Seeing modernization and religious change in one small suburb

One way to approach the significant social changes of recent centuries is to examine broad patterns at a societal level. Another way to understand these changes is to look at what happened in a suburban community outside Boston:

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“What has produced this kind of world is modernization,” Wells said. “The public environment that results from it is modernity. But these words––modernization and modernity––are abstractions to so many people. How could I explain what has happened to my readers in a way that they could get it?”

He found the answer in a small Massachusetts town named Wenham––population 4,875 when Gordon College isn’t in session. Wells opens No Place by explaining how Wenham, settled by Puritans after a 1635 sermon, slid into modernity in stages––telegraphs gave way to radio and television and internet; farmland yielded to suburban homes; horses were replaced with trains and cars and airplanes.

At some point, Wenham crossed a divide along with everyone else, Wells wrote in No Place. “It is as if the ability to make better cars and better airplanes and better medicines and better theories imply an ability to make better selves––to transcend not only our own mortality, which would be no small feat, but also our own corruption, which would be an even larger feat.”

“So many people no longer believe in human nature––something all human being have in common,” he told TGC. Instead, “they believe in the self––the core at the center of each person that is unique to them and unlike any other self. This is really at the root of the extreme relativism of our time where people not only have their own ‘values,’ but also their own take on reality.”

I have not read the book being discussed – No Place for Truth – but this is a common academic approach: use an interesting case to illustrate broader processes. In this case, it sounds like Wenham, Massachusetts can help show how modernity played out in a community roughly twenty-five miles from Boston.

At the same time, I am more interested in the suburban connections here. Again, while I have not read book discussed above, I have been studying religion and place in recent years and there may be some patterns across communities. Here is my attempt to connect the case of Wenham to suburbs and religious change.

Wenham is a small and wealthy community. Founded in the mid-1600s, the community has just under 5,000 residents with population growth of over 30% three decades in a row after World War Two. The median household income is over $90,000 and the community is over 97% white. (All figures from the 2010 Census.)

When a large number of Americans moved to the suburbs during the twentieth century, these new suburban residents were often said to be conservative. This could apply to politics as well as religion. Religiosity soared after World War Two. Many new churches were founded in suburbs while others already present grew substantially.

But, even in small suburbs where religion was important, modernism prevailed. The focus on self became part of the American suburban dream. Even with a suburban focus on providing the best for the nuclear family, suburban residents could focus more on themselves free of the stronger community ties that could be found in either small towns or urban neighborhoods from which the new suburbanites came. And success in the suburbs came to be defined as personal or individual success: a nice house, a good income, leisure time, having all the necessities befitting a suburbanite.

This all had an impact on religious beliefs, behavior, and belonging. A shift to the self changes beliefs about transcendent beings and doctrines, affects how people live their everyday lives, and weakens attachments to religious institutions.

Thus, the argument goes, modernism and religious change came to America and its communities. Life changed everywhere, even in exclusive suburban communities.

We know a McMansion when we see the outside but what is inside?

A Quora forum member asks a broad yet intriguing question about McMansions: “What do McMansions look like on the inside?” Most of the attention McMansions receive is about the exterior. There are several common issues. It simply looks like a large house. Such homes do not have a consistent design as they can borrow from a variety of architectural styles. The house looks imposing from the street. The garage, at least two cars, can dominate the facade. The home does not fit with the style of the rest of the neighborhood. It may dwarf nearby homes. The front may be well-appointed but the sides and rear have vinyl siding, little brick, and little character. All of these critiques have something in common: houses should fit in with their surroundings and also present a coherent and less-than-ostentatious image. One group who have critiqued McMansions at times, New Urbanists, tend to make this argument that homes should be part of a larger neighborhood and have less to say about the interiors of large homes.

But, there is another aspect to McMansions that seems to receive less attention. I assume the reason for this is fairly obvious: most observers of McMansions, whether they are driving by homes on the way home from work or academics writing about the phenomenon, have less access to the interiors. In other words, homes are private spaces that generally aren’t open to private viewing. We might know some of the broad trends: people in recent years like granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, McMansions can have large foyers, there is a lot of interior space including rooms in addition to the standard ones, relatively more money is spent on the size of the home so less is devoted to long-lasting appointments, and McMansion owners may have little furniture or nice appointments because they spent so much on the house (this is a common stereotype).

There are architects and others who are more worried about the interiors of large homes. Architect Sarah Susanka, developer of the Not So Big House, argues that it is much better to have a home that fits a homeowner’s individual needs than to simply have a large house. She advocates for custom spaces within a home that both reflect the individual tastes of the homeowners as well as their activities. In contrast, McMansions are viewed as soulless homes that homeowners must fit into rather than the other way around. There are also others who argue there should more of a psychological fit between homeowners and their home.

This reminds me of the 1981 book The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. The two researchers spent time observing people’s homes as well as talking to them about how they related to the objects they had in their home. I think there is a lot more research that could be done in this area. On one hand, we often buy into the idea that the products we buy and display say something about us (and we often also view our homes as expressions of our self) and yet, we don’t think too deeply about this most of the time.