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FIRST-PERSON: The heavens declare God’s glory, but what about the cities?

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Last year I had the pleasure of driving my daughter back to college, over 2,000 miles away in California.

You see a lot of country along the way, and I couldn’t help remembering a quote from an SBC journalism conference at Ridgecrest, N.C. The editors of WORLD magazine, based in Asheville, were our guests, and one of them repeated the observation that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the cities declare the depravity of man.” It was good food for thought.

As for the heavens’ glorifying God, that point could be extended to all of nature. Everywhere you go, it’s beautiful, and that was certainly the case on my trip west. From the rolling hills of Iowa to the Rockies to the wind-and-water-carved monoliths of eastern Utah to the shimmering expanses of the Mojave Desert to the Pacific coast, all was gratifying, even stunning.

Some would say, “Of course, because we’ve adjusted to our surroundings,” but I can’t see the logic in that. I’ve not spent that much time among the exotic rock formations of Utah, and I never had to work through an initial period of distaste. They were engaging from the get-go. The same holds for the Mojave. I used to do my annual, two-week, Army reserve stint at Ft. Irwin, north of Barstow, Calif. My first drive through the 10-mile-long basin south of the post was enthralling, what with the mirages, the purity of desolation, and the many mineral shades in the surrounding mountains.

Contrast that with some cityscapes, and you get the point of God’s artistry. Think of a patch of crumbling asphalt alongside a brick building, whose window sills are peeling and whose windows are broken. A chain link fence, with concertina wire on top, encircles the yard behind the building, a yard which holds rusting machinery on rotting pallets. Plastic bags and flyers from a nearby grocery store are snagged in the barbs, and they flutter noisily in the wind.

Now if habitation breeds affection, the people who grew up in that neighborhood would pick that environment over suburban lawns in a minute. But they don’t. Their hearts are tuned to gladly receive the beauty of nature, and given enough income, they’ll find a place with trees or snowy peaks or an expanse of sand –- or try to bring some of those things into the neighborhood, say in the form of a park.

Critics try to poke holes in the “anthropic argument” for God’s existence, the one that says we see design in the way the environment is so beautifully attuned to man’s needs –- the right temperature, oxygen level, etc. The evolutionists say this is no more than a reflection of the fact that creatures who couldn’t deal with the available conditions didn’t survive, so only the ones who can cope still exist –- hence, the fit. But that won’t work when it comes to aesthetic fit. It just can’t explain the fact that nature is so delightful to the eye and the other senses. You don’t die or stop procreating when your surroundings are ugly. Darwin has nothing to say here. So I praise God for designing such a pleasing, sublime world, in every locale.

The cities are another thing. That’s where fallen man gets involved, and the results are mixed at best. For starters, they do declare the depravity of man. Leaving Chicago, we spotted gang graffiti on newspaper boxes and overpasses. Arriving late in Denver, we found a variety of anti-robbery technologies in place -– bullet proof plastic and transaction drawers at the gas stations, security cameras and deadbolts in the motel.

And then there was Las Vegas. Where do I start? Was it in the wasted look of the tourists seeking pleasure and money in fools’ games? Was it in the cheesy, theme casinos, with the faux New York skyline? Was it in the electronic billboard ads for skin shows? And just a word about the Luxor, the hotel/casino with the pyramid shape, decorated with sphinxes: Those monuments were in Giza, not Luxor (ancient Thebes). That’s like having a casino in the shape of the Lincoln Memorial and calling it The Big Apple. I guess mind-rot goes along with soul-rot, when you only care about bucks.

Once in L.A., I picked up on a tourist tip from a friend and gave Venice Beach a look. After visiting with former colleagues at Saddleback Church in Orange County and spending several hours at the Getty Museum, I didn’t get there until things were closing down for the evening –- except for the tattoo parlors, which were plentiful, and the very definition of tacky.

The next morning, I had occasion to walk the beachfront, and I saw where some of those tattoos landed -– on the grotesquely sculpted performers on “Muscle Beach.” Pumping iron in front of us gawking tourists, they had an aura of narcissistic menace. Meanwhile, in the background, some Krishna or Vishnu or hash-conked devotee was drumming mindlessly and incessantly on a small drum, while fellow merchants hawked obscene T-shirts next door. Lord help us.

So yes, the cities declare the depravity of man in many ways. But they also declare the sociability of man, the ingenuity of man, and the resiliency of man. The hilltop Getty art museum not only held some great art; it WAS great art, with its plazas, fountains and vistas. Then there was the ad-hoc, midnight direction committee that formed in a Denver to help me find a Kinko’s for some computer work. The brave, immigrant clerk and a couple of locals readily gave me the help I needed, though they didn’t know me from Adam. And I have to say that the Vegas discount breakfast feast was awesome, even though it was meant as a casino hook. These were good times, good city times.

Yes, a drive through God’s created splendor replenishes the soul -– but for what? So that the replenished soul, mindful of the Creator’s power, craft, and graciousness, might bring salt and light to the city, and to other gatherings of fallen humanity. The Rockies are nice, but they don’t need our ministry. But the guys who spray the Gangsta Disciples logos on walls and containers -– and the people they frighten -– do. So back to work –- for the glory of God.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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  • Mark Coppenger