For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by maps. On my electronic devices I have access to maps of various types and functions. When time permits, I indulge my fascination and wander around the myriad images that cartographers have provided for us.
On a recent virtual expedition I came across a map generated by the United States Census Bureau that displays data on the average commute time by state for workers aged 16 and older. From 2009 to 2013 Dakotans (North and South) enjoyed the shortest trips to work (16.9 minutes) while residents of Maryland endured the longest odysseys (32.0 minutes); the average Texan spent 25.0 minutes in transit from home to work.
A series of maps on the website of the National Geographic Society portrays the ethnic distribution of the national population, with more detailed data for selected cities. The colorful patchwork images of Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York demonstrate the degree of ethnic segregation in those most populous American cities.
Through the United States Geological Survey I was able to access a topographical map of a portion of Miller County, Arkansas. The contours displayed there represent the gentle hills where my grandmother was born over a century ago. Narrow blue lines on that map depict the streams that powered the sawmill that provided income to my forebears as they scratched a simple existence from the soil of the postbellum South.
As different as these cartographic products are, they share a common characteristic; each of these maps constitutes a graphic portrayal of objectively verifiable information. Each of the curves and colors represents cold numerical data: travel time, population density, elevation above sea level. Not all truths are so rigid; some “facts” cannot be reduced to latitudes and longitudes.
On the walls of my office I have reproductions of four antique maps that purport to represent the then known world. Curiously, each image is centered on the same location: Jerusalem. The most distinctive of these portrayals dates from 1585 and depicts the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa as three leaves of clover, joined at Jerusalem (Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the Americas hover around the perimeter of this map). The caption, in German, describes the image as a portrayal of the entire world in the shape of a cloverleaf, the symbol of Hannover (“beloved homeland” of the cartographer, Heinrich Bünting). While an apologist for Bünting might argue that the Eurasian and African landmasses are joined in the small region that includes Jerusalem, such a defense would misrepresent the truth being portrayed. The configuration of the continents is intended to emphasize the importance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, kosmos-shattering events that transpired in Jerusalem.
The Psalter Map is less subtle about the significance of its Jerusalem-centric perspective. Published in 1265, probably in or near London, in a collection of the Psalms, the map portrays the world as a circle centered on Jerusalem. Reigning over the circle of the Earth is Christ, holding an orb in his left hand and offering a priestly blessing with his right hand as he is worshiped by a pair of angels.
Are these antique maps “true” or “accurate”? The answer to that question is dependent upon how the words “true” and “accurate” are being employed. To decide the answer to this question, and to determine how “truth” and “accuracy” are being used, we must determine for what purpose the maps were produced. Neither Bünting’s product nor the Psalter Map would function as a useful basis for a navigation system that exploited the signals from the Global Positioning System constellation of satellites, but neither was intended to do so. The hands and minds behind these two maps intended to communicate a message, and they have done so admirably. These images are both true and accurate.
Though, as far as we know, he did not include a cartographic illustration, Paul provided a “map” directing our attention to our beloved homeland.
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20–21 NIV 1984).
This “map” communicated a message to the Christian residents of the Roman colony of Philippi. The believers’ world was centered not on the imperial capital (Rome) and its artificial “lord” (the emperor), but on the divine throne room where the true Lord reigns and from which he will return to vanquish all evil in the kosmos, thus restoring ktisis to its intended state.
Though the cartographers that produced the ethnic distribution maps described above would probably disagree, their depictions of Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York are not entirely different from the work of Bünting nor that of the artist behind the Psalter map. The ethnic distribution maps of these urban areas possess a positive aesthetic quality that stands in tension with the reality of racial segregation in these metropolitan areas. These maps were not intended as cold, rational presentations of objectively verifiable facts. The accompanying article explicates the maps as tools to comprehend the ethnic tensions that bedevil these cities. Like their antique cousins, these maps constitute a message that is both accurate and truthful and that is an expression of an implicit ethic. Similarly, the maps of travel times and of elevation contours are implanted with implications for our stewardship of ktisis; the simple facts are not the whole story, nor are they the most important part of the story.
As scholars and educators in the Christian academy, we are seeking to communicate truth accurately. Even in our most rational, “objective” labors, we transmit information and meaning. When meaning makes an appearance on the stage, an entry that is inevitable, we depart from the ideal expressed by Dragnet’s Joe Friday (“All we want are the facts, ma’am”), and we engage in a discourse focused on values. The interaction of faith and scholarship is not merely possible, such dialogue is inescapable. As practitioners of Christian scholarship, we have both the privilege and the responsibility to communicate clearly the facts and the values that are integral to our profession.