Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Community, geography and affinity

I found myself in a variety of social contexts over the last few days that made me think about the nature of community. Scenario one: This past weekend, after church, about a dozen of us went out to eat. We've come to be friends with two other couples in particular who are about our age and are both expecting their first child. So we naturally talked about baby stuff.

Scenario two: On Memorial Day, we had some friends over from our old church for a cookout. These were fellow Gen Xers, also about the same age as us, a mix of singles and marrieds, some of whom we haven't seen for almost two years since we changed churches. None of the others have any kids, and conversation mostly was about current movies and favorite childhood television shows from the 70s and 80s.

Scenario three: Last night, we were at an annual informal wing-ding of publishing industry professionals and friends, many of whom are in town for the Religious Book Trade Exhibit trade show. The attendees included editors, authors, agents, publicists, booksellers, reviewers, journalists, sales reps and other folks in Christian/religious book and magazine publishing. Sort of the Christian literati. Conversation, as you might expect, was about books and publishing and the like.

What strikes me about all these situations is that they are affinity-based communities. Fifty or a hundred years ago, the word "community" was understood in a geographic sense of local neighborhood. The word has shifted to be understood in terms of affinity groups that are not tied to physical geography - people can be part of the arts community or the Asian American community or the evangelical community or the gay/lesbian community or the Star Trek community without being in close geographic proximity to anybody. I am a valued member of the eBay community (or so they tell me), even though I have never physically met anybody I buy from or sell to. One of my authors, Andy Crouch, talks about how this is a significant departure from most of human history. He says that people in most centuries would be astonished to find out that he has more of a sense of community and affinity with people he sees at a conference once a year a thousand miles from his home than he does with the next-door neighbor who's a complete stranger to him.

So my church friends from scenario one all live in different suburbs from me, as do most of my friends from my former church in scenario two - several have a half hour commute to church and a forty-five minute or more commute to work. The publishing industry folks in scenario three are scattered across the country, but several of them I will see more frequently (at various conferences and trade shows through the year) and talk to more often than the neighbors across the street that moved in last year that I still have not said hi to.

I know that theoretically and theologically, community should be diverse and bring me into relationship with people unlike me. But in practice, most of the communities I belong to tend to be of people of similar age, life stage, demographic, vocational and/or personal interests as myself. There are occasions where proximity and geography put me in community with people I would otherwise never talk to, but this tends to be the exception to the rule.

It seems that in suburban contexts, community tends to be affinity-based and self-selecting. We "shop" for our communities and affinity groups just as we shop for consumer goods. So maybe a good spiritual discipline for suburban Christians would be to intentionally seek out relationships and communities beyond our normal affinity groups. Community is easier when there are life experiences or interests in common, but I forget that I already have something in common with every neighbor I have yet to meet - our common humanity.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Publishers Weekly review of The Suburban Christian

The book publishing industry trade journal Publishers Weekly just ran a review of my forthcoming book The Suburban Christian. I think citations of their reviews are supposed to be limited to just twenty-five words, so here's an excerpt:

"[P]rovides a thoughtful critique of what living as a Christian in the suburbs should look like. . . . Every suburban pastor should read this book."

The full review is available here. I was quite pleased to see this review because I think it captures the purpose and flavor of the book quite well. And to provide some context, there are about 178,000 books published in the English language every year. Of those, something like 8,000 to 12,000 of those are religion books of some sort. Of those, PW only selects a couple of hundred religion books for review. So I feel quite honored to get a PW review, especially one as positive as this one.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Never Mind the Joneses!

This weekend was a Lost weekend - we got the first season of Lost from the library, but only had it for three days, so we watched three episodes Friday night, three episodes Saturday night and two episodes on Sunday before we returned it. Great show!

Also this weekend we were in various contexts with other people where I found myself inadvertently comparing our family with others. In one case, I was pleased to see that Josiah has better reading skills than a kid older than him, giving me reason to feel smug and superior. In another case, a baby the same age as Elijah is already walking (whereas Elijah isn't yet), and we heard about other kids who have many more activities and extracurriculars than our kids do. So this left me feeling inadequate and inferior. What to do?

As I was processing all of my thoughts and feelings, I was reminded of the book Never Mind the Joneses by Tim Stafford, who talks about how every family has its own distinct family culture. Some families have a sports culture, others have a musical culture, and so on. He describes how his family is a backpacking family, and some years ago during a rainy hike his daughter was having a miserable time and said, "I hate this! I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! And the thing I hate the most is that I know when I grow up I'm going to marry someone just like Dad, and we'll make our kids go backpacking!" Ten years later, while she's not married yet, she has come to love backpacking. It's part of her family's cultural DNA.

Stafford points out that families shouldn't compare themselves to other families' ideals of what a family should look like - they should discern their own particular family culture and seek to live faithfully and Christianly in whatever way God has wired them. So that frees us from comparing ourselves to other families that seem more perfect or more holy or whatnot - we can simply live the lives that we have been given to live, in our own distinct way.

On one level this is helpful to me, especially since suburbia is filled with opportunities to compare ourselves with people more affluent or socially active than us. I can think to myself, "Never mind the Joneses," and just focus on how our family seeks to live and parent and follow God in ways true to us - through frequent trips to the library and evenings on the reading couch (as book publishing professionals, our family culture is a bookish one).

But on the other hand, I'm also tempted to retreat from the world and ignore the Joneses. If hanging out with other families makes me feel envious or arrogant or insecure, then rather than trying to compete with them, I will tend to withdraw and disengage instead. So I end up not being motivated to be in community with others whose very presence or identity makes me feel inadequate. Perhaps this is a spiritual maturity issue on my part, and I just need to get over it. So the challenge is this - how do we "never mind the Joneses" in terms of trying to keep up or copy or compete with others, and yet stay engaged with the Joneses and build community and relationships with the Joneses?

I'd like to think that ideally, in the church, our Christian identity transcends differences in socioeconomic status or demographic differences, but in practice, it's often hard for stay-at-home moms and working moms to not feel threatened or criticized by one another's lifestyles, or for white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers to find common ground. I'm encouraged when I see relationships being built across these kinds of lines, and I'm hopeful that the church can be a place where we don't have to worry about comparing ourselves or competing with each other. But I'm still disturbed to find myself falling into these habits of comparison and competition, which tells me that status is probably still too much of an idolatry in my life.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Quality of community and subverting suburban transience

My friend Helen Lee, coeditor of Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, has a post on her blog describing her experience in suburbia. She notes that when her family moved to one particular suburb, they didn't get to know the neighbors there much at all. They recently moved to another suburb, and in contrast, they found themselves in a community that was very neighborly, rooted and interconnected. This is particularly interesting to me because the latter suburb has a bit of a reputation of being upscale and perhaps snobby/elitist, and if the stereotypes held true, I would have expected Helen to have had a more neighborly experience in the other suburb.

I guess it's a lot like local churches as expressions of larger denominations. Sometimes you think that a particular denomination is liberal or fundamentalist, but the specific local church down the block surprises you by being the opposite, whether evangelically conservative or progressively activist or whatnot. In churches, so much depends on local leadership. And in suburbia, so much depends on the local residents. It's certainly true that some neighborhoods have structural things that either facilitate or inhibit community, but we're called to bloom where we're planted, and a few key people in a neighborhood can make a huge difference in creating a neighborly environment.

Interestingly enough, Helen's post also mentions that she lived in a rural small town for a few years and was quite socially isolated. It's been said that small towns and urban communities have more in common than suburbs, because they maintain a sense of local neighborhood and aren't fragmented by suburban commuter culture and anonymity. On the other hand, it seems like it's often hard for newcomers to feel welcome in small towns, because the existing communities are well-established and transplants can be viewed as a threat to that stability.

This actually makes me wonder if suburban transience is a downside that can be subverted into an opportunity. Many suburbanites are transplants, and that means that communities may be more porous and easier for newcomers to break into, with less of an existing establishment. New residents might actually be more open to new connections and building community, especially in new developments and subdivisions where everybody is in the same boat. Again, to draw a church parallel, sometimes it's easier to start fresh church plants than to renew historic long-term congregations. Not that there aren't challenges either way. At any rate, I'm encouraged by Helen's post, that people are taking initiative and creating community here in suburban Chicagoland.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Suburban factoids

Here's a list of factoids I accumulated about suburbia during the research for my forthcoming book.

  • More people live in suburbs than in cities and small towns combined.

  • Americans are more likely to work in a suburb, shop in a suburb, and attend recreational events in a suburb than in central cities or rural towns.

  • Suburbia is not just families with kids: According to the 2000 census, only 27 percent of suburban households were married couples with kids, outnumbered by young singles and the elderly living alone.

  • Suburbia is diverse: The majority of Asian Americans, half of Hispanics and 40 percent of African Americans live in the suburbs. More new immigrants locate in suburbs than in cities.

  • Most suburban commuting is not from suburb to city, but from suburb to suburb.

  • The average suburban household generates thirteen car trips a day.

  • The average American spends 1 hour, 41 minutes in their car each day—a total of more than three weeks a year.

  • Each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time reduces community involvement by ten percent.

  • The more spread out a suburb, the higher the rates of obesity, high-blood pressure and weight-related chronic illnesses, because we drive more and walk less.

  • Big-box stores and national chains return only 13-14% of their dollars to the local community, while locally owned independent stores recirculate 45-58% to the local community.

  • Thirty years ago Americans had friends over to their homes 15 times a year; today the figure is half that—just once every month and a half.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Writing in community, In-N-Out Burger and better fast food

This week I was in Los Angeles, meeting with the Catalyst Leadership Forum and the writing team behind the book Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. There's a romantic myth that imagines that books are written by solitary authors who retreat like a hermit into a cabin in the woods, waiting for the muse to speak until they produce a masterpiece. In contrast, this particular book was truly written out of community. The Catalyst Forum met annually from 2002 to 2004, sharing best practices and insights from healthy Asian American churches, writing up one another's stories into chapter drafts, then critiquing and contributing to each other's chapters.

This week we celebrated the book's publication with a dedication service, praying for the book and commissioning it like a missionary to go places we cannot go personally. And then we all autographed each other's copies, like high school yearbooks. It was particularly meaningful that even forum members who had not written actual chapters also signed, since they were part of the community that contributed to the book's writing. It was the first time I had signed books that I had edited, and I was honored to be part of the book's birthing process.

Anyway, much of our time together involved eating, as Asians always do whenever we gather. We had Brazilian barbecue and fresh seafood, and ate lunch in a restaurant's wine cellar (it felt like we were the apostles in a lower room rather than the upper room). But our last meal together before we all departed was at In-N-Out Burger. The forum members from the West Coast told those from other parts of the country that if they have not yet had In-N-Out Burger, they could not leave California without having In-N-Out Burger. So we made our pilgrimage.

If you've read Fast Food Nation or seen Super Size Me, you know that there are plenty of problems with the fast food industry. Morgan Spurlock's Don't Eat This Book talks about how several Southeast Asian nations have had skyrocketing rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, which were previously unknown in those regions due to healthy, mostly vegetarian diets. The increased health problems correspond almost exactly with the introduction of McDonald's to those nations. It only took twenty years for McDonald's to wreck the healthy eating habits of societies that had had traditional agrarian diets for hundreds of years.

At any rate, besides pursuing alternatives like organic, natural foods and the Slow Food movement, folks have wondered if there are ways to redeem fast food and make it better. And In-N-Out Burger is often held up as one possible role model. In-N-Out makes all their burgers fresh - their ground beef is never frozen, and they use no additives or preservatives. Their fries are made onsite from whole potatoes, cut just before being cooked. Every burger is made to order; they use no microwaves or heat lamps. They also limit their menu to just four items - burgers, fries, shakes and soft drinks. They just do those few things, and they do them well. And their pricing is competitive - a cheeseburger, fries and shake was $5.01, not much different from a McDonald's value meal, and more satisfying to my palate and my conscience.

Interestingly enough, In-N-Out was founded by Christians, and you can still find Bible verses like Proverbs 3:5 and Revelation 3:20 in small print on the burger wrappers and drink cups. I don't know that all that many people have become Christians because of reading a Scripture reference on a burger wrapper, but I still like the idea of supporting a company that has been intentional about having ethical and sustainable business practices. Those of us from around the country may wish that In-N-Out would expand beyond the West Coast, but on the other hand, I think their distinctiveness and charm might be in part because they have kept themselves local. If they grew too big and expanded too far, they might be tempted to compromise their model. I was glad to give In-N-Out my business and to commend it to others. Now I want to find out what like-minded companies are present in my local community so I can support them as well.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Encouragement for aspiring writers

I just got back from a weekend in Columbia, Maryland, where I led a workshop on book publishing for a group from Bridgeway Community Church. Columbia is a suburban community located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., that was designed to encourage racial and socioeconomic diversity, and Bridgeway reflects that in its demographics. Something else distinctive about Columbia is that commercial signage is not very visible at all. The roads are lined with trees, not billboards. While that can make it difficult to find a grocery store if you don't quite know where it's located, the relative absence of commercial advertising is quite refreshing.

Anyway, I and a colleague had an enjoyable time with about thirty folks, explaining the process of book writing and publishing. One of the handouts I provided included the following quotes I compiled a few years ago:

“First of all, if you want to write, write. And second, don’t do it. It’s the loneliest, most depressing work you can do.” Walker Percy

“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” Gene Fowler

“Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.” Jessamyn West

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Red Smith

“It should surprise no one that the life of the writer – such as it is – is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” Annie Dillard

“In general, very little happens to a writer. Now do you understand why we put so much emphasis on artificial reality? Our actual reality is insufferably dull. A Federal Express delivery is far and away the most dramatic event in my day.” Philip Yancey

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.” Philip Roth

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Joseph Heller

“The first draft of anything is [poop].” Ernest Hemingway

“Writing is just having a sheet of paper, a pen and not a shadow of an idea of what you’re going to say.” Francoise Sagan

“Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself – it is the occurring which is difficult.” Stephen Leacock

“Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” Graham Greene

“The secret of good writing is to say an old thing a new way or to say a new thing an old way.” Richard Harding Davis

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Contented Soul, by Lisa Graham McMinn

I just read The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life, by Lisa Graham McMinn. The book received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which lauded it as "an excellent guide to spiritual practice . . . this book will especially delight those interested in understanding how inner peace is vitally connected to peace in the exterior world." The book provides substantive content and is elegantly written. McMinn, a sociologist at Wheaton College (and about to depart for George Fox) uses the tools of her discipline to help readers understand why contentment is elusive for many of us and what forces militate against contentment.

She traces how society has shifted us from understanding ourselves as soul (spiritual being in relationship with God) to self (as autonomous, self-determining psyche in pursuit of self-actualization and self-fulfillment) and ultimately to consumer. Along the way contentment shifted from being an internal state dependent on our connection to God to an external state dependent on our consumer purchases and acquisitions.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that she is writing as a suburban Christian in the context of a suburban environment. While she is not offering a study of suburbia per se, her analysis and insights give concrete ways to live Christianly and contentedly in suburbia. While her book is not a self-help book, it is full of examples and illustrations of what the contented Christian (and suburban) life might look like.

For instance, McMinn retrieves an old chair from someone’s curbside and restores it, recovering functional use and aesthetic value while countering consumerism. She hangs clothes on a traditional outdoor clothesline, saving energy and inspiring neighbors to do the same. She grows her own vegetables, buys from local farmers’ markets, commends the Slow Food movement, practices sabbath and voluntary simplicity, promotes economic justice and supports handcraft stores like Ten Thousand Villages that work toward sustainable living for people around the world.

Yet the book is not a prescriptive how-to book about things to do to find contentment. Rather, with a sociologist’s eye, she provides a descriptive portrait of the contented soul and shows us that life is better when we sip and savor life slowly, when we leave a smaller ecological footprint, when we embrace our limits and avoid getting sucked into the lies of consumer culture and western individualism. I came away from the book inspired to be the kind of person who cultivates contentment and experiences God’s goodness and shalom right here in my suburban environment – and also works to extend shalom and contentment to others.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Community theatre and Schoolhouse Rock

Ellen and I are fans of live theatre. We were both in high school theatre – she was the female lead in Brigadoon, and I had thirteen words (that’s words, not lines) in Look Homeward, Angel. One of the reasons we started dating was that we both love musicals, and during our courtship we saw Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and the Chicago production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Donny Osmond. It’s harder for us to catch community theatre these days now that we have kids, but we still enjoy live stage when we can. There’s just something about the medium that is so much more immediate and incarnational than what is viewed on a screen. I love the fact that we share the actual space, time and air with the actors, who may well be local residents and neighbors.

Our local community theatre company, Grove Players, is currently doing a production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! based on the Saturday morning children’s TV segments that aired on ABC in the ’70s. I missed the Chicago production that ran about a decade ago, so I was thrilled that the show would be here in my own local suburb. We got tickets for a Sunday afternoon matinee and spent the weekend prepping Josiah for the show by watching our Schoolhouse Rock DVD so he would be familiar with all the classic songs, from “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” to “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” and “A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing.”

The show had a cast of 27 kids, ages eight to fifteen. Part of me was disappointed that it was not cast with Gen Xers like myself who experienced the original Schoolhouse Rock segments. But it was still a joy to watch a new generation encounter and present these songs, many of which are quite lyrically challenging, like “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” about pronouns and “The Preamble” of the Constitution. Josiah and Elijah were very well behaved and sat attentively during the hour and a half show. Afterward I asked Josiah what his favorite song was, and he said, “All of them.”

It was interesting how well the songs held up three decades after their original airing. The music, a mix of folk, jazz and pop rock, is as fun today as it was when I was a kid. Because five of the six main cast members were girls, they changed a few gender references – the man with the boyish face in “Unpack Your Adjectives” became a woman with a girlish face, and the future astronaut in “Interplanet Janet” was also revised as a woman. At the time the song was written, before astronauts Sally Ride and Christa McAuliffe, it might have been assumed that only men could be astronauts. To its credit, Schoolhouse Rock has long championed women’s rights with the disco-hip anthem “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” (Josiah said, “That’s a fun one.”)

While the multiplication and grammar songs felt timeless, the history pieces seemed to offer too rosy a view of American history, from its celebration of manifest destiny in “Elbow Room” (with no mention of the impact on Native Americans) and a Eurocentric view of immigration in “The Great American Melting Pot.” The history segments were produced for the bicentennial in 1976, and perhaps the producers were hoping to recapture a more positive vision of America after the recent disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate. It’s telling that there’s no Schoolhouse Rock song about slavery or the Civil War.

Then again, Schoolhouse Rock may actually offer a particular prophetic word to our local suburban context. I was nostalgically enjoying all the songs and music until “The Great American Melting Pot” came on. That’s when I realized that the entire cast of the show was white. While the original animated segment included Chinese, African, Mexican and other national and ethnic heritages as well as European, there was some cognitive dissonance having an all-white cast celebrating America’s diversity. Downers Grove and its surrounding suburbs are majority white, but not all white. Perhaps this says something not merely about suburban racial and ethnic demographics but also about who tends to have resources and access to arts programs.

The arts reflect our culture and can expose and critique our blind spots. I’m grateful that local community organizations support community theatre. I also hope that suburban arts programs will not merely be mirrors of affluent whites that are the primary patrons of the arts, but will also reflect the breadth and diversity of all of the community’s residents.

At any rate, Josiah went to bed last night singing, "Conjunction Junction - what's your function?" And remember - interjections show excitement or emotion. They’re generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point, or by a comma if the feeling’s not as strong.

(Darn! That’s the end.)