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On Why We should Love and Hate the Suburbs

May 9th, 2013 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Like most kerfuffles, the recent dispute over Christianity and the suburbs has teetered on engendering far more heat than there has been light.

Some of that was due to our own Keith Miller’s post, which self-consciously provoked and explored questions rather than laid out definitive hypotheses.  (Mission accomplished.  The comments have been wonderful.)  But one gets the sense that the discussion has been fueled by vagueness, that it’s full of heuristic caricatures set up to illuminate more fundamental points.  And heuristic caricatures often breed defensive responses, and around the internet wheel-go-round we spin.  That’s my observation, anyway, which I am happy to be wrong about.

But before you point out just how off I am, allow me to add more fodder for your commenting cannons and say some more doubtlessly misguided things rooted in more and less helpful caricatures.

It seems that Peter Blair’s fundamental point that “we should not mistake the normal cultural standards of 21st century American life for ‘ordinary life’” is well made. Only there’s no reason to limit the problem to the existence of the suburbs:  there’s nothing ‘ordinary’ about our cities, either, at least that I can tell. Rome was at its peak a million people, after all, which I suspect provided a very different form of life for its inhabitants than that which our current mega-cities allow.

suburbsAnd while decrying the effects of cars on the way of life in the suburbs, we ought to be sensitive to the effects of mass transit on cities.  Yes, people have to bump shoulders more with people they don’t know every day, and there’s something to that.  But as a daily rider of a bus in a relatively small city I can assure you the transformative effect isn’t all that one would hope for.  It is possible to take the bus daily and only rarely recognize people, much less strike up a conversation with them.

Which is to say, Peter mused that the question here goes “much deeper than the discreet issue of whether the suburbs should be praised or damned.”  Indeed.  And while we’re examining his questions, we should also wonder why we have to choose between these two.  The suburbs ought to be praised and damned, because they’re praiseworthy and damnable. And so ought the cities, for that matter.

The irony, of course, is that the critique of the suburbs seems fundamentally anti-secular.  (This is a point lost on both Keith and Peter, at least from what I can tell.)  There is nothing more secular than the suburbs:  they are the perfect embodiment of a world that stands halfway between creation and new Jerusalem, only with distorted views of both. They strive to bring together the amenities and culture of (traditionally) urban existence, while preserving the cultured gardens of country dwellings.  Suburbs are the perfect Augustinian paradisical hell, only a quintessentially modern one, with the sort of structures that garden variety anti-modernists of the Front-Porcher temperment hate and all their critics therefore necessarily feel obliged to defend.*  It seems strange to me to defend secularity and engage in a critical project of the suburbs, or to offer a critical use of secular while making a defense of them. The thing to do if you want to affirm the secular is affirm suburban living precisely because its what the strange fusion of Christianity and modernity has given us.

A brief aside:  I think this point stands on any definition of “secular.”  The term is so contested as to not be very helpful (like a few other terms in this discussion, too).  But if it means that which comes into Christianity from “the world,” well, that’s an ambiguous category but not necessarily hostile one.  And if we mean something like Augustine meant, and describe it as that which is between the times, well, that fits the suburbs too.  Modernity, like every other period, is a mess of congmingled goods and vices, which manifests itself in a host of structures and institutions.  I think on both terms, though, the suburbs are thoroughly secular and hence unremittingly ambivalent.  May they be praised and also damned.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus, but don't make me have to choose one or the other when we can do both.

But back to it:  All this mucking up of things simply highlights the relative unhelpfulness of, well, the entire discussion.  Can’t we spend a good deal longer wondering what the suburbs are for before we start kindling our torches or building our defenses?  We might find that “the city” stands under judgment just as much, and that we should add additional targets for our denunciations.  Why explore that question?  Perhaps to raise the more fundamental question of what it means to live faithfully within the place we find ourselves, whether its “suburban” or “urban” or “rural” or whatever term we apply.

I myself might commend to us all a Chestertonian patriotism here:  we ought to be suburban critics only because we are suburban fans.  Loving the suburbs, and the people in them, might be the precursor to properly understanding them and criticizing them.  Getting inside the suburbs and seeing the qualities of life that make them so attractive, and starting with that, might be a good step toward actually understanding them.  I understand the critics of the suburbs come to bury them and all, but maybe starting with a little praise might make it all go down a bit smoother.

Let me make two related points here, just to ensure that my destruction in the comments will be complete.

First, I realize that the “city” and “rural” dispute has theological undertones. But here, too, I think we have reason to be appreciative about both and so ambivalent about both.  As has often been pointed out, pagan means “countrydweller” for a reason, namely that Christianity spread through the cities first.  But Christ announced himself to some shepherds before that, who faithfully came and worshipped along with the backwoods girl who’d been blessed with the honor of bearing the Son of God.

Second, evangelicals have for a season wrestled with being co-opted by technique.  We’ve let other people amuse themselves to death—we’ve progamatized ourselves to death. (Okay, we've amused ourselves to death too.)  This background is inescapable, and we’d be silly to ignore it.  But it matters for this discussion, as it means that the emphasis on transforming cities will constantly be in danger of being reduced to a project, which is then packaged, made pretty, and sold.  (Think of it as the McMansion version of movement formation, and then judge accordingly.)  When that happens, people will inevitably be moved to push back, and probably in terms just as overwrought as those they are hearing.  Technique is the spirit of our age, even still, and the emphasis on city-living and the repudiation of the suburbs is in constant danger of so being co-opted, as many good and true movements and messages have been.

And now, have fun in the comments.  I'm getting off the merry-go-round for a bit, as I feel a bit woozy.

*Again, dealing in caricatures here, you know, to make a point.

Update:  I meant to include a nod to Jake Meador's excellent post at Mere-O Notes, our little tumblr-roundup site that he curates. Go forth and read it too.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.