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Death By Suburb: How To Keep the Suburbs From Killing Your Soul
by David L. Goetz
(214 pages, $23.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Raymond J. Keating
The US Census Bureau reports that roughly half of Americans live in the suburbs. Does this suburban life jeopardize their souls? Based on his own experiences as a suburbanite, David L. Goetz worries that getting caught up in the daily trappings and affluence of modern suburban life can pull one away from Jesus Christ.
“I think my suburb,” he writes, “as safe and religiously coated as it is, keeps me from Jesus. Or at least, my suburb (and the religion of the suburbs) obscures the real Jesus. The living patterns of the good life affect me more than I know.”
A bit later, he adds: “Too much of the good life ends up being toxic, deforming us spiritually. The drive to succeed, and to make one’s children succeed, overpowers the best of intentions to live more reflectively, no matter the piety.”
It is this need to reflect and build spiritual practices in suburbia that lies at the center of Goetz’s book. As he puts it: “Even in suburbia all moments are infused with the Sacred. God really is present where I live on Ranch Road. . . . I don’t need to escape the ’burbs to find Jesus. I need only awaken to the thicker life.”
He goes on to dedicate a chapter to each of eight spiritual practices or insights for suburbanites, such as finding moments of solitude, “accepting my cross with grace and patience,” and moving from transaction-based friendships, even at church, to spiritually rooted friendships.
On the topic of friendship, Goetz observes: “My neighbor, a young pastor of a growing suburban congregation, says that intimacy is the one thing in his church that everyone craves but few seem to have. You can’t use relationships as a means to position yourself in life and then also expect to experience in them the kind of friendship that sweetens life and takes the edge off its hard parts.”
Another struggle Goetz accurately perceives is between the attitude that “my church is the problem” and the spiritual practice of “staying put in your church.” Through a variety of anecdotes, he hits on the consumerism driving people to window shop from church to church.
Though “actually,” he writes, “I think it may be less like shopping and more like casual sex. It’s certainly not about ongoing relationships. It’s about the immediate experience, the brief sensation of feeling like I have finally found a home, a place where I deeply resonate with the worship and theology (at least for a time).” In contrast, “staying put is a spiritual discipline that allows God’s grace to work on unsanded surfaces of my inner life. The biggest problem in any church I attend is my love of self.”
Those who benefit from the kind of spiritual self-help genre where this book seems to fit, or see aspects of their own suburban lives in it, might find it valuable in the pursuit of finding the thicker life in Jesus Christ. Others will find it disappointing, because 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, and the book reads like a disjointed self-help or how-to guide for the soul based on suburban anecdotes.
Towards the close of Death by Suburb, 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.” Few suburbanites, including myself, could disagree. But no doubt much the same can be said of rural life and city living today. Goetz never really makes the case that the soul might be at greater risk in the suburbs than on the farm or amidst the skyscrapers.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist for Newsday on Long Island, and also writes a weekly ?On the Church and Society? column for Orthodoxy Today. An economist, he has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He is a member of Christ Lutheran Church (Lutheran Church?Missouri Synod) in East Moriches, New York.