A brilliant rebuttal to my attack on suburbia

So I thought some of you who are tired of my blogomaniac hubris would get a kick out of watching me get owned by one of my friends in a response that he sent to my critique of suburban culture. He gave me permission to share it as long as he could remain anonymous. He’s absolutely right that “suburbia” ends up being a scapegoat depository where hipsters like me project everything we don’t like about America or even just modern culture. Anyway, what I really love is the way he shows how different aspects of worship are the antidote to the social problems I described. So it’s an excellent application of James K.A. Smith’s liturgical theory. It’s way better than what I originally wrote, so enjoy.

Alright Morgan, you and I are going to have a little tet-a-tet (or however that’s spelled), a little brouhaha.  Because you went on the offensive against my people, my home, and me!  Hating on the suburbs?  Too far!  And since you have already outlawed me leveling a critique by just calling you a hipster, I want to address your points.  (Please note: all of that is said tongue-in-cheek.  I have learned my sarcasm doesn’t always translate well in emails).

Before going point by point, I want to explain my main thesis which is two-fold.  A) While I don’t disagree that there is a suburban culture, I’m not sure you can piece apart geography from culture as easily as you tried to in your piece.  I think many of the points you mention are larger critiques of American culture rather than problems with suburbia as such.  I raise this, not because you don’t know this, but because I think there is a romanticism about both urban and rural that allows us to take everything we don’t like about each and level the charge against suburbia.

And then dissecting geography from culture really allows us to talk about the things we don’t like about American culture without talking about anyone’s neighborhood and projecting it onto this real nemesis: suburban culture.  The problem with that for me is that the solution that follows is for everyone to becomes more rural and urban, for everyone to move into cities or the country, only to find that the same demons we found in the suburbs are prevalent there.  Because the issues you brought up are issues of America at large, not Fairfax County.

Which leads to my second main point, B) We change all this through worship.  Not only do I want to show that your issues with suburban culture are more about meta-American culture, I want to show how worship teaches us to be different.  Because there will be some issues that are most properly appropriated to the suburbs.  For me, however, the solution doesn’t lie in moving to DC or Danville, but to go to church!  And for the two of us specifically, in being the best pastors we can be to the suburban church.  Because I like parking my car and my wife likes being less than 20 miles from a grocery store, I prefer that conclusion to the one mentioned in the above paragraph…

So without further intro, your points:

1) Privatization of Space

While you could make an argument that the whole movement towards the suburbs was a move to allow me to have “bigger space that is mine” and therefore a marker of suburban culture, the Oklahoma song “The Farmer and the Cowboy Can’t Be Friends” show that privatization of space has long been an issue everywhere.  One of the faults that happened in this Cleveland tragedy is the failure of neighbors to be neighbors.  All people everywhere live in their own little bubbles.

When we invite people as free and forgiven people to pass the peace of Christ, we are teaching them that part of being a Christian is learning to encounter the other with the peace of Christ.  While those actions might seem perfunctory or even cheap, it teaches people that we are each other’s keeper.  And while that might not mean we leave church that day completely open to our neighbors, he Holy Spirit is slowly teaching us to be more than we currently are.

2) Anonymous Consumerism

I’m not entirely sure this is an accurate critique of suburban life.  I know the General Manager of the Glory Days in Burke because I go there so often.  He recognizes my wife because she got him to give teachers a special rate if they come for happy hour. Each week in my prayers of the people, I have a petition for the local community.  I feel that’s necessary given my church identifies itself as a neighborhood church.  It also, I think, teaches my people that God wants us to care about the local community and to be invested in the local community.  To know our neighbors and the person who owns the shop.

3)  Experience as Commodity

Can I ask what the difference is between going to Chili’s even though you hate the food (but it’s familiar) and going to the crappy diner on Main St because it’s the only diner on Main St and there is a pride that “it’s ours”.  Doesn’t the latter participate in a cheap experience of community just as much as going to Chili’s participates in the cheap experience of being ethnic?  That said, you have a real point in recognizing it’s shameful that Chili’s and PF Chang’s are the preferred places in the suburbs.  And it’s not because they’re the best.  People should try mom and pop places!

As for churches, [gets on soapbox] I think this is why mega-churches have success in the suburbs.  I think it is incumbent upon us to open ourselves up to more by being the best UMC pastors we can be.  Sometimes we participate too much in the meta-culture of same-ness rather than being authentically, historically Christian.  (I write that sentence wearing a Nike golf shirt with my church’s logo on it).  But if we have faith that faithful worship is counter-cultural, we can change this.

4)  Obsession With Safety

Yeah, I can’t refute that.  Locked doors are our Jesus.

But preaching Christ crucified and risen gives people a real hope that in death we can find hope amidst sadness. Preaching tragedy well and responsibly can teach people how Christians ought to react to the scary parts of our world.  Good preaching should also open our people to the realities of the world: more children died the day of the Newtown tragedy from not having food to eat than did by gun. Now, the Sunday after Newtown isn’t the time to say that.  And frankly, that sentence should never be said in a sermon.  But continually forcing our people to see the world as Christians, to see reality, perhaps that can allow the Spirit to be an iconoclast to our Safety savior.

5) Competitive Pursuit of Happiness

I think by this you mean the activity driven-ness of suburban parents.  Aka the soccer in soccer-moms.  I think by this you also mean the fact that fun is scheduled on an iPhone.  This is also something I can’t refute, however there might be a sense in which that is Sabbath.  I won’t try too hard on that one, thought.

While there are parts of our order of service that participate in this (I’m looking at you Children’s Time), for the most part our worship teaches people to wait.  In contemporary worship, the song doesn’t end until the band stops playing.  If that means we sing the tag 10 times (and we do!) then we keep going.  The sermon doesn’t end until the pastor is done.  During prayer time, we stop and wait on God.  Worship is designed to teach people to stop and pause and be still.  They can’t control the activity, they can’t determine its length or where it goes; all they can do is stop, wait, and give themselves to it.

6)  Idolatry of the Family

This isn’t as true as it was 30 years ago.  The younger generation doesn’t have a romanticized notion of the nuclear family.  Mom and Dad might, but their kids don’t.  Too many suburban families are blended, single-parent, etc for the Leave it to Beaver model to be the norm. Now, I will say that in the suburbs there is an unhealthy obsession with “my kids.”  That is where you’re correct.  Nothing is out of bounds so long as I am doing it for “my kids.”  Spending is merely the tip of the iceberg.  I can complain to teachers day and night and accuse them of being negligent and its advocacy for my child.  I can scream and yell at referees, demand playing time from coaches, and expect special treatment for “my kid.”  All manner of sins are absolved when clothed in “love of children.”

This is where worship teaches us to be more.  In the baptismal liturgy we make promises to take care of someone else’s children.  In any church where a baptism has taken place in the last 15 or so years, one cannot claim they don’t have an obligation to a child that isn’t there biologically.  The baptismal liturgy makes a claim on all of us to care for a lot of children.  And hopefully that teaches us that there is no end to the children for whom God calls us to care.  Baptism ought to teach us to see other(‘s) children as our own.


I hope that shows either the suburbs aren’t that terrible (or at least aren’t more terrible than any other place in America) or that we can have hope as suburban pastors because we are working to change that.  The former is important to me because before I can lead my people or be a pastor of my people, I need to love my people.  And, this is especially true for Northern Virginia, in order to love my people, I have to love the suburbs.

And if its any consolation, in the end we’ll all be moving back to a city.  All of us will move back into the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city, to worship God.  Between now and then, I hope our worship can continue to teach us and change us to see one another, to care for one another, and to be each other’s keepers.

What do you think?


6 thoughts on “A brilliant rebuttal to my attack on suburbia

  1. After reading all three I have a few thoughts. I might take the time to actually write out something longer, but in a nut shell:

    1) Suburbia is an element of a larger culture in which all of us seem to find ways to live out brokenness and reconciliation. Suburbia offers some unique opportunities for sin and unique opportunities for living out a life of Christian discipleship. As it goes, suburbia is not even terribly unique.

    2) Community exists in just about ever type of environment: rural, suburban, and urban. Some very cool communities have popped up in Suburban Switzerland where the disparity in incomes is lower. They treat their suburban plot not as a competition spot for a useless putting green. Instead, they use their parcel of land to have a coordinated garden system. Each person raises different things for sharing with the local community. It’s a neighborhood association that doesn’t just protect property values but offers a chance for genuine interdependent community life. I like it as a concept, and I’d love to talk to some of the people in that community to find out how it works out from year to year.

    3) The difficulty we have with calling Suburbia sinful is this: what in the world are we comparing it to? What are we using as our criteria for judgement? Are suburban environment’s unsustainable? Are urban or farming environments any better? Do they reflect the actual costs of living in those regions? Before we go on a tirad about wasting fossil fuels for the suburban commute and the unnecessarily massive family vehicles (which I want at some point) we have to put up some way to evaluate the fuel use per person that public transit in the cities use. A per person comparison might not be as favorable to the urban or the farming environment as we might believe.

    4) People are not as isolated as we tend to think. They are busy, often overly so, but I don’t have a great appreciation for how that differs from any point in history. We do seem to prefer organized activity to more individually motivated play. I think that’s a loss, but I’m not sure a street soccer game or a neighborhood biking adventure is substantively different from little league and dance class. Other than the extra time in the car, they seem pretty similar to me, and the car pooling to school and dance classes swapped by parents seems to be a pretty good basis for developing acquaintances (maybe friendships) and having mutual parenting of kids.

    5) I love the idea of worship as a solution to the problem. I like the understanding of Baptism and Eucharist as places where we come and explicitly recognize the basis of true community in Christ. I also love the explicit vows to help adults and children to grow in grace and to be helped by them to grow in grace ourselves. However, quite a few people might not take these vows seriously or intentionally without very direct work from pastors to speak to these vows. Paul works out the details of worship in the relationships we have during the week not just the “experience” we have on Sunday (Romans 12:1-13:7).

    6) I’m not sure what to say about the safety issue. It really isn’t practical to say we don’t care about safety. It’s deeply impractical to say so regardless of where we live. Income levels dictate the amount of safety we can afford, but just as Dennis points out, suburbs have domestic abuse and other forms of violence. They aren’t secure utopias of security.

    7) Are we commodifying worship? Can we? We can lower the prerequisite knowledge for participation or make it easier for people to get through the learning curve, but I think our hope in doing so is to enter into a palpable sense of God’s presence and to allow others to join us there. I’m disturbed by the business strategy language (mission statements) and marketing language (target demographics) that is used to talk about “growing the church”, but I think even in the midst of this language, people are genuinely interested in making disciples and developing an alternative community. It isn’t easy, but we aren’t really going it alone.

    I really think we need good and possibly specific criteria with which to evaluate aspects of suburbia. We need analysis instead of quick judgement, and even if analysis shows suburbia to be a great drain on our social space, there are ways in which suburbanites can faithfully follow Christ. We need to warm up our imaginations – really working out James KA Smith’s ideas (can we get him to work at Duke already?) – and uses these imaginations to figure out what a faithful suburbia would look lie. A sort of Benedictine order for suburban life.

    • I was just using “suburbia” as an arbitrary signifier. It’s hard to figure out what the more adequate word would be. I’m not sure that we’re no different than any other point in history. The virtualization of reality in the information age is a major difference. I also think we’re more paranoid about our safety and more litigious than 50 years ago. As far as social spaces and kids’ activities, my personal experience has been that I haven’t been able to form authentic community with other parents at soccer, gymnastics, or swimming. Maybe that’s just my introvertedness. Maybe moms are better at it than dads are. I need more than just having kids with the same activity to get further than awkward small talk with people. For whatever it’s worth, I was way more in my element driving the Reconciliation church van up and down Alston Avenue in east Durham than I am now in suburbia. Maybe I’m wired to prefer the city to the ‘burbs. I grew up in the middle of Houston.

      • Suburbia is a difficult term to work with – Is it geographical? Sociological? Subcultural? Class related? But it works well as a general signifier. I grew up in what I’d refer to as suburbia – a commuter area just outside of Round Rock and Austin, Tx.

        I don’t think you are terribly introverted, but I used the word acquaintances instead of friends or even relationships. The choice to develop relationships requires a time commitment that we can’t always make. I do think my wife is better at it than I am. I tend to be mor introspective and prefer a book or a hike to small talk.

        My point on security was really just an aside. I agree with you that it’s an unavoidable consideration and that paranoia is increasing. But the change in mobility in our culture might be responsible. Freakanomics had some interesting theories on the decrease of crime over the last century, but I don’t know if I agree.

        I liked Durham, and I think I would have liked it more if I’d had time to cultivate relationships with random people. Divinity School really did a number on me my first year, and it got better as it went along. If I hadn’t taken up a student pastor appointment, I would have been able to connect more.

        My point is less taste oriented – regardless of demographic or geographic local, genuine discipleship can occur, but what shape the Christian community “should” take cannot be reduced or equated to a particular demographic or geographic description. Suburbia is dangerous precisely because people believe the happy life is located only where they are at or with what they are experienced.

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