Takeaway: As Christians who believe in embodiment, we are Christians in a place, not just abstractly.
When I was in college I thought I was called to the city. I had a mentor prophesy over me that I was called to the city and pray that I would fulfill that calling. That mentor was later found in significant sin and left (quietly) in disgrace. I loved Chicago, where I spent more than than any other place in my life and where I still work. But in 2006 I moved to suburban Atlanta and now have lived in this house longer than any other home I have lived in. I honestly doubt that I will ever live inside a city like Chicago again. In large part because I have family. It isn’t that I would not take my children to a city, but that extended family structures matter and I am in an extended family structure that is suburban.
Over the past few years I have been changing in my attitude toward suburbs. In part DL Mayfield has given voice to some of why I have changed. She lives in community with recent immigrants and those in poverty in suburban Portland OR. In Portland, and much of the rest of the country, the suburbs are increasingly where the poor live. Nationally, more poor people live in the suburbs than either urban or rural areas. In addition, suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse. My county school district is now predominately minority. And while that is not reflected in the population as a whole, the population as a whole in my county is also booming more diverse. As DL Mayfield has said, she is in the suburbs because that is where the poor, the immigrant and the needy are likely to be found.
It is this suburban atmosphere that Ashley Hales is writing Finding Holy in the Suburbs. She was a reluctant suburban dweller. I was not reluctant in quite the same way. I was happy to move and really did think that God was guiding us to one back to family when we moved. But that guidance did put to death a (false) sense of calling that I had felt. When I had lived in the city and participated in urban life joyfully, I read extensively about being Christian in an urban place. The 1990s and 2000s were a point when Christians were rediscovering the city. Much of that was very good because theologically those Christians were rediscovering the importance of place. There was negatives as well. Christians, particularly White Evangelicals, had mixed motives. They thought of themselves as White saviors bringing Christ to a community where Christ had not been, instead of joining in to what Christ had been long doing among people that actually were very likely to already know him. And with even the good motives, came gentrification, white supremacy and colonialism and a lot of ignorance, especially cultural ignorance.
I have thought a great deal about place and what place means to our faith. So I am probably not the target audience of Finding Holy in the Suburbs because it is more of an introduction to the concept of being Christian in a particular place. But even as an introduction, this is a very good book on what it means to be Christian in the suburbs, taking account of the particular strengths and weaknesses of the culture and geography of the suburbs. There has been a legitimate critique of some of the city Christian books because they denigrated the suburbs as less than. Hales avoids that trap because she also avoids the trap of assuming that God is not in the suburbs. So Finding Holy in the Suburbs rightly notes how suburban competition and privacy and false instagram worthy images are antithetical to Christianity. But she also notes positives of space and people can actually encourage faith as well.
I think the best parts of the book for me were the spiritual disciplines sections in each chapter that are intended to specifically counteract the weaknesses while encouraging the strengths. The suburbs do have lots of strengths, but also many structural weaknesses that need to be dealt with. The suburbs were often built with real intention, and sometimes continued intention, of racism and exclusion. Suburbs are also about flaunting wealth and about individualism in a way that it more difficult in other geographic types. And suburbs are often about hiding weakness.
Part of my difficulty with Finding Holy in the Suburbs is my personal introversion. I would be very happy to stay inside, not interact with neighbors and keep ears buds in my ears while I am at the park with kids. Some of this I think is healthy for me. But some is just sinful. Like many books that are in the end about community, parts of being in community are easier for people that are extroverts. Meeting people, drawing them into your home or life is easier if you really enjoy getting to know people and being around them. But introverts have strengths in community as well. And while that is not often called out in Finding Holy in the Suburbs, some of the disciplines and approaches are ones that need the more introverted to balance the tendency of some extroverts toward the superficial.
If you are a suburban dweller, as many of us in the White Evangelical world are, Finding Holy in the Suburbs in a good way to help explore what that geography means to our faith. If you are an audiobook listener as I am, Ashley Hales narrates. And as of the posting time, Finding Holy in the Suburbs is still on sale at Christianaudio for less than the Audible, the Kindle or the paperback. Christianaudio is not my favorite audiobook source, I think their iPhone app could use some refinement, but it is decent and I tend to use them in large part because they have lots of really good sales.