Editor's Note: This review of Keith Miller's Suburban Christianity was featured in the September 2015 issue of CT. The review was based on an advance copy of the book made available to our reviewer by Moody Publishers. After that issue went to press, we learned that Moody had decided to cancel publication of the book, which is no longer available.
I thought any sheepishness I ever felt about living in a leafy suburb a dozen miles west of Chicago had long evaporated. But as I walked through the doors of Vic’s Drum Shop—located lo those dozen-plus miles east of us—I realized my suburban insecurity was, in fact, alive and well.
There’s no way to not feel like a full-fledged dork while walking around an oozing-cool Chicago drum shop with your newly teenage son. And when our drummer salesman asked where we were from, I paused before answering. I longed to mention that I was a writer, an artist—that, yes, I drive a minivan, but I fight authority and hold some troubling opinions on politics and religion.
Instead, my mind ran back to Keith Miller’s Suburban Christianity: God’s Work in Unhip Places (Moody), a suburban-born Columbia Law School graduate’s defense of suburban life against its urban detractors. Though Miller protests too much, I concede his basic point. Suburban living is not cool. Not in drum shops, and increasingly not among church folks.
Miller writes primarily to millennial Christians who struggle with their suburban identity, who bristle when peers (or certain influential pastors) living in urban centers claim that The City is where God’s work is being done and where Christian influence is most needed. Miller raises six critiques—that the suburbs lack influence, diversity, sacrifice, authenticity, community, and beauty—and spends a chapter responding to each.
Since these critiques are outlandish, debunking them is fitting. In each chapter, Miller raises valid claims. He reminds readers of the ways suburbanites influence culture, especially in raising families, and that the desire to own affordable homes with spacious yards cuts across racial and socioeconomic divides. And he asks, reasonably enough, whether “inauthenticity” might be a good thing at times: Might the disposition “to conform to a certain set of morals actually help strengthen” a community?
But I can’t help questioning whether Miller actually understands the suburbs. His idea of a suburb—and hence, a suburban Christian—doesn’t match what I see. And if it doesn’t ring true for a lifelong resident of Chicago’s suburbs, I wonder for whom it will.
Although Miller broadens his definitions of suburb and city in an appendix, he generally trafficks in the same caricatures of suburbia as its critics. Miller’s suburbs contain pre-fab houses and cul-de-sacs. They are full of children but devoid of prodigals. (The father in the Prodigal Son story lives in a suburb, according to Miller.) His portrayal of a faithful suburban family struck me as saccharine and superficial.
Miller creates a world in which suburbia is persecuted by everyone from Hollywood executives to city-loving pastors. In doing so, he ends up bashing city-living as much as urban partisans bash suburb-living.
For example, Miller argues that Hollywood casts suburbia in a bad light. Using Mad Men as one example, Miller writes, “[It] is the system of bourgeois values and hypocrisy of the suburban lifestyle that are the supposed cause of [lead character Don] Draper’s agony.” But those familiar with the AMC series know that Draper—who was orphaned, abused, and war-torn—was in agony long before reaching the suburbs.
Taking this suburban-persecution theme to absurd lengths, Miller contends that Jesus would have hung out with us suburbanites because, as the “uncool,” we are the new “outcasts,” the new “least of these.”
Wherever you are, you can be sure that God is at work. Cities are great. Suburbs are great. So are lonely islands and mountain shacks. Live where you want. Live as you are called. But do visit drum shops. It doesn’t matter where you live: They make dorks of us all.
Caryn Rivadeneira is a regular Her.meneutics contributor and the author of Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed about God’s Abundance (InterVarsity Press).
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