When I first heard the title of Ashley Hales’ début book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much, I confess that I became defensive. What’s wrong with the suburbs? I’ve lived in southern California for most of my life and I loved it. When I left the suburbs to live in the backwoods of rural Alabama, I longed to go home, where everything was conveniently located and there was a coffee shop on every corner. What’s wrong with convenience? What’s wrong with city-like amenities matched with rural-like comfort and seclusion? There are plenty of churches throughout the southern California area, each with local discipleship groups and outreach events–what makes “finding holy” in the suburbs harder than finding it anywhere else? What does “finding holy” even mean?
Hales begins with her own story of being called by God away from life in Salt Lake City to the Orange County suburbs. Her dread is palpable—she believed that things like “sustainability, depth, meaning, nuance” could easily be found in the city or in the country, but certainly not in the suburbs, “where everyone— even their houses—looked the same” (7) and assuages her fears by taking comfort in the great biblical characters of old whom God called to go forth from their places (7). She confesses her own sense of superiority and owns that the real problem is her fear of not living up to the standards of beauty or success in the suburbs. “Could I find belonging in the suburbs, or would I be a misfit?” (7) She wasn’t as concerned about the consumeristic vacuity of suburban America so much as she was about not fitting into it. The purpose of the book, then, is not to denounce the evils of the suburbs per se, but “a gentle call to all of us in the suburbs to come home, to find belonging not in what we buy or how we constantly center ourselves, but in loving God and our neighbor” (13). This was a helpful qualification that enabled me to better understand her point–finding a sense of belonging through rooting our identity in Christ and obedience to the greatest commandments in Scripture is something to embrace. Maybe she was onto something.
Happily, Hales did answer some of my initial questions about the uniqueness of the suburbs. She argues that suburbanites tend to fill our need for belonging and worth through four main outlets: consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. Through personal anecdotes, she reveals that those broad categories have made their way into inconspicuous suburban activities and mentalities (e.g., Target runs, gated communities, granite countertops, minivans, etc.). The last portion of the book is dedicated to true repentance, finding our identity in our “belovedness,” and practicing hospitality, generosity, and vulnerability, all with the goal of shalom, or “seeking the wholeness of the suburbs.” Each chapter concludes with ways the reader can reorient herself toward God through new practices called “counter-liturgies.”
While Hales agrees that the suburbs are a comfortable place to live, her point is that we have become complacent in our comfort; that the priority of ease and material pleasure has grown to idolatrous proportions. The offerings of the suburbs temporarily fill our deepest hungers by numbing us to the very real weakness, depravity, and vulnerability we all live in. The suburbs evangelize the good life, and instead of using the blessings of wealth and privilege as gifts, we cling to them as ultimate solutions to our needs, ignoring the Giver of gifts and how they point us to our ultimate fulfillment in Him and His kingdom (9).
Hales isn’t afraid to call us out on our respectable sins. As a self-identified outsider, she gives us a keen perspective on the water in which we swim. Consequently, her chapters on repentance and belovedness are the jewels of the book, soothing the reader’s soul with the gospel and calling her to repent and believe. She offers practical suggestions on what living in the suburbs could look like–it’s neither a life of monasticism, nor a retreat to the nearest city or countryside, but a selfless willingness to use the blessing of earthly abundance to satisfy the earthly needs of our brothers; to be mindful of our own ultimate needs and longings and look for their fulfillment in Christ. Instead of acquiescing to the self-centered siren call of the suburbs, we can actively work to be outward-focused, loving our places and spaces as God has commanded (Jer. 29:7).
While I appreciated the always-timely reminder that prosperity can be as big a trap as poverty, I felt that some qualification would have helped her point: first, the suburbs have value and meaning simply because image-bearers live there. There is no need to impose meaning into a place where God has put his very likeness—“finding holy” means locating our worth, sense of belonging, and ultimate purpose in loving God first, and loving our neighbors second. The suburbs may be the context for the search, but God and neighbor can be readily found there. The suburbs may not offer the vast open spaces of the country or the sprawling galleries and museums of the cities, but beauty can be found in the fellowship of the community, in the homes of Christians who welcome international students home for Thanksgiving, in the reconciliation of friends at the corner Starbucks, or in the customers of the doughnut store supporting a local owner through his wife’s cancer. The imago Dei in all people assures us that we will see sparks of God’s character no matter where we live.
Second, the vices she discusses are not limited to the suburbs. Consumerism, individualism, busyness, and a desire for safety can be found in the city and countryside alike. Persons living in the country are every bit as susceptible to self-centeredness and consumerism as the urbanite; it just manifests differently. The book speaks to everyone living anywhere in a wealthy nation, despite the suburb-specific examples. Hales argues that places form our loves (8); I would nuance that a bit more: our sinful hearts misdirect our loves, and our places exploit and camouflage them. In other words, our sin takes good gifts and causes us to love them disproportionately, and the culture of our environments cater to these misguided loves. Hales does a good job of showing how the suburbs exploit the idols of the North-American Christian’s heart, offering specific suburban examples to demonstrate.
Third, one should note that the influence of our surroundings does not happen in a vacuum, but alongside other strong influences, such as ethnic culture. Since the book was written from the perspective of an upper-middle class white woman, a corresponding audience will resonate with her the most. As a minority, I found myself struggling to keep up with some of her chapters, such as the one on individualism. While I grew up in the suburbs and have felt the pressures of individualism, I also grew up in a very communal family, where it is culturally expected to extend hospitality to neighbors and strangers. (Ask me about my dad inviting his Mormon evangelist frequenters away from the doorstep and right to the table for meals on a regular basis!) My culture pushes back against suburban culture, and for this I am grateful. Other times, I have bowed to suburban culture for the sake of safety—my parents who invite strangers into their home are also the victims of hate crimes ranging from eggs on the garage door to the FBI accusing them of being terrorists in their own home. Despite the growing diversity of the suburbs, belonging demands acceptance of and assimilation into white culture. For the minority, that desire for a sense of belonging can rise to become an idol in the form of forsaking our cultural heritage and blending in to our surrounding culture at all costs. People of color fight additional battles for belonging in the suburbs that includes rooting our identity in Christ, recognizing that we are equally made in the image of God, and believing that our differences are to be celebrated. Blending in is not our ultimate goal; loving God and our neighbors is.
While my defensiveness and skepticism created barriers, I needed this book. Sometimes it is hard to identify the culture in which we live without a new perspective showing us our own blind spots and assumptions, and Hales does so with precision. It’s easy for suburbanites to forget that ours is a pilgrimage, and that even Target and all its wonders will not last into the new Jerusalem. Death to self will look differently for all Christians in all places—perhaps ours will require the mortification of our obsession with comfort and pleasure, the willingness to give up our downtime for time with the disadvantaged, and the humility to hear rebuke when we feel we’ve got our priorities straight.
Sherrene DeLong (MAT, Westminster Seminary California) is a contributor to All Are Welcome: Toward A Multi-Everything Church. She lives in Virginia with her husband and son.