Which City?

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16 [NRSV])

All we wanderers, all we watchers, have been called: called to live in a city God has prepared for us. And moreover, at least according to some interpretations of scripture, we have been called to do more than that: we have been called to help build that city. But which city is it?

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Godspell for the first time. I know, I know, me, a 49-year-old American fan of musicals; how can I justify missing it for so long? But the fact is, I had; I knew many of the songs, but I’d never seen them performed together, never seen the whole production in one sitting–and it was tremendous, making me shout and clap and cry. Among the many, many high points of the delightful and moving high school production I saw was one song, which stood out among all others: “Beautiful City.” These were the lyrics I heard:

Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man

We may not reach the ending
But we can start
Slowly but surely mending
Brick by brick
Heart by heart
Now, maybe now
We start learning how

We can build a beautiful city
Yes we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city
Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man

It is such a powerful, sobering tune, sung as the disciples of Jesus carry His lifeless body off the stage, resolving among themselves to be strong and continue to love in the face of violence and false judgment and hate. But something about it made me wonder, and afterwards, I did a little digging, at which point I discovered something that most of the true fans of musicals out there already knew: that the composer of Godspell, Stephen Schwartz, wrote the song specifically for the movie version, but wasn’t satisfied with it–he said, in retrospect, that his lyrics were cloying and “drippy”–and so when he had the opportunity to revisit the musical, for a 1993 production in Los Angeles, he rewrote the song, changing its tone, making an oblique reference to the 1991 riots in L.A. (the “city of angels”), and moving it in the production from an exciting revelation in the midst of Jesus’s mission to a resolute declaration at its end. So rather than the version which moved me, this was the version that people sang along with for decades:

Come sing me sweet rejoicing
Come sing me love
We’re not afraid of voicing
All the things
We’re dreaming of
Oh, high and low,
And everywhere we go

We can build
A beautiful city
Yes we can
We can build
A beautiful city
Call it out
And call it the city of man

We don’t need alabaster
We don’t need chrome
We’ve got our special plaster
Take my hand
I’ll take you home
We see nations rise
In each other’s eyes

We can build
A beautiful city
Yes we can
We can build
A beautiful city
Call it out
And call it the city of man

Come sing me sweet rejoicing
Come sing me love
We’re not afraid of voicing
All the things
We’re dreaming of
Oh, high and low,
And everywhere we go

We can build
A beautiful city
Yes we can
We can build
A beautiful city
Call it out
And call it the city of man

Given my tendency to emphasize our fallen condition, our struggle with sin and brokenness, and our need to grace, one might think that I’d agree with Schwartz (who is, for a record, a secular Jew, not a Christian, who wrote the music in part to celebrate Jesus’s ideals, not construct a theology around Him). Our efforts in this world are best characterized by “ruins and rubble,” and our city-building will never “reach the ending,” so surely, let’s put that hippie stuff away, right?

And yet…there is a reason people move to cities, there is a reason people form communities. It is to experience freedom, opportunity, diversity, and–I would say, anyway–the multitude of avenues of inspiration that being with others brings into our lives. The tragedy of cities and nations, of all human communities, is that they are built of “alabaster” and “chrome”–God offers us (“take my hand!”) a home made of a stronger “plaster” than anything we have among ourselves. An unearthly city, made by human beings like ourselves? Well, why not? Call it utopian, but honestly, if you’re not going to believe in the beautiful city, what’s the point of Zion anyway?

So I’m torn between both versions. They are, of course, both true, so there’s no need to choose. But as we think about what our Christianity is calling to be and do with others, maybe we need to allow both to complement each other; we need to both always be “slowly but surely mending,” while never letting that hard, repenting work make us “afraid of voicing” what our city–or rather God’s city, that He builds through and prepares for us–has to offer the world.

Comments

  1. That shining city on the hill actually exists, Russell:
    ROCK CHALK JAYHAWK

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  3. I sat on this for a day. It troubles me. (It’s probably good to be troubled once in awhile.)

    On reflection, I am attracted to the first (OP) later (chronologically) version. Perhaps that’s because I know “trust all but shattered” and “faith all but killed.” But I think it’s really “brick by brick” that seems real, earthy, practical. The way it really works if it’s ever going to work.

    By contrast, I’m not sure I trust or feel affinity with someone who’s attracted to chrome and alabaster but will settle for magic plaster, which hints at trompe l’oiel to my ear. (Unfortunate political resonance there.).

    So I’m put to a test—can I make common cause with people who think so differently? Is that what a city takes?

  4. P, it is true, the bells atop Mt. Oread call to all of Kansas, whether we’re Jayhawks or not.

    Christian, like nearly everyone I’ve asked, I agree that the later version, the first in the post, is the better version of the song. But I’m haunted by the idea that even those slowly, steadily laid bricks are, themselves, unenduring. Maybe they’re better than chrome and alabaster, but if they are to turn into something which can serve as the city God is preparing for and/or through us, they’re going to need His touch–His “magic plaster,” if you want to dismiss it as that. The special blaster the original version of the song spoke of connects to grace, I think, in a visionary way which the later version doesn’t. So really, we need both, right?

  5. [Not arguing, just observing myself ruminating . . . this is fun.]

    My reaction is that I’m interested in the here and now. And both suspicious of and less interested in a visionary city God is preparing. So bricks feel right and special plaster does not. It reminds me of the (stereotyped, especially when criticizing) difference between Jewish thought and Christian thought, one focusing on what we can do in this life, the other paying more attention to the next life.

    Interestingly I find this difference in the two versions of the song. One speaks of “not a city of angels, but a city of man.” Present. Real world. Tangible. The other a “beautiful city” that we will *call* a city of man. Transcendent. Ethereal. Evoking to my ear the “son of man” references to Christ.

  6. Henry Doyle, has it finally come to this? I ask fearing that, indeed, it has. Somewhere between BoM historicity and the Brethren’s inexplicable homosexual problem the Mormon Project seems to have run aground.

    Russell, regarding those Jayhawks: this fine day they once again prevailed in righteousness – against a superior opponent and on enemy territory, no less. That’s 14 conference championships in a row, a feat not even UCLA matched.

    I have been privileged to witness the great LaVell Edwards (football) teams at BYU and now the great Bill Self (basketball) teams at KU. There are large life lessons to be learned from sports and I have paid attention.