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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.)

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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