I’m always fascinated by the spiritual and theological themes that emerge from pop culture. Last week Ellen and I finished watching season one of Lost on DVD, and one of the main themes is “Everybody gets a new life on this island.” I think this may partly explain the appeal of the show – it’s a theology of rebirth and redemption. The intrigue is seeing to what extent characters can reinvent themselves. More often than not, much of their present is still shaped and determined by their past. But the hope for the new life remains.
This theme jumped out at me because my theory is that suburbia represents much of the same inherent yearning – the fresh start, the second chance, the new life. This is especially true for people moving into new suburban developments where communities do not yet exist. People move there not for what is, but their hopes of what is yet to be. It fits the narrative of the American frontier, of leaving what is behind and forging new lives, writing new stories.
This also says something about the insufficiency of the “no day but today” perspective of Rent. As my last post mentioned, I like Rent a lot, but I need to critique it even as I appreciate it. One of Rent’s themes is “There is no future / There is no past . . . There’s only us / There’s only this / Forget regret or life is yours to miss.” The worldview of Rent is “There’s only now / There’s only here.” Today is the only day that really matters, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring; there is no confidence or hope in the future. The “there is no past” belief echoes the yearning for the new life, but it’s patently false – we all have a past, and while the past can be reinterpreted or redeemed, it can’t be denied.
Les Miserables, on the other hand, is a musical of hope. Its conclusion points to a future certainty – “For the wretched of the earth / There is a flame that never dies / Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise / They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord / They will walk behind the plowshare / They will put away the sword / The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.” Though that last phrase could be interpreted as a universalist statement, more significantly, the overall ethos is one of transcendent hope, where God is at work to redeem and rescue his people. It’s eschatological – there is a future, and theologians like Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have emphasized that God stands at the future and draws history toward himself and his kingdom purposes.
So how does this relate to a theology of suburbia? I’ll synthesize these thoughts this way – suburbia represents opportunities for forging a new life (like Lost) in the here and now (like Rent) but we must also live with vision beyond the present day, anchoring ourselves to the hope of God bringing us to a secure future (like Les Miz). Otherwise, suburbia only has the potential of the blank slate but no guarantee of a redeemed, transformed life. Past, present and future, God is present in suburbia.