For The Someday Book

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The Jesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed the Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle? by Mike Erre. W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2006, 202 pp.

I picked up this book for a couple of dollars during a quick pass through a discounted bookstore. I did not spend too much time examining it, because I was so excited to see the topic, especially from an evangelical perspective. I had hoped that it would be an analysis packed with anecdotal, textual and theological evidence of the ways Christian subculture reduces Jesus from a life-changing social radical to a feel-good, do-good cheerleader, critique of the evangelical fusion of Christianity and suburban values, and insights into undoing this version of Christianity in favor of a more compelling and challenging vision.

The book met some of those expectations and disappointed me in others, yet it was still a good read. Stylistically, it read more like a sermon or spiritual growth book than a cultural analysis. Think more John Ortberg and less Stephen Prothero. Once I got over what I thought it would be and started appreciating it for what it actually was, I thought it was a very good read. Theologically, it was definitely far more evangelical than I am, but my disagreements over his theologies of scripture and sexuality made my agreements with him about the nature of Jesus far more profound and striking.

Throughout the book, Erre draws sharp distinctions between Christianity and following Christ. American Christianity generally makes us more aligned with the American dream, our middle class compatriots and their attendant cultural values. Following Christ should make us fomenters of revolution, in conflict with the forces of empire all around us. In spite of his role as a preacher in a church, Erre even calls out religion as a major part of the problem. He defines religion as “any system of rules and rituals designed to bring us into relationship with God. It is the idea that somehow we can win God’s blessing through our efforts to do good and avoid bad.” (45) I take issue with Erre’s conflation of those two ideas. Religion is a collection of stories, rituals and rules that have been a path to God for those who have gone before and those walking within them today. It is often true that religious people believe their acts control God’s blessing, but it is not a necessary result of religious practice or belief. Erre sees Pharisees everywhere, and I agree that “Jesus didn’t come to change our behavior; he came to change our hearts,”(49) but I don’t think that necessarily means “Jesus came to abolish religion.” (46)

As the book unfolded, Erre espoused countless ideas that are right in line with progressive mainline Christians like me:

  • Jesus’ message was about welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the rejected, the unclean, “whoever.” Grace means that God’s love, not our actions, are the key to salvation. (Chapter 4: The Scandal of Grace.)
  • Faith is not about a system of belief, it is about faithfulness to the way of Jesus, dedicating our lives to following Christ’s will. (Chapter 5: The Danger of Theology)
  • Living in a created world means that there is no separation between sacred and secular, for everything in this world belongs to God and can be redeemed for God’s good purpose. (Chapter 6: All Things Are Spiritual)
  • Too much religious practice and teaching aims to explain God, rather than proclaim and stand in awe at God’s mystery and majesty. (Chapter 7: Mystery and Paradox)
  • The church is to be a continuation of the Jesus movement today, not an institution to preserve truth. (Chapter 8: The Church As Subversive Community)
  • The Jesus movement claims truth wherever it finds it, in all aspects of culture, not just those labeled “Christian.” (Chapter 9: The Redemption of Culture)
  • We cannot convert people by words and arguments—we must show them God’s love and grace by practicing it and living it out in the world. (Chapter 10: Show and Tell)

The Jesus of Suburbia was a fascinating point of connection for me with an evangelical perspective. Erre and I share many similar concerns over the face of Christianity in America today. While we also have fundamental disagreements on social issues and probably about the way in which the Bible is authoritative, we both understand that Jesus makes radical, life-changing demands upon his followers. We agree that Christ’s followers should always live with a degree of unease in our relationships with the world around us, particularly with anything that resembles the wealth or power of empire. However we understand the peculiarities of theology, all of Christianity is endangered if we accept a diminished, non-threatening, easy-going understanding of Jesus Christ.

(Also, for the record, the book makes no reference or any connection with Green Day’s epic song “Jesus of Suburbia” from American Idiot.)

Copyright oracorac, flickr.com

Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”

We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”

As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.

A church map to help orient newcomers, filled with words I don't even know.

We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand,  but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class.  While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.

It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?

I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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