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Are the Suburbs Bad for the Soul?

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
March 15, 2006

Raymond J. KeatingWhat's the deal with kicking around the suburbs?

Even though tens of millions of Americans call the suburbs home, suburbia comes under all kinds of attacks.

Urban dwellers sometimes look down their noses at the suburbs as a kind of cultural wasteland. Environmentalists don't like the cars or, in particular, SUVs that suburbanites drive. From the humble ranch to new large homes dubbed McMansions, various self-appointed taste masters dislike the aesthetics of the suburbs. Even many suburban dwellers suffer from a kind of anti-suburban masochism, as they complain about the expansion of the suburbs, calling such growth suburban sprawl.

But could it be even worse than all of this? Could the suburbs actually be bad for your soul? Christian author David L. Goetz contemplates such a notion in his book "Death by Suburb : How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul"

The book is a disappointing endeavor. It does not take a substantive look at suburban life, and how it relates to the Christian faith. Instead, the author largely reflects on his own suburban experiences, and stories from others he knows. "Death by Suburb" reads like a disjointed self-help or how-to guide for the soul based on suburban anecdotes.

But the most glaring shortcoming of "Death by Suburb" is that the challenges and troubles that Christians face in the suburbs turn out not to be unique to suburban life.

Goetz speaks of the challenges in finding God and the "thicker life," the lack of spiritual practices, consumerism, too much emphasis on the self, personal relationships based on transactions, and being trapped and unreflective. But it is hard to see how these problems found in many lives, along with a host of other issues that Christians must regularly confront, are limited to or take on greater magnitude in suburbia.

The author never really makes the case. He simply declares: "My point in this book is not that the hazards of suburbia can't be found elsewhere. They just seem to be intensified in my mostly white-collar community." But he offers no proof, and no comparisons between living in the country, the suburbs or the city.

Towards the end of this slim volume, Goetz concludes: "The suburbs require, I think, a kind of fierceness to stay fully awake to God and the work of God in the world." One of the author's main points seems to be the struggle to keep one's faith amidst affluence and hectic schedules. This fits the caricatures of the envious suburbanites trying to keep up with the Jones's, or the crazy schedules of soccer moms and long work commutes.

But at their core, such struggles are not new. Envy or greed predates American suburbia. For example, St. Paul warned: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs." (1 Timothy 6:10)

And taking time away from God and His gifts goes beyond suburbia as well. St. Paul also wrote: "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." (Ephesians 5:15-17)

Such problems and the required fierceness in response are not just part of suburbia in the twenty-first century, but are everywhere, from rural farm country to the biggest cities. That should not be surprising, since human nature and its sinful ways are the same everywhere.

In New York, for example, whether one lives in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a suburban home on Long Island, or on a farm in New York's upstate, human weakness and sin remains.

Don't get me wrong. I am not presenting the suburbs as a land of virtue. It certainly is not, but nor are cities or rural communities. Christians are presented with formidable challenges in our twenty-first century culture, no matter where they live. There is simply nothing inherent to the suburbs that makes the suburban life in particular bad for your soul. So, let's give the suburbs a break.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Copyright Raymond J. Keating

Posted: 16-Mar-06

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