Evangelicals and when the “postmodern” and “urban” came to the American suburbs

A reflection on pastor and author Tim Keller’s life includes this line involving distinctions between American places:

Photo by Zekai Zhu on Pexels.com

His insights hit a nerve at a time when evangelicals were realizing that “postmodern” and “urban” challenges—religious diversity, isolation, transience—were becoming common in rural and suburban contexts as well.

In the American context, suburbs often served as a refuge from perceived problems of the city. Religious diversity in cities involved all sorts of religious traditions as people flocked to cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Even with the number of people in cities, Americans often celebrated an ideal of families living in suburban single-family homes rather than feeling atomized in large cities. Whereas people moved in and out of cities and urban neighborhoods, Americans often perceived suburbs as built around family and children, neighbors, and community groups.

How might we evaluate these features separating places? It is hard to discuss religious diversity without addressing race and ethnicity. As suburbs often excluded people who were not white, religious diversity was limited. Suburbs are increasingly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity and social class. Regarding isolation, plenty of narratives have been shared and told where individuals found the suburbs to be isolating. Compared to suburbs, cities offer opportunities for exploration and finding a place among other similar people. The suburbs may have celebrated certain social relationships but they were also quite transient for decades in the postwar era as people took advantage of opportunities.

If the lines between cities, suburbs, and rural areas are now more blurred, are evangelicals better equipped to address a changing world? How might they address complex suburbia?

Fake Georgian office building to hide electric substation next to fake Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago

It is not uncommon for cities to have fake buildings or facades to hide infrastructure and here is an example in Chicago where the same architect designed the Hard Rock Cafe and fake mansion next door:

The most noteworthy, a faux Georgian mansion in the River North area of downtown, was designed by perhaps the city’s most famous living architect, Stanley Tigerman, former director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The building is somewhat tongue-in-cheek , a bit of a joke,” said Tigerman, who had first designed a restaurant just west of the site. “The Hard Rock Cafe: fake stucco, fake Georgian, nothing real about it. Then they came to me and wanted me to do the ComEd substation next door, but to be contextual, to relate it to this ersatz piece of junk.”

So rather than construct a bogus building based on a fake, albeit one he designed, Tigerman cut the other direction.

“I decided to go absolutely hard core, as classically designed as I could, done authentically Georgian,” he said. “The brick bonding is  English cross bond, the one Mies van der Rohe used whenever he used brick. It’s very expensive to to lay bricks that way, but it makes the walls sturdy and impervious to cracking. I knew the building would never receive any maintenance, so the idea was to do as good a building as I could.”

He also had to take into account the building’s true purpose — so if you look closely, what seem to be windows are actually vents, to help cool the 138 kV electrical transmission equipment inside.

Hiding in plain sight. Here is the Google Streetview image of the two buildings, the covered substation on the left and the Hard Rock Cafe on the right:


This could lead to a great architecture conversation: which of the buildings is more fake or authentic? The restaurant which is about evoking a particular spirit (a museum? an imposing older structure intended to lend more gravitas to rock ‘n’ roll?) to make money? Or the fake mansion with more pure design that does nothing but hide the infrastructure that is necessary for big cities? Both could be considered postmodern for their application of old styles to new purposes, their exteriors projecting certain images that don’t match their interiors.

Banksy and the Simpsons: a wink to what watching the show actually means

Part of the long-term appeal of The Simpsons has been its ability to effectively play with ambiguity: it has had the ability to both mock television in general while at the same time creating a likable cast that reach resolutions that are not that different from many sitcoms. Should viewers revel in its put-downs of all aspects of society or should they enjoy the heart-warming family outcomes?

The latest stunt on this front involves the elusive British street artist Banksy:

The episode, “MoneyBART,” opens with an extended “couch gag” — the opening sequence in which the Simpson family takes its place on their sofa — created by British street artist Banksy. The artist’s dark vision gives viewers a horrifying look at how he imagines the hit show and its lucrative merchandise are made: sweatshop conditions for its animators; unsafe conditions for producers of its apparel; boxes sealed with the tongue of a disembodied dolphin head; the center holes popped out of its DVDs with the horn of a shackled, emaciated unicorn. Really…

Were the show’s creators trying to draw attention to the unethical business practices an animated series must engage in to remain competitive? Are viewers meant to draw conclusions about our own complicity as we consumers indirectly fund companies that enslave people overseas? Or was the sequence merely a stunt calculated to bring attention — negative or not — on an aging, fading series?

While an interesting opening sequence that was longer than normal and contained typical Simpsons absurdities (like the unicorn), is this really edgy or new? Any television watcher should know what is really going on with shows: they are about making money. In its early days, the Simpsons was a rebellious show, drawing in a young audience and selling a lot of merchandise. Today, it is still about making money (and perhaps sowing ground for a second successful movie). The Simpsons may now be part of American culture but that is not why the show is still on television.

Ultimately, this may simply be about gaining attention. And with the show then moving on to a typical 22 minute storyline, can the opening really be construed as some sort of powerful statement?