we worship God in a particular place. The body of Christ gathers best in place and the sacraments are rightly administered in place. My love for place makes me a little concerned about the multisite model for church, but maybe I shouldn’t get into that here.

Jude: You had a new book come out this spring. What inspired this new book and how does it relate to your former work on place and the built environment?

Eric: It’s called Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. I’ve noticed that people are starting to express concern for how our smartphones are causing us to get sucked into these devices and disengage with one another. While I agree with that sentiment, I don’t believe that this all began with the smartphone. I trace this societal habit of choosing disembodied over embodied experiences back through the television and to the automobile. Our decision to build an entire society around the automobile destroyed the human scale of cities and neighborhoods. It led to much more time driving our cars and much less time in face-to-face engagement with one another. We responded to this not by figuring out new ways to physically engage one another but rather by watching a lot of TV. We created a world in which we could drive our cars right into an attached garage and flip on the TV. The only time we had to engage with another person face-to-face was when we went to the store or had to pick up our kid from school. Now with our smartphones we can disengage with others in those settings as well. I don’t think that this is how most of us want to live, but we’ve been taken down this path of disengagement. My hope is that this book will help us see the connections between these things and then hopefully start to recover some practices for face-to-face interaction that we’d forgotten about.

Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson has lived and worked in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of central Los Angeles for 30 years as a member of InnerCHANGE, a Christian Order Among the Poor. The neighborhood and ministry have changed over the years, but one thing remains: God’s desire for us to live lives of worship and joy as we share life with our neighbors. She is an associate professor of urban mission in the School of Intercultural Studies. A key interest for her is the impact of the urban context on our spiritual formation. Jude and her husband recently moved to Pomona, California.

“My social location as I write this piece is as an educated, privileged immigrant of Dutch descent, struggling to listen to, learn from, and be changed by stories and places that are not my own.”

—Jude Tiersma Watson

Eric Jacobson

Eric O. Jacobsen (PhD ’08) is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, and, most recently, Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens. He has also written numerous articles exploring connections between the Christian community, the church, and traditional neighborhoods. He is the coeditor of the book The Three Tasks of Leadership and, with Richard Mouw, the book Traditions in Leadership. He also cohosts the Embedded Church podcast.

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