Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture
The short disclaimer is this: I grew up in a family filled with the Holy Spirit. My grandfathers were, respectively, a theology professor and a youth and music minister. One of my uncles, after making his name founding a Phoenix-area megachurch in the '90s, currently works as a professional church-grower, teaching other pastors how to rapidly expand their soon-to-be behemoth congregations of believers. I have attended international youth conventions and camp meetings, and on family vacations, we used to visit landmarks like Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral and the Christian DisneyLand, Knott’s Berry Farm. Now agnostic and estranged from most of my family, I nevertheless find that studying my roots is both personally enlightening and a crucial component of understanding modern cultural warfare in the United States.
In Witnessing Suburbia, Eileen Luhr traces the suburbanization of modern evangelism, exploring how evangelical Christians have become increasingly consumption-oriented and have expertly engaged in a “Christianization” of popular culture. With the 1980's Christian exoduses to the suburbs came a two-part evolution of identity. In addition to staking their exurb areas as heathen-free, family-centric zones, suburban Christians also became focused on the individualization of living space. Believing piety for the larger world must first be learned at home, evangelical Christians became some of the strongest defenders of “homeowner rights.” Many Christians were among the first to adopt doctrines of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Value of the physical home and the values that existed in those homes became inextricably linked.
As many suburban Christians staked their physical territory, large groups of those believers also became engaged in cultural activism to widely promote their home-grown ideals. In order to reclaim public space for sacred values, a number of Christian groups decided to take an anthropological missions-based approach: by investigating and becoming one with secular culture, it would be possible to infiltrate and influence. One aspect of this political campaigning took root in deconstructing rock and heavy metal music. Convinced of music’s duality—weapon of the devil or of Jesus, never neutral—a number of evangelical Christians believed they had found the ultimate battleground on which to wage war for the souls of the unsaved.
The most fascinating part of Luhr’s analysis—which is difficult to quantify, as there are many enthralling subsections within deeply researched chapters of multilayered histories—is the contradiction between how evangelical adults relate to their youthful counterparts. Seen both as needing protection and also as active leaders in religious reformation, an enormous spiritual burden has long been placed on young people. Perhaps this alone explains why religious teens have at times turned to heavy metal, albeit Christian in nature.
Throughout her deconstruction of religious heavy metal, Luhr details many Christian activist mainstream successes of the past three decades, including the rise of Focus on the Family and the anti-porn 7-Eleven boycotts of the mid-1980s. (Ever wonder why you can’t get Hustler at an American 7-Eleven? Thank an evangelical Christian.) Both positioning themselves as cultural saviors and persecuted martyrs, evangelicals were able to balance a number of contradictions in their public campaigns. Anything that served to set them further apart from the mainstream reinforced their outsider status; in reality, major Christian organizations and networks were growing rapidly and gaining immense cultural power. Yet within these larger contexts, alternative Christian culture warriors were also engaged in their own rebranding of their message. You can love Jesus and also love to rock.
From Christian zines of the '80s to the success of metal bands like Stryper, Luhr expertly explores this specific counterculture within the dominant Christian activism of the past twenty-five years. Academic in content and tone, Luhr’s writing is captivating in its intellectual scope and in the ways it ties together complex concepts. Particularly engaging for reformed believers, Witnessing Suburbia is a fascinating and informative page-turner.