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Columnists

Metropolitan lines

James Cary

In May, London was busy electing its mayor. In most British elections, feverish counting begins as soon as polls close at 10pm on Thursday. But for the London Mayor the counting begins at a leisurely 8.30am on Friday morning, after a light breakfast of coffee and bagels. The winner is announced later that day so that the first thing the winning candidate can do in office is take a well-deserved weekend off, ideally in the country and away from the ghastly city that has to be governed.

The reality is that, with the exception of the young and hip, most people wince at the thought of large city. The word 'urban' is associated with other words like 'crime', 'poverty' and 'deprivation'. Urban culture invokes images of jagged writing on concrete walls, spray paint, uncollected rubbish and an excessive use of the letter 'z'. 'Inner-cities' sound uniformly gloomy and without hope. So it's no surprise that many of us who live in cities plan to leave at some point in the future to pursue a life of middle-class suburban ennui or rustic simplicity.

It is common to assume that Christianity is a religion of the countryside. JRR Tolkein's shires and CS Lewis's Narnia both promote living alongside nature and streams, rather than flyovers and municipal swimming baths. In Genesis, God made the mountains and the hills, plants, birds, animals, and fish.

The problem is that many people, including lots of Christians, think that heaven is a regression to Eden; that Christians can look forward to some kind of Hawaiian, leafy paradise in which trees abound in permanently ripe fruit and it's always warm. Except I don't really like fruit. I can be talked into eating bananas but in heaven, I'd like bacon. And I don't want sit around in gardens for ever - although if I die aged 71 and remain that age permanently in heaven, I probably will want to sit around in gardens for ever.

But this just underlines how we've taken thoughts of heaven from pop-culture and Plato, rather than the Bible. The Bible starts in a garden in Genesis and ends in a city in Revelation, giving us a clear idea of what heaven will be like. It is not a Nirvana-like state of permanent bliss in which we float around as disembodied spirits in some ethereal soup. Heaven is a lobby for the New Heavens and New Earth, which contain a vast shining city, the New Jerusalem. Who'd've thunk it? The afterlife is a city. Personally I'm still reeling from the revelation that God is a DJ. But it's not just a sprawling metropolis of tower-blocks. A river runs through it and a tree grows with leaves that will heal the nations. It's a garden city. Could it be that Welwyn Garden City is a simply way ahead of its time?

This is all hard to swallow, since cities tend to be places where bad things happens. Look at Babel, where men got together and decided to build a tower to God. Look at Sodom and Gomorrah where men just got together. Look at Nineveh, the hated city that inspired Jonah to sail in the opposite direction as fast as he could. But cities are only sinful places because they're great gatherings of sinners. And that's why God loves cities. Jonah wanted God to zap Nineveh out of existence and sat on his hill eating popcorn while he waited for it to happen. But God tells Jonah that Nineveh is full of thousands of people who cannot tell their right hand from their left - which explains why it took three days to cross the city. It must have been gridlocked if people couldn't tell left and right apart. The final words of the book of Jonah are God saying, 'Should I not be concerned about that great city?' (Jonah 4:11)

So the people running London, New York, Moscow, Rotterdam or anywhere, can be encouraged that God loves cities. But how do you run one? Cities, like God, operate on grace which is 'cheerfully putting up with stuff you don't like' (apologies if I'm getting too technical). In cities, your garden isn't as big as you'd like, and it's next to someone else's whose tree scatters leaves on your lawn. And upstairs is a family with kids who stomp around and use their washing machine at 2am. And you can't park outside your house. Especially on match day. You need grace to live in a city and anything that teaches us grace is a Good Thing.