â€œWhere are you from?â€ Thatâ€™s a standard question we ask each other when we meet new people. My two most common answers are, â€œAround,â€ and â€œA small town in southern Illinois, though Iâ€™ve never lived there.â€ Both are the consequences of growing up in a military family â€“ and a desire to extend the conversation.
Geographically Iâ€™ve lived in California, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Japan, Korea, Maryland, Kentucky and Texas. In my formative years, however, it wasnâ€™t so much the geography that mattered but the regular moving and the two types of culture I experienced. Being a military family, we spent some years living on base (in Japan & Korea). Though these were outposts of American culture, we daily experienced reminders that we werenâ€™t in America: no English language TV, different money, and strange smells to name just a few. From my perspective as a child it was all a great adventure.
From the time we moved back to the US in 1972 until I finished high school, I lived in suburbia. After high school, I spent my next seven years in a third type of culture: academia. One of the best classes I took in those years was my mission anthropology course. Dr. Whiteman taught us that every culture shapes the way we live life, interact with God, and do church. My Annual Conference, being firmly committed to cross cultural ministry, considered my experience on military bases, American suburbia and academia and sent me to â€“ small town East Texas! The closest Iâ€™d ever come to living in the country was when we lived in Hayama. In case youâ€™re not up on your geography, thatâ€™s in Japan. Itâ€™s across the peninsula from Yokosuka. The emperor has a palace there (on the beach). It might have been a small town, but it wasnâ€™t any closer to the culture of East Texas than any place else Iâ€™d lived.
While my experience hadnâ€™t prepared me specifically for small town East Texas, the great diversity and constant moving of my childhood, combined with training in mission anthropology did keep me from culture shock. (It also helped a lot that my wife grew up in East Texas. Itâ€™s great to have an in-house informant.) Iâ€™ve lived enough places now that Iâ€™m pretty adaptable. I can see the benefits of most places.
Of late, there has been a renaissance movement both toward the (large) city and the small town â€“ to the detriment of the suburb. As one raised in suburbia, Iâ€™m not always happy to have my (former) way of life impugned. Usually itâ€™s condemned as an inauthentic way of life. If one wants authentic culture, the big city is the place to be. If one wants to have deep relationships and be closer to nature, the small town is the place to be. The suburbs fake culture with their housing developments, and fake nature with their large yards. While my experience has made me a cultural relativist in this particular fight, Iâ€™ve just run across a book by Dave Goetz that approaches the â€œproblem of the suburbsâ€ from a Christian point of view. His website posts 8 sets of â€œtoxinsâ€ and the â€œpracticesâ€ that overcome them. From my point of view, they will valuable to many of us, whether weâ€™re in the suburbs or have the suburbs living in us.
Toxin 1 â€“ â€œI am in control of my lifeâ€
Practice â€“ The Prayer of Silence
Toxin 2 â€“ â€œI am what I do and what I ownâ€
Practice â€“ The Journey through the Self
Toxin 3 â€“ â€œI want my neighborâ€™s lifeâ€
Practice â€“ Friendship with the poor
Toxin 4 â€“ â€œMy life should be easier than it isâ€
Practice â€“ Accepting my cross with grace and patience
Toxin 5 â€“ â€œI need to make a difference with my lifeâ€
Practice â€“ Pursuing action, not results
Toxin 6 â€“ â€œMy church is the problemâ€
Practice â€“ Staying put in your church
Toxin 7 â€“ â€œWhat will this relationship do for me?â€
Practice â€“ Building deep friendships
Toxin 8 â€“ â€œI need to get more done in less timeâ€
Practice â€“ Falling in love with a day
Whether these â€œtoxinsâ€ are peculiar to suburbia or are more generally endemic to the current American ethos, my guess is that many of us have been negatively affected by at least some of them. If youâ€™d like to explore how Goetz develops each of these, you can check out his website, or better, read his book, Death By Suburb.