The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty
Albert Y. Hsu
220 pp., 30.00
Lauren F. Winner
God of the Latté
A few weeks ago, I visited a church in a locale I'll call Levittown. The building was mid-century churchy: stained glass windows; deep, dark wooden pews; prominent pulpit and altar; upright piano on a dais. But about twenty minutes into the service, something decidedly contemporary caught my eye: a giant (should I say venti?) Starbucks cup sitting proudly on the piano. How's that for contemporary iconography? I wonder if it was a paid product placement.
Starbucks is an icon of suburbia, of course, even if the great coffee institution did start in Seattle, and it is fashionable to decry suburban living. Indeed, one of the few things agrarians and urbanites share is their utter horror for the suburbs, whose gated communities and starter mansions are poison for the soul. Even suburbanites themselves often engage in anti-suburb diatribes, albeit a tad sheepishly.
Two new books propose to redirect the conversation. David Goetz, a former editor at Leadership Journal, and Albert Y. Hsu, an editor at InterVarsity Press, ask what a spirituality of suburbia, a spirituality for people who drive mini-vans and tend manicured lawns (or pay someone else to tend them), might look like.
Suburban life, if pursued unheedingly, "obscures the real Jesus," writes Goetz in Death by Suburb. "Too much of the good life ends up being toxic, deforming us spiritually." But if obscured, Jesus is there somewhere, and Goetz's book aims to help suburbanites find him in the ocean of lattÉs, in the aisles of Pottery Barn, and in the bleachers at the soccer field: "You don't have to hole up in a monastery to experience the fullness of God. Your cul-de-sac and subdivision are as good a place as any."
Goetz identifies eight "environmental toxins" that plague suburbia and offers a spiritual practice to purge each toxin from your system and help you realize that "even in suburbia all moments are infused with the Sacred." By packaging his insights in this self-helpy formula7 habits, 8 practices, 40 days to a more authentic Christian lifeGoetz obviously opens himself up to criticism: this blueprint recapitulates some of the very problems of the suburban mindset that he is trying to offset. But I suspect he knew what he was doing, and chose the idiom to convey a subversive message to his target audience.
Consider environmental toxin #8, for example: "I need to get more done in less time." Do you constantly wish you had more timemore time to catch up on email, get to the grocery store, pay your bills, please your boss, maybe even take your wife out to dinner? Consider keeping the Sabbath, a discipline sure to reconfigure the understanding and inhabiting of time for all those who faithfully practice it. (Scripture offers us a similarly counterintuitive antidote for the related sin of credit card debt: if you want to get out of debt, start tithing. Giving money to the church won't get our Visa bills paid, but there is no surer way to escape being owned by money than giving it away.)
Environmental toxin #6: "My church is the problem." Goetz has no patience for Americans' pernicious church-hopping: "Only in relationships that permit no bailing out can certain forms of spiritual development occur." Rather than switch churches because your pastor said something you disliked or the new church plant down the street has a livelier youth group, practice the discipline of "staying put in your church." This manifestly countercultural advice cuts to the very heart of America's restless anomie.
Environmental toxin #3: "I want my neighbor's life." Has life in the suburbs turned your skin permanently green with envy and taught you to covet the Joneses' cars, careers, and Ivy League-bound kids? Try developing "friendship with those who have no immortality symbols." That is, stop hanging out with your rich neighbors, and instead find "ways to be with the poor, the mentally disabled, the old and alone . . essentially, all those who don't build up [your] ego through their presence." When you hang out with less wealthy people, you "begin to compare [yourself] to a different kind of neighbor," and then you experience not envy but gratitude.
The point here is well-taken, but it still finds us measuring our worth against other people. And the examples Goetz offers underscore how hard it is for middle-class Americans to practice downwardly mobile sociability. His model of social "kenosis" is the writer Barbara Ehrenreich, who emptied herself by focusing her gaze on maids and waitresses. But Ehrenreich gazed at maids and waitresses becauseon assignment for Harper's for articles that became the book Nickel and Dimedshe was working undercover as a maid and waitress herself. It is worrying indeed if investigative journalism is the principle channel through which suburbanites can "face the humanity of another kind of person."
Albert Y. Hsu's The Suburban Christian finds in suburban living a deep spiritual longing. People come to the suburbs, Hsu says, because they are looking for something, a job or affordable housing or good public schools (or, less charitably, mostly white public schools). Like Goetz, Hsu insists that you don't need to live on a farm or in the inner city to live an authentically Christian life. Nevertheless, "the suburban Christian ought not uncritically absorb all the characteristics of the suburban world."
One excellent chapter teases out what follows from suburban reliance on cars. (Did you know that the average commuter spends three weeks a year commuting?) As a consequence of our driving dependence, says Hsu, the elderly who can't drive are marginalized. Policy makers don't prioritize public transportation. Indeed, we often don't build sidewalks; as Bill Bryson has observed, "In many places in America now, it is not actually possible to be a pedestrian, even if you want to be."
Alongside Goetz's suggestion that we stay put in our churches through thick and thin, Hsu urges us to recover the parish mindsetthat is, to go to the church down the block and join in what God is doing there, rather than shopping for the perfect fit and winding up at a church two suburbs away.
Consumerism goes hand in hand with suburban living. How can we "consume more Christianly"? Shop in locally owned stores; create holiday rituals that don't revolve around gift-giving; regularly fast, not just from food, but also from media, new technology, and new clothes; buy organic, fair-trade coffee produced by companies that don't destroy rain forests. (And if you agree with the skeptics who find the "fair-trade" crowd self-deluded, there are plenty of other ways to become a more discriminating consumer.) A basic guideline for simple living, says Hsu, is "to live at a standard of living that is below others in your income bracket. It you can afford a $400,000 house, live in a $250,000 one instead. Or, if you can afford a $250,000 house, live in a $150,000 one."
In recent years we've seen a flourishing of books that take a fresh look at what might be called our "living arrangements." The works of Wendell Berry and Albert Borgmann; books such as David Matzko McCarthy's The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class, Eric Jacobsen's Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, and T. J. Gorringe's A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemptionthese and many others examine the built-in assumptions of our ways of life and their often unintended and unexplored consequences. Add Goetz and Hsu to that growing stack.
Neither of these books pretends to offer the last word on the subject of suburban Christianity. They raise more questions than they answerquestions, for example, about the effects of suburban development on the landscape that may have attracted us to the suburbs in the first place. It would be salutary to consider suburban gender narratives, the ways that suburban living shapes our understandings of masculinity and femininity, and to probe the deep economic structures that make suburbia not only possible but seemingly necessary. What about the labor relations we practice in our suburban homes, homes so often kept clean by someone who can't afford to live in the suburbs? What vision of redeemed creation do we encode when we build houses that aren't designed to last more than 75 or 100 years or tear down 30-year-old homes to build bigger ones?
Still, Hsu and Goetz have offered a welcome alternative to tiresome and self-righteous preaching about the spiritual superiority of agrarian or urban life. For Christians living in suburbiaand for those of us who share in the sins of suburbanism from our perches in the country or the citythese provocative yet loving books may prove invaluable.
Lauren F. Winner is the author most recently of Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity (Brazos).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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