Review: Three Pieces of Glass

Three pieces of glass

Three Pieces of GlassEric O. Jacobsen. Grands Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: Focuses on loneliness and belonging and the influence of cars, television, and smartphones on the experience, and even design of community and the choices we may make to foster belonging.

A recent commercial for a pizza chain reprises a classic TV scene in which a figure of a somewhat heavy set man who walks into an establishment. In the classic version, he is instantly recognized and everyone calls out “Norm.”  In the contemporary version, no one knows his name because he hasn’t created an online profile tracked on his phone. In the old neighborhood bar, “everybody knows your name.” Now belonging is increasingly mediated through a screen.

Eric O. Jacobsen didn’t anticipate the commercial, which underscores the theme of belonging represented by Norm that runs through this book. He contends that three pieces of glass, the windshield of the automobile, the screen of the television, and the screen of our smartphones, tablets, and computers have fundamentally influenced our experience of belonging in society.

Jacobsen begins his discussion by exploring the nature of belonging as having to do with relationship, place and story, and levels of belonging from intimate and personal to social and public and how intimate and personal are not enough. He explores the way in which experiences of social and public, together referred to as civic belonging, offer foretastes of kingdom belonging.

The second part of the book then sketches out the nature of kingdom belonging which he characterizes as unconditional, covenantal, invitational, compassionate, diverse,  transformative, delightful and productive. He contrasts this with worldly belonging and highlights the inclusive (the images of the feast and the table) and the covenantal relationship character of the kingdom.

Part three considers the gospel and belonging and shows how through the gospel, broken relationships are restored and there is healing for the epidemic of loneliness. For people who feel estranged and exiled, there is a promise of homecoming. And for those living in a story of meagre existence, there is a better and grander story.

The fourth part of the books addresses how the “three pieces of glass” have contributed to our crisis of belonging. The automobile has changed how our living spaces have been configured, from the design of our homes, to the walkability of our neighborhoods, and the location of where we shop and work in relation to where we live. Television changes how we view real people versus our “TV friends.” Our smartphones and other devices have led us to substitute virtual for face to face interaction. These have led erosion in the civic realm and an epidemic of “busyness.

The last two parts consider, first, the influence of our choices on our communal life, our public policies, and on our liturgical life and second how we may encourage belonging. The last part reprises ideas elaborated at greater length in Jacobsen’s earlier books, Sidewalks in the Kingdom and The Space Between, both influenced by the new urbanism. He looks at the design of our communities, advocating for walkability, our proximity, which includes a parish vision for the church, the making of meaningful public places, and a local culture reflected in language, shared stories, and events.

Writing this review during the Covid-19 pandemic gives me a different perspective on this book than I might have had during “normal” times. The latter two pieces of glass have taken on critical importance both as sources of information (although we have to watch for media overload), and as the one means of connection, or belonging most of us have when we must practice physical distancing–particularly in connecting with family, friends, our church community, our work colleagues, and even our political leaders. For many of us, we can work from home (and this may not even represent a change for some of us.)

By the same token, people are walking their neighborhoods at safe distances, in some cases meeting neighbors they never knew by name. I know of one neighborhood where a local folk singer set up in his front yard and staged an impromptu singalong. When we can’t go to restaurants, sporting events, and many of the other places our cars take us–we are left with walking and a kind of “neighboring” occurs. By the same token, I wonder if fights would have occurred over essential goods in the neighborhood markets I grew up with that occur in our megastores where people come from miles around and it is rare you meet someone you know. You shopped with people you knew in those neighborhood groceries and, perhaps we would be more considerate of the needs of others and neither hoard nor fight. After all, we lived with those people and we would be publicly shamed if we took more than our fair share!

Jacobsen’s book makes me wonder whether we will be more mindful about this question of belonging, as we realize how dependent we are upon both in our churches, and in the civic sphere. It makes me wonder if we will take a fresh look at our neighborhoods, both what is good about them, as well as what could be better about our places, and how we connect with each other. With internet connected devices, I suspect it is a bit more complicated. It would not surprise me if life becomes more oriented for more people around these devices. We are doing more education through them, more commerce, more business collaboration, and even more religious activity. While we discover that the church is not a building, will we also jettison the physical encounters that are at the heart of Christian community, from the breaking of bread and the cup to all those meals and potlucks that are some of the best part of our lives? Even before this crisis, I was in conversation with those who talked about declines in church attendance, in which someone pointed to their smartphone and said, “that’s because many think they carry church in their pocket.”

Yet Jacobsen reminds us of our epidemic of loneliness. He raises the critical question of whether belonging can be mediated through a smart device, or whether the proximity necessary for social and public belonging can be created in a car culture. We may love our TV friends, but will they love us back? Jacobsen’s book raises a series of inter-related questions for how the church understands its message, how we steward our technology, and how we configure the places where we live. How we answer those might well make the difference between places where nobody or everybody knows our names.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.