The Cost of Living in a Suburban Paradise
I live in a peculiar town. A friend refers to it as the most "unreal" place she's ever been. It is not that its residents are particularly different from those elsewhere—on the contrary, they are much like anyone else. Rather, it is peculiar because those who live here have been successful in creating a place that looks to many of them like utopia.
I was reminded of this recently after taking a tour of my town with my daughter's Girl Scout troop. As we drove by the sprawling police facility, we were informed that our police are efficient in catching those criminals who dare to enter our town. One envisions ancient city walls lined with valiant sentries keeping the enemy at bay, while peace and harmony reign within. To some in my town, this vision is real.
But our peculiarities do not stem solely from our view of the outside world. A unique and fascinating culture has evolved within our city walls. We are the land of "Soccer Moms," that potent political force of the 1996 election. The political influence we were supposed to have was lost on us—we were spending too much time carpooling to have any meaningful involvement in the political process. My family's recent attempt to enjoy a relaxing summer was squelched when we couldn't find any free time in between day camps, swimming lessons, and soccer.
We are a town where cats must be kept on leashes. A town where we cry "taxation without representation" when our cul-de-sac isn't snowplowed in a timely manner. We are a town where the planning commission prefers to see groundbreaking on yet another strip mall rather than a church. A town whose motto might just as well be nimby—"Not in my back yard!"
We are what Joel Garreau writes of in his book Edge Cities: Life on the New Frontier. Edge Cities, according to Garreau, are more a state of mind than a physical place. Our boundaries might not be clearly defined on a map, but we know what we are. We are a self-contained suburban area that "has it all," from jobs to shopping to entertainment. We are "the culmination of a generation of individual American value decisions about the best way to live, work and play—about how to create home."
Garreau refers to such cities as "monuments to the maximization of the individual ego and monuments to profit." My town is what results when people with financial resources attempt to create the perfect environment. It is a place where we have at least the illusion of control.
While there was a time when I self-righteously rejected the notion of living in such a cloistered environment, I have to admit that I like it here. Why wouldn't I? I live in a world that has the "best" of everything: Great schools, low crime, perfect lawns, a quaint downtown, a superb park district, and, best of all, the ability to purchase anything I want or need 24 hours a day. My early negative perceptions of such an environment have been tempered by the discovery that both my old city neighbors and my new suburban neighbors are really very much the same. Both want control over their environment. But it is my suburban neighbors who have succeeded.
So what is the problem here? Why rain on this parade? Because I believe the problems that come with the building of these walls can be significant, particularly for the church. We must come to terms with the social isolation that we have created and actively maintained. Church consultant Lyle Schaller believes that suburbanization tends to divert our attention (and thus our involvement) away from larger issues "out there," while focusing our attention on what is happening in our own communities. This myopia is particularly strong in Edge Cities, where we are self-contained and often have no reason to venture outside our walls.
We have come to believe that the concerns of our community are the only thing to be concerned about. Thus, we expend our energy on perfecting our community: we demand more from our schools, more from our municipal government, and inevitably, more from our churches.
Schaller points out that the demand by consumers for higher quality products extends to churches themselves. People choose big institutions (churches) because they want choices, convenience, a strong consumer orientation, and specialized services. People want the best in preaching, teaching, and children's programs. Can you blame them?
A statement by Garreau caught me short. In contrast to the old idea of a parish church, he observes, "A large modern church functions like nothing so much as a spiritual shopping mall. It is surrounded by a very large parking lot located astride a good network of roads." And while I may be carrying the analogy further than Garreau intended, it left me wondering. Have Edge City churches become spiritual shopping malls, complete with products I can pick and choose from, selecting only that which catches my eye, fills my needs, and makes my life more comfortable?
From my perspective, they often have. Possibly by necessity. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. It may be necessary to be consumer-oriented in order to draw the consumer in. But what then?
The challenge to the church only starts here. The challenge is to take those consumers who enter our churches seeking to be served and to be fed and bring them to a place where they seek—with a passion—to serve and to feed. The challenge is take those who worship a god they can define and control and transform them into servants who are willing to cede their control to an Almighty God. The challenge involves breaking down the walls, stepping over the rubble, and venturing out into a world not of our own making.
It takes more than good intentions, however, to venture through the rubble into a strange world. When I have attempted to reach across racial and economic barriers, to engage in real interaction and not just handouts, I have been frustrated by my lack of ability to control others and their environment. I have been frustrated by my inability to "fix" them. If control is such a priority within the walls, why wouldn't it be on the outside? Thus, I return to my cocoon. The pull of the comfort and control within these walls is far stronger than the pull to venture out.
I recently visited an inner-city church that has a vision far beyond its material resources. As we stood and prayed in an abandoned auditorium that will someday be a House of Prayer, my joy for this church was tempered with sorrow. Not at their poverty, though they are indeed very poor. And not for the monumental task before them, though the work to be done is overwhelming. No, my sorrow stemmed from the fact that they were witnessing the power of God in ways that my suburban church cannot yet see. Their vision is so beyond their control, so beyond their resources, that they must allow God to provide—and provide he has, in incredible ways. They have the privilege of seeing God work with a free hand, not constrained by those of us who insist on being on the planning committee.
Deborah Windes is a consultant and a writer. She lives in Naperville, Illinois.
Is Christian Celebrity Oxymoronic?
Ushering a bishop into a big autographing event, I give him a four-inch button imprinted with the title of his book. He winces. "Won't wearing this be incredibly self-serving?" "Yes, of course," I nod, grinning.
In 20 years as a publicist I've seen many changes in how media perceive religion. Faith was once a talk-show taboo, back when we had taboos. Media have come to realize that religious topics can hook audiences, especially when advocates become hostile. Many media, however, also appreciate our longing for inspiration. What builds ratings today reflects the ambivalence of a society that seeks heroes yet is suspicious of what is noble. Working with inspirational books constantly shows me just how enmeshed I am in this conflict.
The pastor was not telegenic. Nor did he project the energy which radio producers believe lights up the phone lines. ("We love religion," one of them says, "It makes people fight.") The pastor declined to let me use what would have been the headline material; he wouldn't name the Names who had abandoned him. I had to sell what they call a soft segment: a good man's faith and fortitude helped him endure evil and to forgive his persecutors even as they inflicted pain. I devised a candid yet self-protective way to pitch the gentle pastor: "He isn't a Type A dynamo, but he's articulate, and his story is compelling."
Sales of his book were modest. The PR was handicapped by humility. Unfortunately, humble isn't what many media want when they cover religion. They know audiences respond to feeding frenzies. Freak shows. Culture wars with commercial breaks. Soft doesn't sell in any format today. New Yorker editor Tina Brown says that it takes a shriller, hard-edged press to compete with TV: "Once in a while you have to bite the hand that reads you."
The power and ironies of publicity haven't changed much over the years. Yet the electronic age creates bizarre situations as we get further removed from the sources of our stories.
A publicist in my office sits beside a new, eager-to-learn intern. She's like a sponge, this girl, soaking up media and author experiences. She's excited about discovering the real and often peculiar PR world beyond the classroom.
The publicist hangs up after talking to a lawyer who had hired a ghostwriter to package his story.
"So, what was the matter?" asks the inquisitive intern, who had overheard the publicist rehashing an interview with our "author."
The publicist explains: "He's disappointed because the guy who interviewed him hadn't read his book."
The intern is puzzled: "Why? He didn't write it!"
Celebrity has become so detached from achievement that we can discuss famous people whom we have never actually seen do whatever it is they do. From gossip columns, I "know" Evander Holyfield, Marv Albert, Lyle Lovett, Sinead O'Connor, Susan Lucci, the Smashing Pumpkins, and The Artist fka Prince. But I'm clueless about their work.
I cringe to see five-year-old Chicago kids who used to wear Michael's (Jordan Rules, Second Coming) number 23 now wearing Dennis (Bad As I Wanna Be, Worse Than He Says He Is) Rodman's 91. What is this generation coming to? Us, perhaps?
I consult with the Chinese woman who wants feedback on a press release for her pastor's book. It's about the path to holiness, heaven, wisdom. Media who get hundreds of pitches a day won't buy these abstract notions, I warn. Americans need to know: How does that impact me?
No, it doesn't matter that your pastor has hundreds of thousands of followers abroad; what can he say to people in Nashville? Unless … are there any famous followers? Is there a Richard Gere or a John Travolta?
She wants me to understand that her faith is grander than this, that the book's message can't be reduced to a sound bite. I explain that in America, she needs a hook. She blinks. Embarrassed, I tell her the comic's bit about the evolution of our culture as seen in our magazines: From Life to People to Us to Self. She wonders how she will explain this to her people.
Is Christian celebrity oxymoronic? I want my role models to wield an iron fist in the world while keeping a foot in the kingdom. If such gymnastics cause them to stumble, they can get a good advance on their true confession. Which confirms the doubts most of us had all along. What do my heroes—and my readiness to accept, even anticipate their downfall—reveal about me?
On the secular front, consider Domestic Goddess Martha Stewart. She urges women to aspire to efforts we find laughable (e.g., making our own marshmallows), even as we succumb. We buy into her vision that we will find fulfillment by putting seasonal outfits on our lawn ornaments, even though we know better. We get a kick out of a woman who builds a vast corporate empire selling stressed-out wives/mothers household calendars that require four in service. Are we surprised to find an embittered ex-husband in the wings, waving his Martha-bashing book?
Perhaps our ambivalence about heroes indicates vestiges of a culture that identified heroism with the once-manly courage of attack. Onto that cultural heritage layer today's worship of self-actualization—make that speedy self-actualization. Perseverance and humility now seem like wimpy virtues. "Blessed are the meek"? Not on this planet.1 Ambivalence flowers when new achievers thumb their noses at established achievers on behalf of those of us who are bored with them.
In volume 3 of his Companion to the Summa of Aquinas, Walter Farrell reminds us that when we let others provide our heroism (and perhaps our anti-heroism), we resign ourselves to abandoning the possibility of the heroic in ourselves. If I can never be a hero to my family or in my work, my life becomes one long, meaningless Maalox Moment. For my heroes out there, I cheer, "Go for it." To the hero in me, I mutter, "Chill out."
Yet vicarious heroism is always unsatisfying, Father Farrell points out. "Courage is as necessary for the living of human life as air, food, or drink; not only the courage of the venturesome, but also that principal courage that holds on, even when holding on is the best [a person] can do." Trials are a part of the hero's journey; indeed, difficulties form the hero. Human life is the real adventure, and genuine heroes are those who possess "the courage that refuses to relinquish the good."
As a publicist, I notice how often after Jesus healed, resurrected, or exorcized he said, "See that you don't tell this to anyone" (Mark 1:43). It was a tall and always impossible order. (How does one respond to "What happened to your leprosy?" or "Weren't you, ah, just dead?") So those who were healed publicized the matter, and then "Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere" (Mark 1:45). We're drawn to authenticity. But sometimes we want it to hang in another neighborhood (Matt. 8:34).
I see myself in the leper and in the crowd. I hope to encounter the incarnation of all that I might strive toward. I seek truth and charity in this world. Worthy books and humble authors are often a source. Still, I'm attuned to the buzz of that skeptic in the wings. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Watts? Orange County? Doubleday?
When I use the Bible as something other than a weapon for my petty agenda, I find stories of incredible human courage, of valor that amazes even the frail people who exhibit it. The ultimate Hero asks me to build that courage within my vain, idol-worshiping, fearful, mean, impatient self. Heroism is within our power, through grace. It allows us to seek out and to accept no substitutes for the good and the true in our sorry, silly, and sometimes wonderful world.
Carol DeChant is the head of DeChant-Hughes & Associates in Chicago.
1. A survey shows that belief in "the meek shall inherit the earth" is related to income. Only 36 percent of Americans with an annual income of more than $60,000 believe it. Of Americans with an annual income of less than $30,000, 61 percent believe it. (Reported in Harper's magazine, March 1996.)
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.