Where Mortals Dwell: A Review

While the scholarly study of place is becoming increasingly more common, there is still comparatively little theological work published on the topic. Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell adds to this biblical and theological conversation by offering, as the subtitle indicates, “a Christian view of place for today.” The book is divided into three parts: place in the Bible, place in Western philosophical and Christian traditions, and a Christian view of place for today, where he outlines in a rather broad way the practical ways in which Christians might practice placemaking.

Bartholomew covers a wide variety of sources in this book, and his background in biblical studies shines through especially in the first section on views of place in scripture. His closest exegetical work is done in regard to Genesis 1-3, though his attention to more general themes in the law and gospels is helpful for a full picture of place in scripture. Even in the biblical section, though, he draws on philosophical sources, especially that of Edward Casey, a method that I found somewhat odd considering he develops a second section on philosophical sources. This aside, Bartholomew’s study of scripture is truthful to its overarching message and a great contribution to the field of place studies in the Bible.

The second section that deals with theological and philosophical sources is shorter and less comprehensive. It still provides a helpful overview of the topic, but he leaves out any close readings of more recent theologians such as T.F. Torrance, Jurgen Moltmann, Timothy Gorringe, or David Brown, who deal with space and place in a helpful theological way. He does not provide much summary on his comprehensive theology of place (only about 5 pages of a 300+ page book), but it seems to be, basically, an incarnational Trinitarian approach to place that is historical, practical, and eschatological in its concerns. It relies on embodied practice of communities in place, a theme that he more implicitly draws out further in section three.

It is the third section, however, that is the most interest to us here at Transpositions. Here, Bartholomew offers various ways that Christians engage in the action of placemaking, including placemaking in the city, placemaking in the garden and home, and a section on placemaking in various facets of life, including farming, the university, the church, public memorials, pilgrimage, politics, environmental work, and the arts. This section provides a unique contribution by focusing on placemaking, and covers a wide variety of human activities that revolve around place. This seems to me to have held the most potential for place studies in theology, but the limited attention to each section (there are only two pages devoted to the arts) leaves the reader wanting much, much more.

It seems to me that Bartholomew’s overall investigation into place and placemaking would have benefitted from a deeper focus on making more generally. A study of the Old Testament offers rich possibilities for this (human making and naming in Genesis, the building of the tabernacle, etc.), but Bartholomew focuses relatively little on the human action of making in these places (for instance, he focuses more on the actual place of the tabernacle rather than the process of making or building it). This topic of placemaking is where the arts have a major advantage and contribution to make to the theological study of place. If we want to investigate practical ways by which to apply our understanding of place—what Bartholomew no doubt begins to do in the last section of the book—we need to understand the actual process of making place to begin with, what is involved in it, what activities it might include, whether our understanding of place is related to our specific actions within it. By looking at the arts’ relationship to place and placemaking, I believe we can better understand the other facets that Bartholomew discusses. For instance, our conception of farming practices might be better understood if we look to a theology of craft and embodied making. We can better engage in the practice of placemaking when we take time to dwell on the process of making itself and when we consider the ways our artistic making alters our vision of the world (the arts can make us see things in a new way, including places!).

Still, the small sections on placemaking practices supply enough information to provide a starting point for further study, which it seems is what the book was designed to do. A totally comprehensive tome on place and theology would take much longer, and its practical applications would fill further volumes still. In this way, Bartholomew has provided just what the field of theology needed in regard to place—a book that gets people excited about the various possibilities of making a place on earth.

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