Postmodern thinkers sometimes settle for deconstructing the motives of their critics instead of making defensible arguments. Unfortunately, a recent Mere Orthodoxy piece exhibited this behavior, promising to explain why the American suburbs are a good, wholesome place, but focusing its energy on developing a caricature of suburbia’s critics as “urban gentry and intelligentsia.” I’ve used that rhetorical trick before: Bob criticizes X; Bob is a snobby aristocrat; therefore everyone who criticizes X is a snobby aristocrat. Well, I’m not an urban gentry. I’m a suburban pastor. And there are things about the suburbia where I live that hinder people from entering the kingdom of God.
The first thing to clarify is that I am using the term “suburbia” as a descriptor of a cultural reality, not a geographic space. We live in a neighborhood in Northern Virginia in which white people are almost the minority. On our block, we have Laotians, Peruvians, and Bolivians. In my son’s elementary school class, more than half of the students do not have English-sounding first names. It’s at least a quarter Muslim. However, in this sea of cultural diversity, we go to a church with at most a dozen non-white people out of a weekly worship attendance of 400.
That’s not to berate my church for not being more multicultural. It’s just to say that our families inhabit multiple worlds at the same time. You can live in a white world even when most of your neighbors aren’t white. There are substantial cultural differences in how our Laotian neighbors use the square footage of their house, where they shop, and how they structure their time each week which cause them to inhabit a completely different world than me despite the fact that they are less than 50 yards away. Likewise, our next-door neighbors are a twenty-something couple without children who always seem to have at least three or four heavily tattooed house guests chain-smoking in front of their house. They live in a completely different world than either our family or the Laotians.
So I can only talk about the oppressive features of the suburbia that I inhabit. Regardless of whether this describes how most people live in Northern Virginia, one possible world within our shared experiences does look like the suburbia that I’m talking about. So having dealt with these qualifiers, let me share the features of my suburbia that I find problematic to the kingdom of God.
1) Privatization of space
By privatization of space, I don’t mean merely the existence of private property, but the lack of any concept of public in the culture of suburbia. I am either in the privacy of my home or my car or the personal soundtrack of my headphones as I go about my shopping. There is no public that I enter into. If my neighbor rings my doorbell just to say hello, it’s not friendly hospitality but a source of irritation. I recently learned that it’s standard practice for Korean Methodist pastors to call on every family in their church at home at least twice a year for a two hour visit that includes a meal, singing, scripture reading, a brief homily, a frank conversation about the spiritual well-being of the church member, and a time of prayer. Yeah, that would never happen in my suburbia.
2) Anonymous consumerism
In my suburbia, whenever I buy something, I have a conversation with someone who will always be an anonymous stranger regardless of how many times I’ve already talked to the same person. If I don’t know the people who I buy stuff from, then it makes sense that I wouldn’t see any moral implications to my consumerism. It also makes sense that I would transfer the same consumer expectations for generic polite pleasantness to other social venues such as when I go church-shopping. The main difference between a suburb and a small town is that in a small town, you know the people you buy stuff from, which changes everything. There’s a Mexican restaurant here in Burke where all the waiters are familiar with “Mr. Morgan.” When I eat lunch there, I’m not in suburbia; I’m in the Latin American small town of Burke, Virginia.
3) Experience as commodity
This is similar to anonymous consumerism. The reason chain restaurants are popular whether they’re fast food or boutique is because of the commodification or interchangeability of experience regardless of which franchisee of the chain you go to. It’s not just the actual taste of the food; it’s the familiarity of the ambiance and even the “traditions” that are sometimes tailored in order to make the chain feel more “authentic” (things like a particular chant the people behind the counter are required to perform when somebody orders the jumbo guacamole). In a culture where people expect their experiences to be commodities, church becomes a commodified experience as well, particularly among Christian traditions that see worship as the packaging for the rational content of the message, which is the only truly relevant part.
4) Obsession with safety
You live in cultural suburbia (and not just the outskirts of a city where you happened to find a reasonably priced house) if your primary motive for choosing where you live is to keep your kids in a “safe” environment (away from the “gang-affiliated” kids in the city). “Safety” is not only about the fear of the other in terms of people; it’s also a general sense that everything around us is polluted whether it’s violence on TV or high-fructose corn syrup in our grocery stores. I don’t like high fructose corn syrup and I don’t want my son to be in a school where he could get beat up in the hallway. Safety is a legitimate parental concern, but it can also become a religion of its own and a stumbling block for true kingdom discipleship.
5) Competitive pursuit of happiness
People in suburbia pursue happiness competitively, whether this refers to vacations or sports teams or character building opportunities like Boy Scouts. Happiness is something that you’re supposed to put a fierce amount of effort into pursuing. This is clearly problematic to kingdom living if we understand that prayer is resting in God, the polar opposite of a fierce pursuit of happiness. There are (mostly non-white) people in my neighborhood who have large barbecues just about every weekend, packed out with people from their extended family and community who sit around chatting when I drive past on my way out for weekend errands and haven’t seemed to move when I come back by a few hours later. I would say that they’re not living in suburbia.
6) Idolatry of the family
One of the most pernicious idols in our culture is the nuclear family, because it seems so appropriately Christian to put your family first. Of course we should take care of our families and focus a lot of our energy especially on helping our kids develop a relationship with Christ. But oftentimes the “altruism” of doing things for my family provides me with a veil to cloak my selfishness. I can spend any amount of money on my kids without feeling guilty about not having used it to help the poor or build God’s kingdom because everyone understands that God’s primary purpose for my life and everything I do with His church is for me to have a healthy family. A kingdom perspective on the family sees my familial relationships as critically important, but in terms of the needs of the kingdom, not the reverse.