A Brief Review of
Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture.
Paperback: U of California Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
“I’m rockin’ the suburbs
Just like Quiet Riot did
I’m rockin’ the suburbs
Except that they were talented
I’m rockin’ the suburbs…” — Ben Folds
The story that Eileen Luhr tells in her new book Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture is a familiar one for me, because it was in essence the story in which I grew up. This story is described by Luhr in the book’s introduction:
This book is a history of the suburbanization of evangelicalism and the “Christianization” of popular culture – twin pillars of the conservative shift in national politics during the Reagan-Bush era … [It] contrasts the old Christian Right – with its dogmatic resistance to youth culture per se – and the new “rock” evangelicalism, which embraced cutting-edge cultural forms and media in order to institute moral reform and broaden the impact of its proselytizing efforts. These processes, in turn, abetted a hegemonic conservative politics grounded in uniting possessive individualism with home-centered “traditional values” (5).
Although Witnessing Suburbia is intended largely for academic audiences, Luhr tells the basic narrative in a compelling and very readable fashion, and we would do well to read it carefully and reflect on it in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are many disturbing themes that Luhr unmasks here, but in short we begin to see the many syncretisms of American evangelicalism in the eighties and nineties – inextricably mixing the Christian faith up with right-wing politics, individualistic consumerism and family-based traditionalism.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, I grew up in this era (graduating high school in 1992) and to a large extent was a Christian swept up in the youth culture of the times. For several years, the primary genre of music that I enjoyed was Christian Heavy Metal (incidentally the subject of one of the book’s finest chapters). Although I was on the fringes of this movement, I never really got sucked into the mainstream of Christian youth culture, and indeed it was perhaps my familiarity with the broader youth culture (particularly punk music, and its frankness in revealing the powers that be) that help me resist such an assimilation. I’m sure it helped too that I never exactly fit the economic mold of middle-class suburban culture. Luhr’s work here is brilliant, illuminating the dark depths of a history that has gone largely unnoticed. I hope that it will spur in Christian circles much reflection on the Gospel and culture. Luhr’s narrative in Witnessing Suburbia reveals a lot of “being conformed to the pattern of the world” (Rom 12:2) in recent evangelicalism, and in illuminating this cultural domestication, it has the potential to nudge us in the direction of transformation and the renewal of our minds.