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Volume 14, Issue 5: Historia

Of Worlds and Places

Chris Schlect

On my globe, my home state of Idaho is green. Neighboring Oregon is yellow, and Washington is blue (never mind that Washington is "the evergreen state"). The colors and boundaries drawn onto my globe assert a fundamental distinction between the various colored spaces. But when I physically cross over into Washington, surprisingly, I do not find myself moving out of green and into blue. Were it not for the innocuous "Welcome to Washington" sign, I would have seen no change. But the change must be important, this I know because of the message that maps have been yelling at me ever since my youth. It is my experience with maps that gives meaning to the sign. The message is this: I have just been spatially translated from one discrete realm into another which is fundamentally different. Maps have taught me well: the framework for spatial reality is determined along the lines of political boundaries. This explains why Boise, Olympia, and Salem are writ large in big black font and have stars next to them: in an important way they have greater significance than Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Portland, and even dear Moscow where C/A is published. Political considerations are what organize physical space. A space is not a space until it is defined politically.

Maps represent epistemologies. The steps in making a map—selection, omission, simplification, classification, the creation of hierarchies, and the symbols chosen—reveal the perspective of the mapmaker (and, perhaps, his audience). Cartography is hardly a worldview-neutral enterprise. There are other ways to carve out space than by politics. Perhaps more useful than political boundaries, and more revealing about our land, would be a map that separates, by color, the West, Central, and Eastern divisions of baseball's American League—with stars indicating all the major-league cities, and font-sizes scaled according to divisional standings. Such a map would teach us several truths about our land, such as (a) the U.S.-Canada distinction is less important than we tend to think, not to mention the distinction between the states, and (b) Yankee Stadium, better than the White House, portrays what passionate people love and hate about our society. Those among us who value the repository of faith, which we pass on to our children, might like to have a map that divides the land into presbyteries and synods, rather than counties and states—for our membership in the body of Christ is far more important than our political affiliations. When the words, "You are Here" appear on a map, a definition of "self" is announced to me. Who am I? An Idahoan (according to a political map)? An Inhabitant of Earth (a physical map)? Top of the Food Chain (an ecological map)? A Cog in the Economic Machinery (a mall directory)? Or a Churchman (no map I know of)? Our maps have distracted me from the better answer.
In our era we flatter ourselves into believing our maps are more realistic than earlier ones because they are more scientific. Euclid's geometry gave us the logic of space, we say, and the Enlightenment added coordinate lines. Never mind that our projection maps make Greenland out to be grossly misshapen and huge, and that the shortest distance between Chicago and Amsterdam is a curve, not a straight line. From our lofty cartographic arrogance, we look down upon medievals who filled their maps with life. Our seas are uniform, bland, unchanging pastel blue. Their wavy, monster-filled seas spoke danger. Our road to Genoa is a black line with a number on it, crossing a few colors (and therefore, nations). The medievals mapped the road to Genoa by marking the important cathedrals and abbeys along the way, passing through frigid mountain passes and dangerous forests. The United States is the center of our map. Jerusalem, the City of David, was theirs. Rand-McNally portrays an unreal world made of numbers, straight lines, black dots over muted colors, all very scientific-looking. The thirteenth-century Ebstorf map portrays the world as the very body of Jesus Christ: His arms span the north and south, His hands gather in even the most monstrous far-off peoples, His head is near Paradise to the east.
I once asked a friend about his home town. He produced one of those novelty maps that are crammed with cartoon images. The map showed big caricatured ships that came and went in the harbor, old stately buildings, the market district, an entire university campus that was 90% clock tower, the amusement park, the smog-belching factory, the skyscraper-laden business district, and the nearby mountains at the edge of civilization. That silly cartoon map helped him convey the personality of his community. The fishing dinghies in the harbor were as large as the nearby skyscrapers, which suggested something about the economic history of the area. I learned of bustle and leisure, profits and poverty, traffic jams and surfing and ski retreats. Nothing about that map was technically accurate. Points of interest were drawn grossly larger than scale—if the map could even be said to have had "scale." The whole map's perspective was out of whack: it was laid out from a bird's-eye view, yet many details were drawn in ground-level profiles. By studying the map, I received a wonderful introductory-level story of the place. A strict-perspective, drawn-to-scale map would have been far less informative.
The Kingdom of God is a mountain filling the earth. One day our friends at National Geographic will sit at the feet of our medieval forebears and represent this truth on their maps.

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