Last winter, I was greatly anticipating the release of the Suburban Christian by Albert Hsu. Naturally, I grabbed the book at Urbana06 and finally finished reading it sometime this summer. I read one of Al’s earlier books (Singles at the Crossroads) and I liked his mix of biblical story and cultural analysis. In the Suburban Christian, he took it a step further by addressing the deep of issue of finding spiritual vitality in the land of the plenty.
First off, I have to say that the subject of the book is timely and much needed. The bizarre mix of suburban living and Christian faith tugged on my heartstrings… to the point where I felt compelled to preach on it a month ago. I have always felt uneasy in my local church as we are a mostly suburban lot commuting to an urban church. My uneasiness was based on our lack of involvement with the local community as well as the affluent economic and cultural practices demonstrated by church members in comparison to the local neighborhood. This led me to an even greater revelation that there must be something wrong with our very faith if the way we seek goods, services, and entertainment can be a cause of injustice to others. Could I be a Christian and still live amongst this cultural milieu? Or must I move to the ‘poor downtown-core’ in order to preserve my faith? Thankfully, this book was a breath of fresh air, and a sounding board for my thoughts.
After reading the first chapter of this book, I realized that Al had researched A LOT about suburban issues. He footnotes a ton and many are academic articles and books that brings credibility and nuanced social critique about suburbia. I loved it. In fact, I wish I could study more of the urban planning issues he mentioned (maybe I will go take a night course on this stuff). His cultural analysis also hit home: the need for shelter, security, and pursuit of individual homeownership led to this inevitable social phenomenon of suburbia. No one questions why we even need separate housing, it’s just assume that once you’ve graduated and married, you need a house for yourself. This particular socialization of the suburbs can also be seen by the need for a car, possessing certain material brands of clothing or gadgets/toys.
I loved how Al highlighted several issues to consider and offered alternative ways to still thrive as a Christian while living in the suburbs.
First, consider consuming in a Christian way. We can practice more simple living by not consuming as much (do we really need an iPod?). And if we do need to consume (ie. buy food), can we do so in a conscientious way – like buying locally produced foods or fair-trade coffee. Perhaps instead of consuming a cultural product like buying an mp3 and listening to the latest hit, we can instead be creators of culture and create our own music?
Second, consider moving into community. For some, this is as simple as spending less time in front of the TV and getting to know your neighbors. Perhaps this can lead to neighborhood potlucks or the sharing of resources. I personally feel the glorification of the self is perhaps the biggest suburban ideal that is so antithetical to Christ’s teachings. I would love to consider a real move into community by means of something like co-housing or living in a co-op.
Third, consider the church in the suburbs as incarnational and countercultural. The church must counter these cultural issues that have silently crept into the collective consciousness of all suburban Christians. This can be done through teaching and fellowship, but ultimately the church must live out this message by helping its members live out the life that is so much more fulfilling then a life in pursuit of a nice job, home, and hot wife/husband.
For myself personally, I have to confess that he challenged my desire/practice of consumption. I think I do pretty well in terms of consuming goods and services – I don’t shop for clothes and the newest toys/gadgets. Instead, Al shared his own desire to buy books… which is a similar passion for me! I think I have always rationalized my growing library as it being a resource (I do lend out a lot of books and I tend to go back to many of my past readings for reference). Yet, do I really need to own them myself? I think I have to take a deep look for my need to accumulate knowledge in this form and see if I change this practice. Maybe I’ll take up Al’s example one day and donate my books to the church and help catalogue/run the library there.
There is a lot more in this book and I would strongly recommend it to everyone. In fact, I may use part of it for Sunday school about social justice issues.