The evangelical books on suburban life recommended for devotional reasons

Following up on Friday’s post on a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical books about Suburban Life” and yesterday’s recommendation of The Suburban Christian for a more scholarly approach among evangelical books that discuss suburban life, today I highlight two books that stand out in taking a more devotional approach to evangelical life in the suburbs.

As I noted yesterday, the books I examined all had an interest in helping Christians grow in faith and practice and live in the suburbs at the same time. Both Dave Goetz’s 2006 book Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul and Ashley Hales’ 2018 book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much stand out for their mix of advice for and insight into the everyday suburban religious life and the spiritual practices they recommend for a changed suburban life.

They approach these practices in slightly different ways. In the opening chapter, Goetz sets up the problem:

I think my suburb, as safe and religious coated as it is, keeps me from Jesus. Or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real Jesus. The living patterns of the good life affect me more than I know. Yet the same environmental factors that numb me to the things of God also hold out great promise. I don’t need to the escape the suburbs. I need to find Jesus here. (5)

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Subsequent chapters then each start with a listed environmental toxin of suburban life and then a practice in response. The material for each chapter then discusses these two features. Pursuing these practices will help readers find the thicker life he describes this way:

This much thicker world is a world in which I am live to God and alive to others, a world in which what I don’t yet own defines me. (13)

Hales puts the problem this way:

More than 50 percent of Americans live in suburbs, and many of them desire to live a Christian life. Yet often the suburbs are ignored (“Your place doesn’t matter, we’re all going to heaven anyway”), denigrated and demeaned (“You’re selfish if you live in a suburb; you only care about your own safety and advancement”), or seen as a cop-out to a faithful Christian life (“If you really loved God, you’d move to Africa or work in an impoverished area”). From books to Hollywood jokes, the suburbs aren’t supposed to be good for our souls. Even David Goetz’s popular book, Death by Suburb, though helpful, presumes suburban life is toxic for your soul – as if suburbia were uniquely broken by the weight of sin. The suburbs – like any place – exhibit both the goodness of God’s creative acts (in desiring to foster community, beauty, rest, hospitality, family) and sin (in focusing on image, materialism, and individualism to the exclusion of others). We cannot be quick to dismiss the suburbs out of hand. (8)

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The practices and counterliturgies Hales recommends would help Christians see suburbs and their role their differently:

This book is about coming home, about finding ourselves in the story of God and rooting ourselves in our places. It’s a bold look at the culture of affluence as expressed in suburban life. My hope is that is challenges your idea of belonging and also shows you a more beautiful story to root yourself in. As individuals, families, and churches commit to love and sacrifice for our neighborhood and subdivisions, we will find our place. (14-15)

If an individual, church group, or religious organization wants to consider evangelical life in the suburbs, both of these books could be a good starting point for conversation and action.

The evangelical book on suburban life recommended for scholarly reasons

Following up on yesterday’s post about a recent publication titled “Faith in the Suburbs,”” I wanted to highlight the one text that best connects readers to scholarly discussions of and existing research on suburbs.

One of the features of the books I examined is their focus on everyday Christian/evangelical life. On the whole, these texts are part of a larger category of books where evangelicals wrestle with current social issues and consider Christian approaches. Across the books, the goal is help readers build their faith and draw on evangelical and biblical resources.

Al Hsu’s 2006 book The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty is the best on drawing on existing historical, theological, and other scholarly research on suburbs and places. There is a full chapter on suburban development that draws on a number of well-cited texts about how the American suburbs came to be. While some books I studied cited no scholarly works, Hsu cites numerous works and the discussion and footnotes could provide a good starting point for a reader who wants to engage the decades-long scholarly discussion.

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The engagement with a wider academic conversation may be connected to other unique features of Hsu’s text. He considers how Christians could engage race and social class in the suburbs. In the final chapter when discussing solutions, Hsu connects religious activity and structural activity:

While we must never neglect the significant of evangelizing individuals, equally important is transforming societal, organizational and municipal structures. (188)

Hsu also helps individual Christians think about their beliefs and practices in the suburbs. For example:

Behind the readers’ comments is a tacit assumption that the Christian life simply can’t be lived in certain environments…But for Christians, nothing is beyond redemption. (13)

For individuals, church groups, and religious organizations looking for an evangelical book addressing suburban life with a more scholarly angle, this would be a good starting point.

New publication – Faith in the Suburbs: Evangelical Christian Books about Suburban Life

The recently published The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Cities includes a chapter that took me several years to put together.

This chapter began in reading several books written over the last two decades where evangelicals considered how to live as a Christian in the suburbs. I slowly collected these books, purchasing some myself and even having one gifted to me by our college’s president. With Americans firmly established in the suburbs at the beginning of the twenty-first century (over 50% of Americans living in suburbs), from different angles the books ask some common questions: do the suburbs present particular opportunities or challenges regarding religious faith? Should Christians live in the suburbs or elsewhere? The chapter I wrote considers common patterns in these books as well as several areas they do not consider.

This chapter is not only about these books; I think these texts also hint at a larger sociological question. How do different spatial environments affect religious faith? Evangelicals do not always consider this; faith is often considered portable, truths are consistent across a variety of contexts, and churches are more about the collections of people rather than buildings and places. Other religious traditions take places more seriously. In the American suburban context with voluntaristic religion, congregations meeting in all kinds of structures, an emphasis on individualism and private property, and geographic mobility, how could a suburban environment not affect religious faith?

Acknowledging our topophilia

More geographic confinement during COVID-19 can help remind us of our important attachments to place(s):

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

There is a word for love of a place: topophilia, popularized by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1974 as all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.” In other words, it is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections. One of my fellow Seattle natives made this point to me when he said he hated the rain in Boston but not Seattle. Why? “Only Seattle rain is nice.”

In his book A Reenchanted World, the sociologist James William Gibson defines topophilia as a spiritual connection, especially with nature. Oladele Ogunseitan, a microbiologist at the University of California at Irvine, demonstrates topophilia by showing that people are attracted to both objective and subjective—even unconscious—criteria. My friend’s affinity for the “Seattle rain” is probably fueled by what Ogunseitan calls “synesthetic tendency,” or the way particular, ordinary sensory perceptions affect our memory and emotions. If the smell of a fresh-cooked pie, the sound of a train whistle at night, or the feeling of a crisp autumn wind evokes a visceral memory of a particular place, you are experiencing a synesthetic tendency.

It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synesthetic tendencies—and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel—because he felt the pull of his homeland…

You probably have your own Barcelona or Minnesota, somewhere that has a highly topophilic place in your heart. Perhaps you sometimes daydream about going back—but then you snap out of it. Moving is a huge commitment, and not one to be made on a synesthetic whim. The cost of a big move is prohibitive for many people who might like to find a new home. Even if work and family circumstances make it possible, the idea of starting a new job, making new friends, changing schools, facing the DMV—it’s too much for many.

This is more than an acknowledgment of the importance of places in our lives; this encompasses all of the senses. One quick example: there is a home near us that has a line of four or five of the same kind of trees along the sidewalk. When I run by there, the smell alone is enough to transport me to a familiar family vacation spot where that smell is more common.

The argument here helps push back against a more recent narrative in human history that suggests people can and should be mobile. While people not too long ago might have been anchored in a relatively small geographic area for a lifetime, people today are more used to moving for jobs and travel across longer distances. Of course, as is noted above, such mobility might lead to loving a new place or an unexpected place. But, if people form these attachments to places, how do they then respond to mobility? Perhaps mobility can reinforce topophilia; you do not know how much you like places until you are away from them.

This also highlights the material world in ways that we sometimes ignore. Our environments matter, even if we are in an age of screens, private spaces, and lots of driving. There can be a lot of focus on this within private spaces – think decluttering trends or an emphasis on layouts and design in homes – but less emphasis on public or community spaces. To put it in the terms of James Howard Kunstler, are our collective environments worth paying attention to?

The most popular posts of 2020

With the start of 2021, here on thoughts on the top five posts of 2020 on LegallySociable:

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com
  1. Demolish a vacant mall anchor store, build new apartments. This post about possible changes to the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois had the most views. The local aspect of the story hints at the local dimensions of this list: #1, #4, and #5 had specific mentions of nearby suburbs.
  2. New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories. With much written about COVID-19’s effect on cities, this post from March 2020 hints at the different ways COVID-19 played out in different communities. This is still a story to watch in 2021.
  3. Designing your own Peytonville, Part 1. The Peytonville commercials started in Fall 2019 and I wrote five posts about specific aspects of the ads. The first one was the most popular.
  4. When protests make it to the wealthier suburbs, this means… The protests of 2020 took place in many communities, including suburbs. This post discusses the implications of protests moving to wealthier suburbs that are not used to protests.
  5. How garbage is moved out of suburbs. Posted just a few days ago, this one looked at the garbage infrastructure in suburban areas but likely received a lot of views due to local disagreement about the possible waste transfer station.

All of these popular posts had something to do with place. This is a primary focus of this blog with a particular emphasis on western suburbs of the Chicago region. The top five posts either involved suburbs or cities. Even as 2020 renewed focus on both locales – with effects from COVID-19 and its effects, police violence and protests, and national and local politics – I would argue that place and communities still do not receive enough attention. My published research attempts to tackle several of these dimensions. It is hard to predict what exactly will be worth posting about in 2021 but I do know I will continue to focus on places.

If workers can live anywhere, does this increase or decrease placelessness?

A theme is emerging: today’s workers with technology and COVID-19 might be able to avoid going to an office. But, if they can live anywhere, what does this do for a sense of community and connecting to a particular place?

young male taking boxes out of luggage boot of car

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

The coronavirus is challenging the assumption that Americans must stay physically tethered to traditionally hot job markets—and the high costs and small spaces that often come with them—to access the best work opportunities. Three months into the pandemic, many workers find themselves in jobs that, at least for now, will let them work anywhere, creating a wave of movement across the country.

Recessions tend to damp migration. Americans typically move with a new job already in hand, and hiring plummets during downturns. The 2008 financial crisis limited Americans’ mobility because millions of homeowners found themselves underwater on their homes, unable to sell without taking a loss.

But this time might be different. Home prices haven’t yet taken a major hit. And the forces at play are novel. Confronted with the prospect of not being able to easily fly in for a visit with an elderly parent, grown children are suddenly questioning why they live so far away in the first place.

Many newly remote workers are finding they prefer somewhere closer to family or fresh air. Others are giving up on leases they can’t afford, chasing opportunities in states that are reopening faster or heading back to hometowns.

On the side of more community and rootedness:

1. People can live in places they want to live rather than choosing a place for a job. Whether they live somewhere to be near family, find housing, enjoy the outdoors, or some other reason, workers will be inclined to invest more locally.

2. Working from home schedules can offer more flexibility, freeing people up to participate more in local activities.

3. The commute is eliminated, freeing up time as well as getting rid of the illusion that driving through an area is the same as knowing it.

4. People might stay longer in places if they can simply change jobs from afar rather than having to move when they switch jobs or careers.

On the side of less community and rootedness:

1. Spending time at a workplace can build community, both in the building as well as outside the workplace.

2. Corporate actions at the local level will connect less with employees who are not physically there and involved.

3. More businesses may have headquarters in one place (often desirable for big cities and high-status suburbs) but workforces – and all the benefits that come with it such as their spending or jobs numbers local politicians like – will be elsewhere.

On the whole, this could be good for employees who can invest more time in places of their choosing while businesses then have more tenuous connections to the places where they are officially located. In a country of suburbia (often considered non-places) and relatively easy travel, anchoring employees in places for longer could help lead to more rootedness.

Publication in Soc of Religion: “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City Region,1992-2017”

Sociology of Religion today published online my article referenced in the title to the post:

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I came to this article through wanting to analyze the connection between religion and place. Having seen at least a few stories of religious zoning conflict in the Chicago area (see an earlier study here), I wondered whether these patterns held across different metropolitan regions (and all the variations that could exist there), a longer time period, and within different communities within metropolitan regions. As the abstract suggests, there are some similarities – for example, locations near residences or requests from Muslim groups receive more attention – and differences – including what religious groups are in each region (with a larger population of Orthodox Jewish residents in the New York City region).
More broadly, zoning is a powerful tool communities have. As they set their land use guidelines, they are making decisions about what they envision their community looking like. This applies both to the physical structure or spaces as well as who might reside or work in the community. Americans tend to like local government, in part because it exercises control over what might locate near their homes or residences. But, this impulse to protect homes and property values can come up against other interests a community might have, such as affordable housing or medical facilities.

Is Washington D.C. the center of the United States?

I recently heard a promo for a news show that claimed it was going to broadcast from the center of the United States: Washington D.C. Here are a few ways to think about the center of the United States:

-Washington D.C. makes the most sense in terms of government. With the federal government based here and the number of federal employees in the region, Washington D.C. could claim to be the center. (It is the sixth largest metropolitan region in the country and may claim to the current second city.)

-New York City makes the most sense in terms of population size and global influence. The New York City region has the most people by over six million and is a global center for finance, media, the arts, and more. (Yet, it is on the coast in the Northeast region with a particular culture.)

-The center of population has steadily moved west. According to the Census, it is now in Texas County, Missouri. By definition: “The mean center of population is determined as the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight.”

-The geographic center of the United States depends on whether it is just for the 48 contiguous states or for all fifty states. If just the contiguous states, the location is just northwest of Lebanon, Kansas. If for all fifty states, it is north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

-Is it possible to measure a cultural center? New York could lay claim to this as could Los Angeles (Hollywood, sprawl) while Chicagoans might hold to the claim that it is the most American of cities. Cleveland, San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans? Are the coasts more representative of America or the Heartland? Perhaps particular locations are less important and common spaces like McDonald’s or Walmart or local government meetings or religious congregations or local libraries are more indicative of the center of the United States.

If Washington D.C. is now the center of the United States, does it provide a hint that national politics has come to dominate American discourse and self-understanding?

More smartphones, more non-places

Place matters less when technology transports a user anywhere. Here is the argument from Ian Bogost:

This same pattern has been repeated for countless activities, in work as much as leisure. Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?…

Architectural critics anticipated that modern life would change the sensation of space. Almost 30 years ago, the French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the word non-place to describe a family of transitional locations where people’s sense of self becomes suppressed or even vanishes. Non-places include airports, hotels, shopping malls, supermarkets, and highways. There’s a sorrow to these sites, because unlike legitimate ones, human beings never really occupy non-places; they simply move through them on their way to “anthropological places,” as Augé called them, such as schools, homes, and monuments.

Non-places have both proliferated and declined in the decades since. On the one hand, there are far more of them, and people encounter them more frequently. More airports and train stations in which more passengers transit more often. More hotel lobbies and conference centers, many boasting their own food courts and shopping plazas, non-places nested within non-places.

On the other hand, the anonymity and uselessness of non-places has been undermined by the smartphone. Every gate waiting area, every plush lobby couch cluster, every wood-veneered coffee shop lean-to has become capable of transforming itself into any space for any patron. The airport or café is also an office and a movie theater, a knitting club, and a classroom.

This same ability that can render places into a “non-place” could also be a feature of technology that users like the most: the ability to transcend time and place.

Based on this description of the term “non-place,” I wonder if modifying it might do better in regards to getting at the fluidity of so many spaces because of technology. Three options:

1. “Personalized non-place.” This would help capture the ability of an individual to make a place into whatever they want with a smartphone or another device. In a coffee shop, the person working on a laptop turns it into a personal office, another person talking with a friend turns it into a conversation space, and someone watching TV on their smartphone makes it a theater/viewing place.

2. “Ambiguous non-place.” This would get at the places that can be transformed by the people who come to them. Some places are more difficult than others to transform into whatever an individual or a group wants. Other places, those with places to walk, sit, eat, stay for a while, may be easier to transform by a variety of users.

3. “Fixed non-place.” This would get at places that are not transitional settings – hallways, highways, supermarkets – that are now non-places. Think the living room and family room, seating areas in more public settings, bedrooms. These are spaces we might assume people embody, develop attachments to, and nurture social relationship in but this does not happen in the same way now.

Why Americans identify their communities as urban, suburban, or rural: quality of schools, safety

A recent study in City & Community by sociologists Chase M. Billingham and Shelley McDonough Kimelberg titled “Identifying the Urban” includes these findings:

To do so, we utilize data from the 2010 Soul of the Community (SOTC) survey, a joint effort of the Knight Foundation and Gallup “focused on the emotional side of the connection between residents and their communities” (Knight Foundation 2017) in 26 metropolitan regions of the United States. While specifically designed to explore the factors associated with residents’ loyalty to and satisfaction with their communities, the SOTC project also yielded data that allow for an analysis of how people describe the communities they inhabit. We first compare the labels that individuals attach to their residential communities (“urban,” “suburban,” “rural,” etc.) to a categorization of those communities based solely on ZIP code designation, exploring the extent to which people whose ZIP codes reflect a central city, suburban, or rural residence actually characterize their communities as urban, suburban, or rural. As we demonstrate, the data indicate a fair amount of disjunction, with approximately one‐third of respondents embracing a residential identity different from that suggested by their ZIP code…

“Urban” is an imprecise term, open to multiple interpretations and contingent upon a variety of physical, demographic, and social factors. The label that a government bureaucrat or social scientist attaches to a given community does not necessarily reflect what those who inhabit that community believe about their geographic identity. Similarly, next‐door neighbors might disagree about whether they live in an urban, suburban, or exurban area. Municipal boundaries matter, of course. Overall, our findings indicate that a postal address that places an individual within the official city limits is the best predictor of whether that individual identifies his or her community as “urban.” Yet municipal boundaries alone cannot account for the wide variation in individuals’ perceptions of their communities. When most people characterize their communities as “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural,” they do so not by pulling out a map, but by reflecting on how they experience daily life in that community.

As the analyses presented here indicate, two factors in particular — individuals’ assessments of the local schools and how safe they feel in their neighborhood — play a significant role in the identity ascribed to place. A person residing outside the borders of a region’s central city, but in a community where she felt unsafe and had little faith in the local schools, was about equally likely to say that she lived in an urban area as someone with the same characteristics who lived within the city borders, but who felt safe in her neighborhood and had high confidence in the local schools.

Importantly, however, the understanding of place also varies by race. Even when they inhabit similar parts of their respective metropolitan regions, black, Hispanic, and white Americans have different experiences and report different community identities. Most U.S. metropolitan areas no longer resemble the stark “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs” pattern (Farley et al. 1978) that prevailed in the late 20th century. The lived experience of community is still racialized, however, even as racial and ethnic minorities increasingly settle in suburban communities and gentrification brings new cohorts of whites into central‐city neighborhoods that their peers avoided in previous generations. For blacks, the geographical divide, at least as operationalized by ZIP code designation, is far less salient than it is for Hispanics and non‐Hispanic whites. Rather, our analyses suggest that blacks see the distinction between urban and nonurban living more as a function of community characteristics, especially personal safety. These social factors influence the perceptions of place for all respondents, but they are particularly meaningful for blacks.

Summarizing: the study suggests how residents rate their local public schools and their safety in their neighborhoods affects whether they view their own location as urban or not.

This study sheds light on a long-running American tension between urban and non-urban life. From the beginning of the country, people debated whether city life or more rural life was preferable. They likely did not overlay the issues of public school performance and safety on the conversations but the debates could take on moralistic tones. Move to the mid-1800s and beyond and the arrival of new immigrants as well as industrialization and urbanization changed perceptions of cities. In the twentieth century, suburbs emerged as the morally safe places for many Americans, due to some of these issues as well as changing demographics in cities and increased support for suburban living. At the same time, the image of rural life lost luster.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, will the meanings of urban, suburban, and rural places be the same? It will be interesting to see what stays the same and what changes.