When the music swells…

I recently encountered two examples where an increase in volume of music portends something important is happening:

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-In watching The Truman Show for the umpteenth time, I noticed at one point director Cristof points to the live pianist to increase the music. The musician obliges and the melancholy music swells. (Bonus: you can see composer Phillip Glass playing piano in this scene as Truman sleeps.)

-In a chapel service, the organist played a quiet piece underneath a prayer, but as soon as the prayer ended, the volume and activity increased as the congregation moved to singing together.

This musical signaling is common in live events, religious services, television and film, and elsewhere. When the music increases in volume and/or activity, something important is happening. It is a cue to the events unfolding in front of the participant or the viewer.

Is it emotional manipulation? Can we be pushed in directions we may not even be aware of just by the musical vibrations around us? Perhaps. Yet, humans have done this for centuries and millennium as music has a long and rich history not just as an individual activity but a collective tissue and performance where tone, volume, timbre, and more contribute to life together.

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)


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)


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.


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.

Church changes from Sunday morning services to Wednesday night in summer to respond to “changing sociology”

One New York church has responded to the “changing sociology” by switching from worshiping on Sunday mornings during the summer to worshiping on Wednesday nights:

“Over the last summers, we’ve seen fewer and fewer members coming in on Sunday morning,” Movsovich said. “This is an attempt to try and stay together. To me, it was more important to maintain community than to maintain the tradition of Sunday.”

Movsovich, who has been with the congregation for 25 years, noticed an attendance decline of about 60 percent at various times in past summers. Some church members take two weeks off, others two months…

The trend of nontraditional services is gaining nationwide popularity, said Bill Leonard, professor of church history and religion at Wake Forest University. More churches are open to adapting to members’ changing schedules and priorities.

“People have so many other personal and familial responsibilities that appear now on Sundays in a way that has just mushroomed — families with aging parents, employment and travel issues or children in college,” Leonard said. “Traditional services were built around the sociology of another era. We’re simply responding to changing sociology.”

Let the theological debates begin! Seriously, I’m intrigued by this sociology explanation. The suggestion is this: we are in a different era of church going where Sunday morning is no longer “sacred” in the same way it may have been in the past (though this sort of “golden era” thinking always has issues). A few questions:

1. Is Sunday morning on the way out with younger generations?

2. How many churches have changed to other days and times for regular worship?

3. How many churches would talk about a “changing sociology”?

Quick Review: When God Talks Back

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann examines how evangelicals relate to God in this new book titled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Here are a few thoughts about this fascinating read:

1. Luhrmann’s main argument is that evangelicals are trained to perceive the world in particular ways and this reinforces and upholds their belief in a personal God who cares about them. For example: evangelicals learn to pray in such a way that they believe they are interacting with God and can “hear” God. Another example is that evangelicals tend to read the Bible in such a way that every passage has an immediate application or relevance for their current circumstances. This kind of prayer and Bible reading does not necessarily come naturally: people have to be trained and it can take years to learn the process. Luhrmann spent more than four years in Vineyard churches listening to sermons, participating in small groups, and talking with and interviewing evangelicals.

2. The historical argument is interesting but underdeveloped. Luhrmann argues that the more individualized approach to Christian faith common in evangelicalism developed in Vineyard type (more charismatic) churches in the late 1960s and 1970s and then trickled down to all of evangelicalism. I have little doubt that most of this is true; I recently heard a sermon in an Episcopal church that shared many of the same themes of God’s immediacy and power. At the same time, the main mechanism by which Luhrmann suggests this approach spread is Fuller Seminary. While Fuller has had an impact, I wondered about several things: how did all evangelicals respond to this? Was/is there a backlash against this approach? What about evangelicals who wouldn’t claim this Vineyard/Jesus People background?

3. Luhrmann is an anthropologist but intriguingly is a psychological anthropologist. This means that there is a lot in this book about perceptions, thoughts, and how the brain adjusts to different ways of seeing the world. There even is a chapter that involves an experiment Luhrmann conducted on prayer to see if people can be trained to perceive God more vividly (and they could). Throughout the book there is a mix of anthropological observations, psychological experiments and explanations, and historical context.

4. The book is pretty evenhanded about the question of whether evangelicals believe in something real. There is a chapter that suggests that evangelicals (and other religious people) are not crazy for perceiving supernatural forces. I suspect this will help the book gain some traction in the religious world though it will be interesting to see the reactions. At the same time, I wonder if some will see this book as an attempt to explain away religious belief as a psychological trick that people can learn. Additionally, wow would theologians respond?

5. I suspect this book could be one that helps evangelicals understand themselves better.

6. This was not mentioned much in the book: how are children trained in this approach? The book contains a number of stories of teenager or young adult converts to faith who then have to learn this particular approach to God. However, it has little to say about people who grow up with this approach to God and how this affects adult spirituality.

Overall, this book discusses how evangelicals come to see the world in a certain way as they learn to talk to and hear from God and how to interpret events as God’s intervention. This is the value of this text: it goes beyond describing the evangelical viewpoint and argues for how this viewpoint is developed and maintained. This is an example of what good social science can do: explain why things are the way they are.


Shared religious activity enhances marital relationships

New sociological research suggests that certain kinds of shared religious  practices among married couples leads to better relationships:

[F]or all groups, shared religious activity – attending church together and especially praying together – is linked to higher levels of relationship quality.

The findings were particularly significant for African-American couples (and to a lesser extent, Latinos), according to sociologist and co-author W. Bradford Wilcox:

“Without prayer, black couples would be doing significantly worse than white couples. This study shows that religion narrows the racial divide in relationship quality in America.”

But not all religion is beneficial for marriages:

Couples holding discordant religious beliefs and those with only one partner who attends religious services regularly tend to be less happy in their relationships, the researchers found.

The findings make sense: couples who share a religious perspective and activities benefit while those who don’t share perspectives or activities suffer. The most interesting finding seems to be that about African-American and Latinos benefiting from shared religious activity: the authors suggest such activity helps overcome stress minorities experience.