Your article "Suburban Spirituality" was a cover story for CT. How did you expand that into a book?
The real question is how I turned a book into an article. InterVarsity Press originally gave me a contract in 1996. I had been thinking about this topic for some time. I had come from a rural culture, even though I went to Denver Seminary and served in a church there as a youth pastor. I was still living in almost a rural part of Denver.
I gave this book proposal to IVP and wrote the first three chapters, but after I started working on an MBA at DePaul, I stopped writing. In 2001 or 2002, I went back to IVP, sent the three chapters and added another chapter.Â
I got back the raw comments from a senior marketing guy, and it was blistering. It was humiliating, actually. So I said to myself, I'm not going to write this book.
Then I pitched CT the article. In reworking those chapters, I realized that my whole perspective had changed from somebody who is kind of critical to someone who has been absorbed by the suburbs. I had started my business. I was absorbed trying to get things off the ground. My kids were in school.
I realized that there are these suburban toxins that affect you. I was struck by this when I realized my kid's education was not about learning but about winning.
I remember reading with my daughter. I would help out at school in the afternoons. You would take kids out of class and read. I pulled my daughter out first. I read with her, and I thought, She's so advanced for her age. I'm so proud of her.
The very next student that came out was reading at a fourth grade level. I realized where my child was in relation to someone else's child. I could sense the emotion in me when I thought, This kid is better than mine. We started a great books reading program at home that night. We started enforcing no TV after dinner. And then it hit me how much we live our lives in relation to what others have.
Ernest Becker has this phrase "immortality symbols." He says they dominate our lives, because they are visible and concrete, and they confer glory on us. I use that throughout the book, because I think children are one of the dominant immortality symbols, because it really isn't about learning and education, it's about winning.
What are some other immortality symbols?
Your house. Let me give you an example that's not in the book. On Friday, I got my hair cut by this young woman who is living with her boyfriend. They just decided to buy a house. I could tell that she's really nervous about the fact that they're not married yet.
I said, "You must be excited." She said, "It's kind of your standard house. We're going to do the sweat equity thing, because we don't have that much money. But we get to pick out the linoleum." The way she said it made me realize she could not even enjoy this moment. You could tell she was already looking to the next house. I felt so bad for her. There was no enjoyment in it. One of the immortality symbols is this house that you can feel good about.Â
We are part of a movie group right now. And we go to these movie groups and they all have big screen TVs. We don't have a big screen TV. So we have never had the movie group at our house. We couldn't have a movie group without a big flat screen TV. This is all very subtle.Â
You said you were angry about the suburbs after you first moved from a rural community. What angered you?
When I came here, for the first time I was in an environment where there was a hyper-perception of people who had more than what I had. I didn't grow up with that. In Bismarck, North Dakota, there are no investment bankers. Here, my church is filled with people from the financial services. In Bismarck, there are not people trading institutional bonds, who have a regular degree, and are making $500,000 a year.
There are enormous amounts of money here, and you don't think of it as rich. You think of it as within your grasp.
In the rural culture, people are always tied into the agrarian community, and there is a deep understanding of the nature of life in the agrarian community. You are not necessarily in control of your life. There are good years and there are bad years. People are maybe just a little more humble. Here, you are in control of your life, at least you think you're in control of your life.
How can Christians in the suburbs deal with these toxins you describe?
Well, one way is to be like the desert fathers and flee the cities. I wouldn't criticize people for doing that. There are people who can do that.
For most of us, though, we can't. We somehow have to bring monastic practices into the suburbs. But I don't think we have anything in the suburbs that would allow us to do that. Churches can't, because they're very programmatic. I think the monastic example is a good one to lift up and say, "This is how the monastics did it and the reason why they did it. How can we add that back into our lives?"
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also posted today is a review of the book.
Death by Suburb is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More about Goetz is available from his website. He is president of CZ Marketing. His article, "Suburban Spirituality" is available on our site.
Lauren F. Winner reviewed the book for Books & Culture.
Managing editor Mark Galli introduced Goetz in this Inside CT.
Other articles examining suburban spirituality from Christianity Today and our sister publications include:
Religion in the 'Burbs | An interview with R. Stephen Warner, sociologist of religion at University of Illinois at Chicago. (June 23, 2003)
The Bobo Future | "Bourgeois bohemians" wield inordinate power over how we think about consumerism, morality--and faith itself (July 25, 2000)
You've Got Mail | A letter Jesus might write to the suburban church of North America (Eugene H. Peterson, Christianity Today, Oct. 25, 1999)
The Cost of Living in a Suburban Paradise (Deborah Windes, Books & Culture, Jan/Feb 1998)
When Your Neighborhood Changes You | How three Twin Cities churches have adjusted to reach their rapidly changing community (Leadership Journal, Spring 2003)
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