By Chip Stapleton
A few months ago, as I was purchasing a book for my doctoral research (Peter Frankopan’s fantastic, insightful and broad popular history The Silk Roads: A New History of the World), my focus and attention was disrupted by the most sinister of enemies, the Amazon “you might also like” algorithm.
I am not sure how or why, exactly, but one of the books that that was recommended in the “customers who bought this item also bought” section caught my attention, and I stopped what I was doing and followed the tangent for a while reading about a book by Tim Marshall, called Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World. I resisted the urge to buy the book but I did read enough to know that I would be interested in reading it, so I added it to my “wish list,” continued my book purchasing, read the required text for my studies and hadn’t really thought about either book again, until I began considering culture and community for this article.
In his book, Frankopan sets out to re-orient our understanding of the locus of our history and civilization, moving from a focus on Rome (and Greece before it) and taking a cue from Rome itself and looking Eastward. The book reminded me of my work in seminary, learning about the development of Christianity as it moved and grew outside the sphere of Rome and Western civilization. It was a challenging, eye-opening and incredibly enriching experience and it was one that allowed me to ‘re-center’ the foundations of my faith to much firmer and fuller historical ground.
Frankopan makes his case persuasively through story after story, illustrating the centrality of Asia in the history and development of culture past and present. There is much compelling history and storytelling in this book. However, what is resonating with me most, especially as I think about culture and community, is the geography.
The introduction of the book tells about the map on the author’s wall as a child and how that map led him to question why so much of its real estate seemed to be left out of our history.
When I read about Arab geographers whose works were accompanied by charts that seemed upside down and put the Caspian Sea at its centre, I was transfixed – as I was when I found out about an important medieval Turkish map in Istanbul that had at its heart a city called Balasaghun, which I had never even heard of, which did not appear on any maps, and whose very location was uncertain until recently, and yet was once considered the centre of the world. (Frankopan, xiv)
The thought that keeps ringing in my heart and in my mind is what a profound difference it makes based on what you place at the center of the map. This is true, literally, of course (which is what Prisoners of Geography is all about), but it is also true metaphorically. What we place at the center of the map of our nation, our community, our culture as well as our lives, and our hearts, matters. The different maps Frankopan looked at had different centers, not because some were correct and others incorrect – but because for different people, different places were the center of their world, both literally and figuratively.
This is one of the fairly unique aspects of Christianity; from a literal perspective, your map does not (necessarily) need to change. There are places where important moments happened, but Christianity is not located in a place – you can go and visit these sights, but these aren’t Christian pilgrimages per se. This adaptability, I think, speaks to one of the reasons that Christianity was able to grow and that allowed it to travel so well along the “silk roads” of antiquity and our current world.
While you might say that Christianity is geography-neutral from a literal sense, there can be no confusion about the place that Christ demands on the map of our hearts and lives: directly at the center. Another way of thinking and talking about this is that the geography changes, but true north is always true north.
This juxtaposition of geography and compass direction and the tension between the two as they are laid out and lived out in our lives was brought into stark relief for me when I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa last September. While there I heard a black South African pastor speak about her experience, shortly after the end of apartheid, of attending seminary with white South Africans and for the first time having to grapple with the dissonance of God being the God of both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Or to put it another way, recognizing that God is present at the center of everyone’s map. Because of this, though, we must be especially careful to focus on the direction of the compass (true north) and not the local geography. Knowing the lay of the land – memorizing landmarks, etc. – can help you navigate your neighborhood, but learning to read, follow and trust the unchanging compass of the Holy Spirit pointing us to the true north of Jesus Christ allows us to know our place and direction anywhere in the world, regardless of what is at the center of the map.