In the disconnected worlds of suburban living, we often assume different identities based on which end of our commute we happen to be on. At work, we are employee or boss. At home, we are mom or dad. We interact as friend or activist in public places, and at church, we become the congregrate. But one identity we suburbanites cannot escape, no matter where we find ourselves, is “consumer.” In our materialistic culture, there’s always something to buy that will “make us better” in every area of our lives.

According to Al Hsu, in chapter four of The Suburban Christian, the very structure of suburbia itself means those who live between the city and the farm are especially susceptible to the temptations of consumerism. The reasons? For one, our lives are not conducive to producing anything, so we have to consume.

“The very housing structures of suburbia itself contribute to consumer culture because of the primacy of the single-family home. Rather than the homestead being a place of production, the single-family home is a place of consumption, necessarily fueled by wages to support a consumption-centered lifestyle” (TSC, pg 75).

Another cultural force leading us toward consumerism is specialization, which goes much deeper than suburbia. Al describes it like this, “Most of us have jobs that segment out one particular task or area of production or service. Since we cannot easily barter our work as dry cleaners or accountants to obtain oil changes or spaghetti sauce, we now have money as the common unit of commerce and trade . . . . Thus it is nearly impossible for any one of us to create rather than consume or purchase any of the items we use and rely on in daily life.”

Wendell Berry, in his essay “Living in the Future: The ‘Modern’ Agricultural Ideal,” would agree, seeing this segmentation of society damaging in our areas of our country.

“I have already spoken of the highly simplified role of the modern household with respect to the production and preparation of food: it has set itself increasingly aside from the production and preparation and become more and more a place for the consumption of food produced and prepared elsewhere. But this setting aside of the nest or residence from the sources of life is more general and even more serious than that would indicate. The modern home, even more than the government and universities, has institutionalized the divisions and fragmentations of modern life” (The Unsettling of America, pg. 51).

I remember my growing up places as being centers of production, allowing for both creativity and creation. We always had a large garden, and even when I was very young, my parents set aside a small space for me to grow some vegetables. (It wasn’t until later in life that I appreciated the work involved with gardening, however!) The food we couldn’t eat during the growing season was canned or frozen for winter, and must of the things we ate every day were prepared from their most basic ingredients. But more than that, must of my clothing was homemade; even some of our furniture was built by my dad or handed down from previous relatives who had constructed things with care. And I was given great latitude to create from paper and wood and string all the wonderful things children are wont to make.

This kind of lifestyle was one suggestion that Al shared in The Suburban Christian for countering the cultural influence of consumerism. Rather than being chiefly identified as consumers, we should try to become creators or producers in as many ways as we can. This not only takes us out of the consumer cycle, which always has a newer or better product for us to buy. It also helps us bear God’s image to each other and the culture at large.

Of course we aren’t all going to be able to raise chickens or spin wool, but we can exercise our creativity by creating and building things, even things we need. I have a small garden which will provide for some of my own food over the summer; I also try to make my own bread when possible. My mom makes all of her own greeting cards (like Al’s wife, as he mentions in the book). And my dad has made several pieces of furniture for his own home and mine. I have friends who knit and crochet, making practical items for themselves and others. Another friend made all the window coverings in her home.

As Al says, “All of us have different ways that we express our creativity; all of us can be makes of one thing or another” (TSC, pg. 88).

Photo of Verray’s working hands by me

SUBURBAN CHRISTIAN LINKS:

LL’s “That Creativity Thing”

Al’s “Consumer Culture vs. Christian Creativity”