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Living the gospel in the suburbs

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Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much
Ashley Hales
InterVarsity Press

Reviewed by Gil Dueck

Who is the author?

Ashley Hales is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, mother of four. The book is autobiographical as Hales reflects on the experience of moving her young family from an urban environment in Utah to the suburbs of southern California. It’s easy to read Finding Holy in the Suburbs as a peek into Hales’ own internal wrestling with the question of how to make peace with life in the suburbs. 

Why this book?

There are two reasons why I think this is an interesting and potentially important book.

First, theology has become much more attentive to context and, as Hales notes, more than half of North Americans now live in suburbs. What then does it mean to follow Jesus in this place? This is an under-explored question to which Hales brings a theologically attentive eye.

Second, and more personally, I have recently moved from a village to a suburb and have found the contrast between the two contexts both sharp and difficult to articulate. There is a unique pattern to suburban life that is hard to get at, precisely because it has the appearance of being “just how everyone lives.”

So, a book like this is important because it makes the suburbs “strange” and opens up a good conversation. 

Key insight

PHOTO: Blake Wheeler, Unsplash

Hales’ main contribution is simply to take an honest look at suburban life and to present it as a unique context for discipleship.

She is a gifted writer who takes mundane and ordinary features of suburban life – from trips to Costco to taxiing kids to sports practices to ill-advised fitness regimens – and see a depth dimension that would normally elude us.

She identifies some of the key idols of suburbia – individualism, consumerism, safety, etc. – and offers concrete “counterliturgies” that steer our hearts toward Jesus. Woven throughout these counterliturgies is a gospel-shaped trajectory that invites us to repentance, to a deep awareness of our belovedness as children of God, and to an offering of ourselves in generous hospitality to others. 

Where the book fails

There are points at which Hales doesn’t seem to grapple adequately with the issue of wealth from a discipleship perspective. She is certainly aware that the suburbs are affluent places and she offers a lot of insight on how to pursue practices of generosity and hospitality as a kind of resistance in that context. But it is a fairly privatized resistance. She tends to read a lot of the New Testament teaching on the dangers of wealth as if it were a “heart issue” rather than an actual “money issue.”

In this time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the structural or systemic nature of economic inequality, this felt like a noticeable gap (recognizing that “awareness” is easy to call for and often changes very little). In Hales’ defense, I think that if the majority of suburban Christians took her advice, then the shape of suburban life would look quite different. 

Who should read it?

The intended audience – Christians who live in the suburb – should definitely pick up this book. Hales offers a recognizable snapshot of suburban life and invites us to take it seriously as a place that forms our loves and shapes us in particular ways.

We have done a decent job at grappling with context from the perspective of mission. We have not done as well when it comes to considering context from the perspective of formation. Hales offers a very readable and practical overview of the suburbs from this perspective. And she does all of this without sacrificing depth of content. In that sense, this book is an achievement. 

Favourite quotes

“In the suburbs, it’s easy to become numb to the ways we pursue our own self-satisfaction.”

“The stories our places tell are always moral… We must ask specifically how where we live informs who and what we love.”

“It is here where I am called, in this mess of suburbia with its quick pace, overachieving children, and beautiful people.  And I am part of the beautiful and broken work of placemaking here.”

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2 comments

Brad Sumner February 25, 2019 - 17:56

Thanks, Gil. I appreciate the language of “counter-liturgies” and being intentional about how place shapes our Spiritual formation.

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Ashley Hales March 19, 2019 - 16:05

Thanks for your thoughtful review of my book, I appreciate it.

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