So my question for the day is to what extent does being a suburban Christian mean that we can or should be fully suburban and fully Christian? I'm of course borrowing language from creedal statements about the Incarnation, in which Jesus is identified as being fully human and fully divine. The challenge is that our own experience of being human is always tainted by fallenness, and we can hardly imagine (apart from the Gospel narratives) how someone can be completely human without being sinful. That word "fully" is what trips us up, and Christians throughout the centuries have erred one way or another, either diminishing Jesus' humanity or his divinity. It seems like to be fully human inherently creates the impossibility of being divine, if not for the paradox of the Incarnation. For us, being fully human often seems to put us at odds with being fully Christian.
I think suburban Christians can navigate this tension by being willing to self-identify as being suburbanites as well as being Christians. Some folks hate the idea of being suburbanites and only reluctantly come to accept the fact that they are suburbanites after they've lived in suburbia for five or ten years. But identifying as suburban doesn't necessarily mean that we embrace all the fallenness and flaws of suburbia. It means that we call suburbia home and seek the welfare of the suburbs as invested residents, like the exiles in Babylon who were exhorted to settle down, build homes and plant gardens. My sense is that we will have a far more effective presence and ministry in the suburbs if we make ourselves at home as suburbanites rather having some degree of emotional distance from our environment.
I suppose the other tension applicable here is being in the world but not of it. What does it mean to be in the suburbs but not co-opted by the fallen aspects of suburban culture? The latest Renovare newsletter has an interview with Eugene Peterson, and he has this brief comment about the forthcoming third volume in his spiritual theology series:
I think my title for the third volume will be The Jesus Way. And I take the metaphor of Jesus as the way and explore it in every dimension I can figure out. We can't say Jesus is the way - "I'm going to follow Jesus" - and then use all the devil's ways. All the "I like to do" or "have a talent for" or "have an aptitude for" or "have a spiritual gift" language is popular in our churches, but we have to do it Jesus's way. The way Jesus did it is as important as the way Jesus is. I'm just trying to connect ways and means. The means by which we do something can destroy what we're doing if they're not appropriate. And I think the American Church is very conspicuous for destroying the way of Jesus in the ways we do church.
This is provocative language on Peterson's part, and naturally we'll have to see how he spells all this out, but his stance feels somewhat anti-incarnational, as if it's possible to do something purely Jesus' way that's not at all influenced by modern American post-industrial culture. Doing things Jesus' way would mean itinerant ministries, no church buildings, and preaching in Aramaic. What's transferable? While it's certainly true that American churches do things in ways antithetical to the gospel, it's also true that churches have contextualized their ministries in ways that indeed redeem and Christianize secular ways of doing things. So is it contextualization or compromise? Or a mix of both? Depends on your theological stance, I suppose. I tend toward a "Christ transforming culture" perspective myself, though I recognize that all the various Niebuhrian approaches have merit depending on circumstances and situations.
For me, being suburban and being Christian is a dialectical tension, and I self-identify as a suburban Christian rather than a Christian suburbanite. Christian is the noun, and suburban is the adjective, meaning that my primary identity as a Christian will critique and shape the way I am suburban. I don't know that I (or anyone) can ever be fully suburban and fully Christian, but I hope that I am always becoming more thoroughly Christian in my suburban life and presence.