On the Rising and Falling of Cities

Around 40 years ago, John Kennedy Toole wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning work, A Confederacy of Dunces — a novel about the misadventures of his New Orleanian character Ignatius Reilly. In the opening scene, Reilly is unduly harassed by a police officer and retorts:

“Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?” Ignatius bellowed over the crowd in front of the store. “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. . .”

If that was the situation in the early 1960s, what are we to say of pre-diaspora New Orleans today? Upon first hearing of Jesus, a soon-to-be disciple asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” How much more so New Orleans?

The fact is, although New Orleans is a city singular both in its aura and its corruption, it is not a singular city. From Babylon to Pompeii, the cities of the world have seen their fair share of rising and falling. It seems that more often than not — if they last long enough — cities fall at the hands of men long before they befall natural disaster.

I hope New Orleans will indeed be rebuilt. I hope that the leaders involved in building will take the opportunity to make it better than it was before, while retaining its singularity of place. Writes the Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash:

. . . as a fellow New Orleans enthusiast I know says, “It’s one of the last places that feels like a place.” New Orleans had Voodoo doctors, and stride-piano professors, and Mardi Gras Kings and Queens. The rest of us have Home Depot and Applebees.

Heterogeneous places are few and far between in America these days. This sense of uniqueness will not come from government — corrupt or not. It will emerge from its people, whom Scripture tells us are made in the image of a God who created the very earth out of nothing.

However New Orleans is rebuilt, we must remember that it will yet again be temporary. Now matter how high and strong the levees are built, New Orleans — like every other city built by man — will not endure. This temporal nature should cause us, like Abraham, to be “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”

2 thoughts on “On the Rising and Falling of Cities”

  1. Jared – I think you can extend your point her to nations. I think there is something to Daniel’s vision of the Colossus where the rock (the church) strikes the feet of the statue (the Roman Empire). There is no great empire that comes after this. In other words, it’s as if the Roman Empire was the last great empire. With the advent of Christ no nation can attain that level of power and longevity, every nation will crumble before the Kingdom of God.

  2. Jared, interesting post. It made me think about Augustine’s two-track interpretation of history: the city of God and the city of man. He made the point back in 436AD that this side of heaven, no city in human civilization (not even the “Christian” Rome) can possibly be the city of God, and that Rome’s fall wasn’t due to Christianity, but to the fact that it was the city of man. God’s city is now hidden and barely visible to most, but one day will it be revealed and glorified. Maranatha!

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