Fathom Mag

Embracing Exile in the Suburbs

A review of Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales

Published on:
November 19, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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More than half a million people live within the sixty square mile piece of land where I live. Staten Island, my native borough, is bigger population-wise than the entire population of some U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, New Orleans, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Portland. But according to the rest of New York City, I reside in a suburb. The main subway arteries of NYC don’t connect Staten Island to the rest of what happens in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. The result is a strange alchemy of experience that combines much of the worst of the suburbs (inaccessibility, cloistering, consumerism) with the worst of city life (high cost of living, pollution, oppressive population density). It’s impossible to explain where I live to anyone who doesn’t live here, although I’ve wasted a lot of words trying. 

Since I’ve got complicated feelings about the use of the word “suburbs”—whom it includes, whom it leaves out, what it’s evolving to mean—I expected to find Ashley Hales’s book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much, somewhat unrelatable to my life, a huge chunk of which is spent impatiently reading on the large orange barge called the Staten Island Ferry. 

I could not have been more wrong. 

Suburban Christians Are Christians Too

Hales transforms suburban gates into a metaphor for a life that covets safety, ownership, and belonging instead of forgiveness, generosity, and acceptance. And that metaphor applies wherever you’re standing, even if you’re late to work and brimming with impatience while the waves propel your boat toward the Manhattan skyline. She doesn’t merely long for the dissolution of middle-class enmity or lament the state of American evangelicalism as a cluster of drunkenness and sloth. With elegance, clarity, and compassion, Hales points out the obvious conflicting values of a life surrendered to Jesus and a life commandeered by the American dream. And while she has you nodding your head so hard it feels like it might fall off, she gently lifts your chin and points to a better way. 

Listen, I know suburban people can be Christians, just like I can be a Christian, but I’d be lying if I said this conclusion comes to me naturally. I’ve often wondered, as I’ve driven through the upscale condominium land of Northern Jersey, what its residents are living for. It seems to be a completely self-sustaining ecosystem, a contained environment that keeps itself going for no greater purpose than to simply exist. Hales answers my wondering with the acknowledgment that yes, suburban life can be as banal and narcissistic as it looks from the outside. But it can also provide an opportunity to lay everything down, to practice sacrificial living, to reclaim Jesus in ways that are subversive and even a little bit brave. 

Each chapter begins with personal stories from Hales’s life as a mother of four and a native daughter of the suburbs where she and her husband work to plant a church in California. Subsequent chapters build upon one another to chart a lovely narrative arc that begins by addressing personal consumerism and ends extending a vision for neighborhood shalom. Hales retells Bible stories in imaginative, poetic language that leaves breathing room for personal contemplation. The essay-length chapters end, not with discussion questions, but with what Hales calls “counter liturgies”: actionable steps that ground the book’s observations in the architecture of our lives. 

As migrant caravans march toward our border to escape a ruthless gang born in the prisons of LA, and as the orphans of Yemen die starving without the energy to let out so much as a cry before leaving this earth, Hales’s chapter on the suburban worship of safety is especially timely. “All of our own methods of obtaining safety still leave us fearful,” she writes, adding a few paragraphs later, “The kingdom of God isn’t meant for those obsessed with safety.” 

While we grapple with the influence of our love for comfort and wealth on our priorities, Hales points out that this struggle, however privileged it may be, holds blessings. “Experiencing existential exile, even in the suburbs, is a gift because it points to our shared human homesickness.”

This Book Is For You

Almost all of what God has to tell us counters human nature. The suburbs provide an unparalleled opportunity to fight against our craven instincts and to angle our hopes upward. “When our churches preach self-actualization and self-help, when our homes are large, our bank accounts steady, and our beauty the key to belonging, we position ourselves as heroes in our own life story,” Hales writes. “When instead God leads us into smallness, we not only see that our gains are God’s alone, but also we begin to have eyes to see others.”

Hales’s sharp observations articulate the feeling of proximity to the humiliating amount of wealth and narcissism the suburbs can harbor. While many books about Christian living take on the tone of a lecturer, scolding readers about their hubris without a trace of self-awareness, Hales avoids this trap by writing out of her own experience with honesty. The result is a book that vibrates with the pulse of real wisdom—the kind of perspective that is not easily won, but is graciously, generously shared. 

Hales’s publisher, InterVarsity Press, markets Finding Holy in the Suburbs as a Christian Life/Personal Growth book. And to that I say, good for IVP. It might not be the most intuitive move—Hales is a mother and much of the book talks about parenthood from the perspective of a woman—but don’t let the purple and pink cover design deter you from picking up a copy. This  is not a book defined by its author’s gender. It’s for men, it’s for women, it’s for city-dwellers, it’s for expats. It’s for all of us trying to live holier lives in exile everywhere. It’s for you. 

Finding Holy in the Suburbs gives me new hope for contemplative writing on the intersection of contemporary social issues, our lived experience, and spirituality. Hales’s voice is both on the ground and in the clouds, narrating from the front seat of her minivan before telescoping out to address big spiritual questions. The questions may seem different when our souls are rooted in the rich soil of American prosperity, but they are no different from the souls that sprout from other worldly soils. 

Kate Watson
Kathryn Watson writes full-time about art, books, technology, and culture. Find all of her unpopular opinions on Twitter @whatkathrynsaid.

Cover photo by Gustavo Zambelli.

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