I met Ashley Hales a few years ago through a group for woman writers who are Christians. I was immediately impressed by her soft, strong spirit, so today, I am thrilled to bring you an excerpt from her new book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs.* As someone who loathes the suburbs with an active passion and who, like Ashley herself, considers herself only able to live in the city or, much more preferably, in the rural world, this book reminds me of something important – God shows up everywhere. Enjoy Ashley’s words and wisdom.
For a woman who craved the cultural hub of a city or the idyllic freedom of a rural life, I bristled about a move to the suburbs. I was happy in Salt Lake City. The city was booming: ski resorts were a short drive away, diversity was increasing as more immigrants moved in, and restaurants were popping up with award-winning international cuisines downtown.
Moving home held out its charms: I was excited about proximity to family, how a newer house meant less things falling apart than in our old house, and we wouldn’t have to learn a new place. But, I wondered, how would I find belonging in the suburbs where everyone—even their houses—looked the same?
I craved sustainability, depth, meaning, nuance—the things you find in a city, I reasoned, or at least in the type of rural life championed by Wendell Berry. How did this move fit; how could I fit? Underneath this superiority was a deep fear that I couldn’t cut it: I wasn’t pretty enough or successful enough. Could I find belonging in the suburbs, or would I be a misfit?
I’m comforted by the biblical precedent of God’s people laughing at his plans—backing into corners and running off in the opposite direction. I feel kin to Jonah, thinking he was too good for a place; to Sarah, laughing that God could do the impossible; to Moses, thinking he didn’t have the right skill set to serve God’s people; to Joshua, who was afraid; to David, who followed his feelings, which lead to adultery and murder; to Peter, who said he’d always come through and then ran away; to Paul, who desperately wanted to do everything right. The list goes on. In each story, God restores.
So I took a deep breath, said goodbye, and closed the door to our life in Salt Lake City. This was it—we were moving to the suburbs.
I realized as the moving truck pulled away from our Salt Lake City home, I couldn’t use my place to make me feel special and unique. I’d turned my nose up at the suburbs, thinking they were only superficial and image obsessed, and their residents were unconcerned with real problems. But I knew there was more, and I knew I was called to love not only individual people but also my place. Moving home to the suburbs, I longed to discern how to faithfully live in the land of too much.
I used to think nothing of my suburban childhood, how each “city” bled into the other, without distinctiveness. I enjoyed the chain stores and was used to driving everywhere. Only when I grew older and moved away did I see how each place formed my loves. Each place fashions what we value. Places form our loves.
Are the suburbs really the “geography of nowhere” that Harold Kunstler calls them? Could a land of commuters, tract homes, strip malls, and ease actually malform our souls? And if we’re Christians, how might we live a full Christian life in the suburbs—do we even notice how the suburbs shape our souls? Should we feel guilty for our privilege, or should we just move?
More than 50 percent of Americans live in suburbs, and many of them desire to live a Christian life. Yet often the suburbs are ignored (“Your place doesn’t matter, we’re all going to heaven anyway”), denigrated and demeaned (“You’re selfish if you live in a suburb; you only care about your own safety and advancement”), or seen as a cop-out to a faithful Christian life (“If you really loved God, you’d move to Africa or work in an impoverished area”). From books to Hollywood jokes, the suburbs aren’t supposed to be good for our souls.
Even David Goetz’s popular book, Death by Suburb, though helpful, presumes suburban life is toxic for your soul—as if suburbia were uniquely broken by the weight of sin. The suburbs—like any place—exhibit both the goodness of God’s creative acts (in desiring to foster community, beauty, rest, hospitality, family) and sin (in focusing on image, materialism, and individualism to the exclusion of others). We cannot be quick to dismiss the suburbs out of hand.
In what they center and in what they hide, all places tell stories through their geography, architecture, and city planning. After World War II, suburbs popped up across America. They were places upwardly mobile middle-class residents would retreat to in their version of a country manor house placed at a reasonable distance away from the city, where (usually) men worked.
Houses became status markers. Cars and commuting became more prevalent. Women increasingly stayed home, removed from the bustle of city life. As suburbs grew, they became whiter and richer: their racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity wasn’t just lowered, the suburbs “built inequality to last.”
Today, each suburb is different: some are receiving previous urban dwellers who can’t afford city life when they have a family; others are the result of “white flight”; still others are more affluent and cost-prohibitive than the cities they orbit. Many are growing in their racial, political, and socioeconomic diversity.
But each suburb in its own way evangelizes for the good life: a life of safety, beauty, comfort, and ease. Suburbs, like all places, reflect both our good, God-given desires to create home, and also the brokenness of a place in their geography, entry systems, and laws. Thankfully, the good news of the gospel is never defined by a ZIP code.
The gospel story both helps us see the idols of our suburbs and brings hope for an abundant life not contingent on our circumstances. We make our home by stories, it’s said that author Flannery O’Connor wrote. In my move to the suburbs, I knew I needed a new story to bring me back home. Daily, I need a new narrative to help me find both the holy in the suburbs and a story bigger and better than my cul-de-sac.
–Taken from Finding Holy in the Suburbs by Ashley Hales. Copyright (c) 2018 by Ashley Hales. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Ashley Hales is a PhD, writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, and mother. Her first book is: Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP). Connect with Ashley at aahales.com or @aahales on social media.