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Reconsidering Suburbia

Millenials and the upshot of normality

Anthony Bradley, writing at the Acton Institute blog, observes a worrying trend among Christian Millennials:

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and youth adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not being doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

He calls this “the new legalism.” Responding to this, Evangelical site FareForward, the editors connect The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming to a broader movement among younger Evangelicals to reject suburban life:

But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

In turn, writing at Mere Orthodoxy, Keith Miller challenges this, and questions the hatred among some Evangelicals for the suburbs. He looks for the reasons:

Here are a few of the most prominent Christian objections to living in the suburbs. How many of them hold up to even a slight bit of scrutiny?

  • Suburbs are inauthentic: I confess to not quite understanding what this means. Yes, suburban things are often newer and feature less exposed brick, but how is that a moral argument?

  • Suburbs are consumeristic: No more than large cities.

  • Suburbs are morally repressive: Wait, overt exhibition of immorality is a good thing?

  • Suburbs lack diversity: The most diverse places in the country are suburbs.

  • Suburbs are full of a lot of Evangelicals who vote Republican: Oh, wait, now we are getting somewhere…

So, what do I think of all this, as the author of Crunchy Cons, and now Little Way?

Crunchy Cons took a pretty hard line against suburban living, one that I’m not as comfortable with today. Why? Because as someone who used to live in big cities, and who now lives in a small town, I’ve become more understanding of why someone with a family would choose to live in the suburbs.

As you may recall, we lived in New York City when we had our first child. Brooklyn was fantastic. We moved to Dallas before we had more kids, and the desire to start a bigger family was part of our decision. We just couldn’t afford more kids in New York City, not on a journalist’s salary, and not if we wanted to be able to save money for the future. Life was very pleasant in NYC with one child, but not stable; much of the time, we were only a couple of paychecks from serious financial trouble, and the cost of living was so great in the city that we couldn’t see any prospect of improving our lot significantly.

Dallas was a different story. We were able to afford a neat little house in a gentrified neighborhood. Using church schools and homeschooling made that possible, though; if we hadn’t been able to afford those options, we would have been in a difficult spot, given our unease (justified or not) with the public school situation. What’s more, as much as we loved where we lived, I had to reckon with the fact that seeing the occasional gang tag, and hearing the occasional late-night gunshot in the near distance, made me wonder from time to time about the wisdom of our choice. When we moved to Philly, we had to sell our house after the crash, and lost a significant chunk of change on it. This probably would have happened anywhere, given the overall economic situation, but those long months waiting for a buyer made me think about property values, and what contributes to their stability.

Don’t get me wrong: I think we made the right choice in our home. My point is simply that the choice is not nearly as clear-cut as I once thought. Plus, watching the increasing dysfunction of Dallas city government made me pine for the relative stability of suburban city management. When you’re paying taxes own property you own, and when you have kids, you take a different view on these things than when you’re young and childless. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, I suppose, but still hard to see.

My chief complaint about the suburbs is that they’re heavily car-centric, and make walking community difficult. One of the great things about our Brooklyn neighborhood was that walking to do shopping, go to restaurants, coffee, or go to the park, made for a more pleasant and cohesive community. The physical layout of our neighborhoods shapes their social character. On the other hand, I have friends who live in the suburbs who know more of their neighbors than we knew in Brooklyn, and who spend more time with them, so there is no reliable formula. And in my small town — I suspect this is true about most small towns the farther one gets from the East Coast — it is not feasible to depend on walking to do one’s daily errands. People manage to create community even though they are car-dependent.

While I still believe there are serious objections to the way our suburbs are designed, and ways to design them to be more aesthetically pleasing and human-scaled, I appreciate very much Keith Miller’s critique, and how he urges us to think about whether we are not simply baptizing and moralizing aesthetic preferences. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that the material order in some real sense reflects, or should reflect, the sacred order. Aesthetics are rarely completely divorced from metaphysics or morals. On a more practical level, though, I think we ought to all give more grace to each other. Not everybody who moves to the suburbs wants to build a gargantuan McMansion and live the full-consumerist lifestyle. Not everyone who chooses to live in the city is driven by morally pure motives; they could be refusing one kind of consumerist narcissism for the sake of embracing a more attractive version of same.

As I’ve repeatedly said about Little Way and its lessons about community, and must say again, this book is not about small towns versus cities versus suburbs. It may be easier in some places to see your neighbors — I mean “see” them, as in be aware of their existence and your mutual obligation — but it is possible to do this in every place, and possible to refuse to see your neighbor too. Some of the most un-neighborly people I’ve ever known were right there in Starhill, which I hold up (quite truthfully) in Little Way as a paragon of neighborly devotion. No, the point I want people to take from Little Way is that caring about your community isn’t something that’s done by moving from one place to another, but rather something that is accomplished by sustained personal effort. It’s easier for some people to do this in certain settings than in others; we aren’t all called to live in the city, or the country, or the suburbs. But people in the suburbs don’t necessarily have fewer needs than city or country people; they have different needs. Everybody suffers.

Do you suppose that suburban people are less worthy of your love and care than city or small town or rural people? If so, then your heart isn’t right. God needs His people in the cities, He needs His people in the small towns, He needs His people in the countryside … and He needs His people in the suburbs.

For a certain kind of Christian — people like me, to be blunt — the idea of living an “ordinary” life (= the life of a middle-class suburbanite) seems unattractive, at least on the surface. That could well be a sign that this is precisely the kind of life that we need for our own salvation. I read a story once about a young Orthodox man who went to a priest or an elder, I forget which, expressing a desire to be a monk. The priest apparently sensed that the young man wanted not the hard part of the monastic life, but rather was attracted by a romanticized view of monasticism. He told the young man to try his vocation by renting an apartment in a poor part of town, and try living among the poor as one of them. Pray, fast, do good works, and see how well you do. If, after a year or two of that, you find that you’re still interested in the monastic life, come back and see me.

I think there’s a lot of practical wisdom in that. I once heard of this Christian couple who were convinced they had a ministry to people working in a glamorous and exciting professional field. I didn’t know them personally, so maybe they did. But it seemed more plausible to me that they wanted to live a particularly stimulating and exotic lifestyle, but could only justify it to themselves by clothing it in a sense of mission. Hey, God needs His people in those circles too! But it’s well worth considering whether or not we’re really called to a certain life, and to a certain place, or whether we’re using God and the cause of mission to justify our preferences. It’s rarely a clear-cut thing.

I’ll end by going back to Anthony Bradley’s excellent point, which is what I started this post with. Especially this:

For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

Ruthie Leming was a middle school teacher in a small town in a rural state that’s near the bottom of most lists of progress. But she loved the people she was given to love, and served the people she was given to serve. Was grateful for the opportunity. Ruthie could not have been more ordinary. After her death, I learned from those she had served what a profound difference she had made in their lives. She did not know who St. Therese of Lisieux was, but she lived the saint’s “little way.” The humble nun Therese wrote:

“Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”

In the Kingdom of Heaven, Ruthie’s “little flowers” may mean more to God than the great deeds of famous and powerful people, for the same reason the widow’s mite meant more than the generous donations of the wealthy.

Remember the story the other day of Lyric Haynes, the poor little girl from Ruthie’s final class, whose mother is (or was at the time) in prison? At Ruthie’s wake, Lyric told my

Lyric Haynes
Lyric Haynes

mother, “Mrs. Leming is dead; who is going to love me now?”

Ruthie was a sign of hope for that little girl, who felt that nobody but Ruthie, her teacher, loved her. In that light, how do you measure the meaning of an ordinary life as a middle school teacher in a small town? There were so many kids like Lyric, or who were also needy in their way. Do you suppose there are no Lyrics in the suburbs? That the McMansions don’t house children like Lyric who have far more things, but who are beggars for love?

There are ordinary lives, yes, but concealed within every ordinary life is the potential to be absolutely extraordinary. This is what it means to say that the only tragedy in life is not to have been a saint.

The saying goes that we often believe that we are thinking, when we are actually doing nothing more than rearranging our prejudices. The first step to finding out what God really wants us to do with our lives — including where He is calling us to live — is to ask ourselves what our prejudices are, and the strategies we use to conceal them from ourselves, and to justify them to ourselves.

I’m saying this to you, and I’m saying it to myself. Every day I need to think about the lessons from Little Way, because they run so contrary to what I want to believe.