Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Being incarnational: Fully Christian, fully suburban?

At one point during my Calvin seminar this July, our group discussed what it meant to be Christian writers and the nuance between writing that is explicitly Christian and writing that is done by writers who happen to be Christian. A related topic that came up was the issue of American Christianity (because we had several Canadians in the room), and given the current geopolitical situation, folks were somewhat ambivalent about being identified as American. To what extent should we (or can we) be fully Christian and fully American? Certainly our Christian identity takes precedence and critiques the manner in which we are American, just as Jesus was fully Jewish and yet reinterpreted what it meant to be Jewish, as N. T. Wright and others have pointed out. But it's a tricky tension nevertheless.

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.


backyardmissionary said...

I see myself as both Christian and suburban.

if I am not a suburbanite then I sense I lose some contact with others in the burbs.

If i'm not Christian then I am not distinctive.

Always the tension...

Phil Hoover said...


I listened intently to your interview with Wayne Shepherd last night on OPEN LINE (Moody Broadcasting).

I thought it was fascinating.

However, I am convinced of these things:

1) It's a matter of the "heart"--not just location. Those in the cities can be just as "individualistic" as those in the suburbs. Sometimes more so.

2) We Westerners value three things (even though we would never admit it): Privacy, Mobility, Convenience. Those three possessions have become our new "trinity." We want to make sure that our experience as "christians" (not necessarily Christ-followers)fits neatly around these three. And if "our experience" doesn't fit neatly around these three, then so we find "one" that does.

3). We have lost a sense of "community" and "belonging" in the American church. We are quite satisfied with being a "collection of individuals" instead of becoming a "community of faith." Becoming the first takes NO effort, and becoming the second requires constant effort.

Great blog by the way. Will visit it regularly.

Al Hsu said...

Phil - Thanks for visiting, and glad you caught the radio interview. And I heartily concur with your comments - amen and amen! One of the trickiest things about my attempts to say anything about suburbia is to distinguish between what is distinctly suburban and what is more generally American or Western. I've got various disclaimers sprinkled throughout the book saying things like "I know this doesn't just apply to suburbia, but anyway . . ." There are a lot of blurry lines everywhere.

So anyway, yes, the challenge for all Christians, in cities, suburbs and rural areas alike, is to be intentional and live Christianly whatever our context. Most of these cultural idols of individualism, privacy, convenience, consumerism and the like are so pervasive in all sectors of society - they just show up in slightly different ways here or there. The challenge for all of us Christians is to figure out how to love God and neighbor and to practice generosity, community, service, etc. wherever we're at. In many ways, there's really nothing new under the sun, but we're all called to follow God as faithfully as possible in such a time (and place) as this.

Phil Hoover said...


I couldn't agree more with your response. But with the "blurry lines everywhere" we are called to live "non-blurry" lives--and that definitely requires commitment in Christian community.

I remember hearing Dr Stephen Green (Professor at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma) say, "It may not take a village to raise a child, but it TAKES a CHURCH to raise a saint."

So how many "real saints" do we have out there? I guess the better question would be "How many real churches" do we have out there?

Great blog...Keep it up.