Or, alternatively, perhaps God looks at it and thinks “Isn’t this amazing?”
by Dave Schmelzer
I’ve had two contrasting visions of my city, Los Angeles, offered to me recently. As Grace and I and our family were visiting L.A. churches after we moved here three years ago, some of them preached a strikingly negative message about L.A. Los Angeles, they said, was worldly—all about appearances. It was arrogant and self-absorbed—all these people came west to make it in the movie industry and were scared and miserable. It was shallow—I probably don’t need to elaborate on this one.
Alternatively, a few weeks back, Grace and I saw a late show of a new documentary about Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold. It’s called City of Gold, because it’s not just about Gold (who turns out to be astonishing to those of us not familiar with him) but is also about his vision of Los Angeles. He’s not a handsome man and—apart of course from his writing—not a particularly expressive one. But his vision for food criticism and for the communities that house the restaurants he reviews has had Grace and me recommending this movie to most people we’ve talked to. Grace showed its preview in church. I endorsed it on the Blue Ocean World podcast.
Gold’s first foray into food criticism came when he was working as an L.A. Times proofreader. (He now writes for the L.A. Weekly.) Single at the time, he decided he’d eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard. Pico runs for fifteen and a half miles, from Santa Monica into the heart of L.A. Like many major L.A. boulevards, it’s not, like, attractive. It’s full of billboards and strip malls. It has some sketchy blocks. But what Gold discovered was that in those strip malls were an array of family-owned ethnic restaurants. These places—and his remarkable curiosity to discover what’s inside such places—became his signature as a food critic. (The trailer for the movie opens with a comment from another food critic. “I remember the first time I went to a Jonathan-Gold-approved restaurant. You drive into a mini-mall and you’re, like—” She scrunches up her nose. “Really?”) We hear from chefs whose restaurants were about to close until Gold showed up. He takes us to neighborhood after neighborhood that tourists would never visit, but which, to him, are a garden of delights. If you’ve seen the wonderful Jon Favreau movie Chef, Favreau’s character is modeled after Roy Choi, who was championed by Gold. (Just the other day, Grace and I were visiting a friend in Culver City. As we were leaving around noon, she said, “Did you hear that Kogi Taqueria, Roy Choi’s Korean Taco place, just opened in a strip mall around the corner? If you go right now, you might be able to get in before the line goes around the block.” Sure enough, across from the 7-Eleven was a remarkable culinary experience.) Los Angeles, to Gold, rather than being the vapid hellhole described by those preachers, is a singularly remarkable tapestry of cultures unlike almost anywhere else. In its gridlocked freeways and urban sprawl, he sees a paradise.
A friend recently surveyed the mission statements of a dozen area churches. At first glance, while maybe generic, they seem reasonable enough. You’ll note some common themes. “Our lives transformed by God’s power, we renew Los Angeles for Christ.” “Seeking the renewal of our city through the gospel of Jesus Christ.” “We join God in the renewal of all things. The great story of the Bible is God restoring and healing our broken lives and the world through Jesus Christ.” “Change L.A., change the world.”
Perhaps what follows is a summary of those messages?
“We’re broken but can be fixed through Jesus’s supernatural help—perhaps delivered to us by way of the good church whose website we’re looking at. Then, once that fixing has happened, it’s time for us to take on the daunting task of changing our surrounding city, of which the most important thing to know is that it itself is profoundly broken.”
In this story, maybe it’s not surprising that so many preachers see Los Angeles through jaundiced eyes.
So who’s right? Is L.A. a remarkable coming-together of cultures that produces the new and wonderful gifts that Jonathan Gold describes? Is it a pitiable, anti-God metropolis?
You’re a smart person, so I’m guessing you’re rejecting the either/or choice. Couldn’t it be both? Or some third option?
And it’s certainly not that I don’t see societal ills. In just one example, this election cycle has uncovered yet another troubling conversation about racism, among other things. This week there was another shooting at a college campus, this one in my neighborhood. The polar icecaps are melting fast. And you have the list of the world’s problems that most trouble you. Clearly the world contains all sorts of horrible problems.
But I don’t think that’s what’s at stake in the differences we’re talking about here. In this conversation, I wonder if we’re helped by asking a different question. Which of these perspectives sounds more like the God you know? When God looks at Los Angeles—or at your city or at your neighbors or, for that matter, you—does he more see the wonder that Jonathan Gold sees? Or does he more see the judgments that the preachers see? When he looks at you, does he lock in on your “brokenness” or does he revel in your awesomeness?
Look, we’re all overwhelmed. As we’re taught in Genesis 2 and 3 and the story of the fall, every choice we make has outcomes we can’t control. We all have potential looming threats that, were we to focus too much on them, would bury us. When we visit a church—
Or maybe I should speak for myself. When I visit a church, I’m very much hoping for help in all of that. I want to be connected to a God who sees me and my life and cares and sympathizes and wants to offer actual resourcing. And—this could just be me—I also very much want to experience a God who directs me towards meaning and mission, whatever risks or costs that might entail. I’m in! But I don’t believe that the first thing the God I know sees in me is my awfulness that needs “transforming.”
So I’m on Team Gold in terms of Los Angeles. For all the sprawl, and not denying the injustices that exist in a place this vast—each generation brings its own revamping of the problems in the L.A. police department, for instance—this place is amazing. And so was our previous home of Boston and our home before that of San Francisco. And—I suspect—so is your city. And that, rather than a reflexive assumption of brokenness and awfulness in the nonchurchgoers in our cities, strikes me as a helpful starting point.
Because what Jonathan Gold sees is what Saint Francis saw—a sea of people who, for all our problems, are imbued with the God who created us in all our uniqueness and passion and hopes. (And do you see what I did here? Perhaps your city is not a “them” of nonchurchgoers. Maybe there’s only an “us.”) Yes, Francis would also see people who’d very much benefit from knowing and praising and following our loving Father. But it seems to me we need those benefits because we’re limited and human and scared and were never meant to bear the weight of our lives alone. The reason we need those benefits is not because, apart from an overhaul, we suck.
When Jonathan Gold looks at Los Angeles, from a lifetime of exploring its crevices and meeting passionate people from most cultures on earth, he effectively says, “Isn’t this amazing?”
In that, I think he speaks for God.