Friday, June 30, 2006

How then shall we eat?

One kind of consumption that is unavoidable is the consumption of food. What does it mean to eat more Christianly? Various possible answers abound: eat more healthy foods, eat less pre-processed foods, avoid fast food, eat organic foods, eat meals communally, share food with those who don't have it. All of the above? A mix? Whatever we can manage?

Our friend Cindy Crosby has a great article reviewing Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which "traces the path of four meals through their various systems: organic food, alternative food, industrial food (such as fast food), and food we forage for ourselves. Each system exploration results in a meal: cheap fast-food take-out from McDonalds eaten in the car; a pricey repast from Whole Foods consumed at the dinner table; a grilled chicken and a chocolate soufflé made from sustainable farm animals and local ingredients; and a meal he foraged and hunted and ate with some help from friends, right down to mushrooms and wild pig." Here's an excerpt from Cindy's article:

Pollan tackles some daunting questions. What ethics are involved in our food choices? What impact do they have on the environment? And who or what are we subsidizing with our food choices?

What about the ethics of trucking "organically grown asparagus from Argentina" to America's suburbs in January? What are the economics of fuel and the cost to the people of Argentina, whose land is feeding Americans? The food industry, Pollan points out, burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States. And most "organic farming" is done on organic industrial farms, a contradiction in terms that Pollan explores at length in the fields of California. "Is there anything wrong with this picture? I'm not sure, frankly," Pollan concludes. What he finds is "a much greener machine, but a machine, nonetheless."

Perhaps, as Pollan writes, the best way to fight industrial eating is to recall people to the superior pleasure of traditional foods enjoyed communally. Then, our eating contributes to the survival of landscapes and species and traditional foods that would otherwise succumb to the "one world, one taste" fast food ideal. Having a diversified food economy where consumers have access to thriving alternative food sources, he concludes, allows us to withstand shocks to the system: outbreaks of mad cow disease, petroleum running out, pesticides that quit working.

It's possible to live with contradictions in how we eat, Pollan believes, but important that we face up to our compromises. For me, this means planting a little more garden to offset my occasional golden arches French fry consumption; thinking more seriously about taking out that local farm share at the cooperative down the road; and inviting friends over for "slow" dinners and conversation more often. In a fallen world, we take baby steps on the journey back to wholeness.

I'm reading this over my lunch, and I'm noticing how non-communal my work lunches tend to be. I'm often eating at my desk. I would have eaten with my wife, but she has a business lunch today. I probably need to eat in the lunchroom more often. But we did have a company lunch yesterday for our annual inventory, and tonight is our company picnic, followed by Shakespeare in the park. So I'm grateful for the times our corporate community has meals together. It's the difference between merely eating and truly breaking bread together.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Being kingdom citizens in a consumer culture

My wife sent me a link to this column on by Carolyn Carney, who asks, "Are we citizens of God's kingdom, striving for that kingdom, or merely consumers?" Good stuff, so here's an excerpt:

Last year, I was frequently jarred by the television commercials CNN ran during breaks in the Tsunami coverage. While watching horrendous pictures of Indonesia’s poor fighting tooth and nail just to survive, it seemed so frivolous to hawk things such as dishwashers, new cars, beer, and every pharmaceutical product you could name from acne creams to wart removers, and depression medication to ED pills. How could anyone be convinced at this moment in time that the proper use of money was to indulge in something to meet a personal need? But we often go shopping to feel better, don’t we? When we do so, we retreat into our personal world of consumerism and forsake the call of God to be a citizen.

Do we see ourselves as autonomous, free, unattached beings who of course, as Christians, seek obedience in matters of piety, but see little connection or calling to serve brothers/sisters/neighbors around the corner or around the world? We have failed to understand the gospel’s message when we sacrifice becoming a Godly Citizen seeking to bring restoration to all the world for the cheap substitute of being a Morally Good Consumer.

So the next time you are seeking to upgrade your computer or cell phone or iPod or house or car, first ask “Can I live without this?” Then ask, “Why am I seeking an upgrade? Is there something missing in who I view myself to be that I believe will be filled if I have this?”

Consumer culture may well be our generation's biggest challenge to Christian faith. The late Pope John Paul II said that consumerism was an ideology "no less pernicious" than other ideologies like Marxism, Nazism and fascism.

It's interesting how much consumer culture shapes our vocabulary and mental categories. At a publishing consultation a few weeks ago, one of the participants mentioned how Christian publishers have fallen into the habit of talking in terms of "consumers" and "products" rather than "readers" and "books." I'm an editor working with authors, not someone who does "product development" with "content providers." So maybe one way of countering our consumer culture is to recover a sense of personhood - we are not merely consumers, we are people. And our fellow human beings are not merely consumers or target markets or demographic audiences - they are our neighbors, whom God has called us to love.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Suburban population growth trends continue

A colleague sent me a link to a news article about the latest Census Bureau estimates, which confirm recent ongoing trends of suburban population growth and urban plateauing. The fastest-growing city in America is Elk Grove, California, a suburb of Sacramento that wasn't even incorporated six years ago:

Americans have been moving west and south for decades, and last year was no different. All but three of the 50 fastest-growing cities from 2004 to 2005 were in those regions of the country, with many in California and Florida, according to Census Bureau estimates Wednesday. The estimates were for cities with populations of 100,000 or more.

Elk Grove was followed in the top five by North Las Vegas, Nevada; Port St. Lucie, Florida; Gilbert, Arizona, and Cape Coral, Florida.

All five are suburban, and all have fewer than 200,000 residents.
The article goes on to note that major cities continue to lose residents. Since 2000, Detroit has lost 65,000 people, Philadelphia 50,000, and San Francisco 37,000. While New York has had net gains of 135,000 people since 2000, it has lost 21,500 in just the period from 2004 to 2005.

This corroborates data I found in my research that while metropolitan areas as a whole are growing, the majority of the growth is in suburban and exurban areas, not the urban cores. For example, in the last decade, the city of Atlanta gained 23,000 people, while the surrounding suburbs grew by 1.1 million.

The sheer numbers reinforce what has been increasingly true for several decades. Suburbia is significant, and is likely the dominant landscape of the 21st century. For more than half of the population, it's a suburban world.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Lost at Target

No, this is not a TV show about survivors whose plane crashed into a retail store - it's a post from my wife, Ellen, from our family blog about losing our son Josiah at Target.


We lost Josiah at Target. He was only lost for five or ten minutes (if even that), but it was frightening. Al took Josiah to the bathroom and when they came out Josiah said, "I'll find Mommy!" and ran off. Al found me and we looked around the area we were in for a few minutes without any luck. After what was probably about two minutes, but felt longer, I rushed to the customer service desk while Al kept looking in another part of the store.

I was embarrassed to tell the clerk that we had lost our four-year old, but I reasoned that if someone kidnapped him I would spend the rest of my life wondering why I didn't tell the customer service representative sooner. So they announced a missing child alert over their walky-talkies and I had to tell a security guard what Josiah was wearing. As the guard was in the process of notifying store personnel that a child with a blue Mickey Mouse shirt and black and white shoes that light up was missing, Al walked over holding Josiah.

I was relieved to have found Josiah, but I worried about future incidents. So I tried to tell Josiah what he should do when he is lost. "Don't wander around looking for Mommy or Papa. Stay in one place. Find someone behind a counter or who is wearing a name tag." Josiah listened for a minute and looked at the people behind the counter. Then he said, "Mommy, I have a question," (which is Josiah's way of saying, "Can I talk now?"). "I wasn't lost. You were lost, Mommy. I could not find you!"

Josiah says the same thing each time we talk about being lost. "But Mommy, I wasn't lost. You were lost." It's cute, but it's also very frustrating. I want to make sure he knows what to do if he ever gets lost again, but if he can't even admit or understand that he is lost, will he do the things he knows lost people should do?

I wonder how often I say the same thing to God, "I'm not lost, God. You're lost. I can't find you!" Perhaps God smiles and says, "No, I'm not lost. I know where I am and I even know where you are. But because you cannot admit that you are lost and won't do the things I've taught you, it is hard for you to find me."

I hope we never lose either of our children again, but if we do (and somehow I think it is almost certain that we will), I hope they will admit they are lost and remember what we have taught them to do. Similarly, I hope that when I am feeling lost and alone, that I will remember seek God instead of blaming him. And its possible that the best way to for me to seek God will be to rest in one spot awhile and maybe even look for someone who works for God ("behind the counter") to ask for help.

Monday, June 19, 2006

A theology of Lost, Rent, Les Miz and suburbia

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.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Suburban Renthead

I’ve always loved musical theatre, and a few weeks ago my wife and I watched the DVD of the movie version of Rent. I’d never seen Rent on stage, but I’d heard a lot of buzz about it back in the 90s. It was mentioned in the book Virtual Faith as a religious experience for many Gen X attendees. I felt that way when I first saw Les MisĂ©rables, so I was curious about seeing Rent.

I was disturbed by it and loved it at the same time. Rent highlights both the worst and the best of human experience, from self-destructive behavior and hedonistic worldviews to real community, relationships and love. I don’t always watch DVD bonus features, but we watched the full two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary. I was haunted by Rent’s anthems and melodies, so I checked out the soundtrack, a memoir by a cast member, the coffee table book/libretto and sheet music from the library. Even just reading the lyrics of the finale continues to move me to tears.

Interestingly, even though the play takes place in the urban setting of New York City’s East Village, the librettist/composer, Jonathan Larson, grew up in middle-class suburbia, in White Plains, thirty-five minutes north of New York City. He first discovered his talent and love for theatre in his junior high and high school plays and musicals. Ironically, Rent, a celebration of bohemian urban artistic experience, is partially indebted to suburban school systems’ championing of theatre and the arts.

It seems that our culture often holds either an urban or a rural ideal, to the exclusion of the suburban, and the theatre world reflects this. There have been musicals in urban settings from West Side Story to Rent, and musicals set in rural small-town settings like Oklahoma! and The Music Man. But suburbia? Nothing comes to mind. Someday, perhaps, a daring, creative playwright will focus his or her talents into a dramatic, Tony-award-winning musical set in the world of suburbia. Somebody should go for it. And more significantly, we who live in suburbia could live as compellingly and intentionally as the characters in these narratives. No day but today!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Demographic tools for learning about your neighborhood

I don't remember how I came across this, but if you click on this link, you'll find a neat little tool that combines Google maps and Census Bureau data. You plug in any address, like your home address, and it will not only map your neighborhood, but also tell you who lives within a one-mile, three-mile and five-mile radius of your home. It gives population data with a few demographic breakdowns like age, gender, income, race/ethnicity and housing.

For example, within one mile of my home live 15,056 people in 5309 households, with a median income of $66,508 and median age of 36. The median housing value is $185,219, median cash rent is $647, and each household has an average of 1.80 vehicles available to them. You can also find demographic and population information directly from the Census Bureau, such as this tool here that gives fact sheets on local communities.

These two tools used in conjunction turn up some interesting data. For example, the fact sheet for my suburb of Downers Grove says that 90.1 percent of the residents are white, while 80 percent of people living in my one-mile radius are white, suggesting that my local neighborhood has more racial/ethnic diversity than the suburb as a whole. The median value of single-family homes for the overall suburb is $205,900, meaning that my immediate neighborhood is a little less expensive than the rest of the suburb. I also notice that the average travel time to work is 29.1 minutes for residents of my suburb, so I feel fortunate that my job is only about 15 minutes away in good traffic. Anyway, I find it fascinating and fun to use tools like these and find out actual data about who lives in our communities.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Books on my nightstand

Js on the Myers-Briggs tend to read books one at a time, straight through, while Ps tend to read multiple books simultaneously, flipping back and forth between titles. I’m definitely a P – there are currently over two dozen books on my nightstand (and on the floor), most with a bookmark stuck in it a few chapters in.

Part of this is because I’m participating in a seminar at Calvin College next month on writing as Christian proclamation, and the syllabus has about twenty books on it. Fortunately, I’ve already read more than half the list – Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God and Real Sex, Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies and Plan B, Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian and A Generous Orthodoxy, Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, Debra Rienstra’s So Much More, Patton Dodd’s My Faith So Far and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. As you might guess, we’re reviewing many recent books and discussing their significance and effectiveness.

So here are the books that are on the syllabus and on my nightstand that I’m currently reading:

Debra Rienstra’s Great with Child: Reflections on Faith, Fullness, and Becoming a Mother. My wife read this a few years ago and found it very profoundly insightful. Rienstra is an English professor at Calvin, and she’s the one convening this seminar. It’s beautiful writing – a theologically and spiritually sensitive literary memoir.

Donald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What. If you liked Blue Like Jazz, you’ll like this; if you didn’t, you won’t. Miller has a lot of distinctive, fresh takes on the Christian faith, and this is something of a postmodern (un)systematic theology. The particularity of his voice seems to be attractive to many but off-putting to others.

Donna Freitas’s Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise: Spirituality for the Bridget Jones in All of Us. I am so not the target audience of this book. It’s a chick-lit spirituality, and even though I’ve read some chick lit novels, they don’t speak to me in any spiritually significant way.

Garret Keizer’s The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin. This one is interesting, but again, not a book I’m really resonating with. Partly because anger isn’t generally one of my besetting sins. It’s a helpful exploration, though.

Vinita Hampton Wright’s novels Velma Still Cooks in Leeway and Dwelling Places. I’ve finished Velma, haven’t started Dwelling Places. Loved Velma – really captures small-town life and conservative fundamentalism. (I should also mention that I recently read Vinita’s IVP book The Soul Tells a Story, which is about spirituality and creativity in the writing life. It’s excellent.)

Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. I love this book. It’s a wide-ranging blend of history, cultural analysis, theology, sociology and comparative religion, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Prothero documents the development of various American christologies across the centuries – Jesus as enlightened sage, sweet savior, manly redeemer, superstar and more.

Russell Rathbun’s Post-Rapture Radio: Lost Writings from a Failed Revolution. Just got this in the mail. I’m about fifty pages into it, and I still don’t know what to make of it. It’s something of experimental fiction/essays/sermons/random thoughts, mostly about the state of the evangelical church, but I’m not sure it’s working for me yet. Not that I mind quirky; I love Douglas Coupland’s Gen X novels. But something about this doesn’t quite click, and I’m not sure what it is.

Augustine’s Confessions. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read this all the way through, though I’ve read portions and excerpts over the years. No time like the present to finally get to this.

Also on my nightstand, though not part of the reading for the Calvin seminar, is N. T. Wright’s new book Simply Christian, which is Wright’s attempt at a Mere Christianity kind of book. Only a few chapters into it, but it looks good so far. Also How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith by Crystal Downing – there’s no shortage of books on postmodernism out there, but this one is quite engaging and helpful. A book I haven’t cracked open yet is The New Woman, Jon Hassler’s newest novel, which my wife gave me for our anniversary. Hassler is my favorite novelist; he’s a Minnesotan and has some of the most illuminating portraits of Midwestern life. And a few books I recently finished reading and returned to the library: Mark Pinsky’s The Gospel According to Disney, Jean Twenge’s Generation Me and Nicole Mazzarella’s award-winning novel This Heavy Silence, which was very impressive.

Okay, okay, I’m a book geek. I admit it. If I’m not engaging my suburban context more, it’s because I’m sitting at home reading all the time. (Or going to second-hand bookstores or the library.) What’s on your nightstand?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Books & Culture review

The Suburban Christian was reviewed in the May/June 2006 issue of Books & Culture, alongside Death by Suburb by David Goetz. The review, "God of the Latte," is now available online at their website. Here's an excerpt:

Albert Y. Hsu's The Suburban Christian finds in suburban living a deep spiritual longing. People come to the suburbs, Hsu says, because they are looking for something, a job or affordable housing or good public schools (or, less charitably, mostly white public schools). Like Goetz, Hsu insists that you don't need to live on a farm or in the inner city to live an authentically Christian life. Nevertheless, "the suburban Christian ought not uncritically absorb all the characteristics of the suburban world."

One excellent chapter teases out what follows from suburban reliance on cars. (Did you know that the average commuter spends three weeks a year commuting?) As a consequence of our driving dependence, says Hsu, the elderly who can't drive are marginalized. Policy makers don't prioritize public transportation. Indeed, we often don't build sidewalks; as Bill Bryson has observed, "In many places in America now, it is not actually possible to be a pedestrian, even if you want to be."

See the full review here.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Suburban Christian, the book - now in print!

After about two years of research, writing and working through the editorial and publication process, I am pleased to announce that my new book, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty, is now officially in print! Here's the cover copy:

Suburbia: Paradise or Wasteland?

Suburbia is a place of spiritual yearnings. People come to suburbia looking for a fresh start, the second chance, a new life. It embodies the hopes and longings of its residents, dreams for the future, safety and security for their children, and the search for meaningful community and relationships. Yet much in our suburban world militates against such aspirations, and people find themselves isolated and alienated, trapped by consumerism and materialism. Is there hope for a Christian vision for the suburbs?

Al Hsu unpacks the spiritual significance of suburbia and explores how suburban culture shapes how we live and practice our faith. With broad historical background and sociological analysis, Hsu offers practical insights for living Christianly in a suburban context. Probing such dynamics as commuting and consuming, he offers Christian alternatives for authentic spirituality, genuine community and relevant ministry. And he challenges suburban Christians to look beyond suburbia and marshal their resources toward urban and global justice.

Suburbia may be one of the most significant mission fields of the twenty-first century. Here is guidance and hope for all who would seek the welfare of the suburbs.

"Albert Hsu has written a readable and well-researched treatment of a key issue. I live and work in the exurb, and I am grateful for his wisdom."—John Ortberg, author of If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat

"If, like me, you've ever stared at suburbia and wondered how it got this way, if you've ever wondered if there's any hope for radical discipleship here, then this book is for you."—Don Everts, author of Jesus with Dirty Feet and God in the Flesh

"A very important book for all of those who are seeking to faithfully follow Jesus in the suburbs. A candid grappling with both the challenges and the opportunities of suburban living. A great resource for church study groups."—Tom Sine, author of The Mustard Seed Conspiracy and Living on Purpose

"Urban cynics and suburban hermits rejoice--here is a refreshing invitation to find God at work in the margins, the same God who showed up in the unlikely badlands of Nazareth from which the world said nothing good could come."—Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution

"Provocative, thoughtful, even prophetic, The Suburban Christian is a book the church badly needs."—Lauren F. Winner, author of Girl Meets God and Real Sex

The book is available directly from IVP and can be ordered via IVP's website. Available on the book's webpage are free downloadable PDFs of the introduction and chapter 1. The book can also be ordered via online booksellers like Amazon or And if you want to support your local bricks-and-mortar bookstore, they should be able to order it for you - the ISBN is 0-8308-3334-X. Hope you enjoy it!