Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Small Is Beautiful?

David Brooks got religion, albeit a tad late. Brooks column yesterday was called "The Gospel of Wealth," and he used it, in part, to praise David Platt's book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.
Platt leads a megachurch -- more than 4,000 members -- and has begun to call megachurches into question. Brooks quotes what I imagine is the heart of Platt's critique: “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”
Brooks observes that the first decade of the new century saw Americans buying "bulbous vehicles like Hummers and Suburbans. The rule was, The Smaller the Woman, the Bigger the Car — so you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders."
But that image is too cute by more than half. Brooks seems to conveniently forget Arnold Schwarzenegger buying one of the first Hummers off the GM production line in 1992. Seeing Arnold posing beside his trophy vehicle one might even think that we hop into our four-wheeled behemoths, look down over the road, tune in our satellite radios and worship ourselves on the church of the great American highway.
Brooks is a smart man, and I'm sure he knows that the trends he identifies with the 2000s began well before Y2K. The SUV trend began even before Arnold bought his first Hummer, and as far back as 2000 sociologists were noting that over the previous 50 years the size of the average American family had declined by half while the size of the average American single-family home had more than doubled from a bit smaller than 1,000 square feet to about 2,500 square feet.
The excesses of the materialist American Dream are not a post 9-11 phenomenon, and believing in a golden age of balance does not mean that there ever was such an age. There is a reason that the last generation has been called the Second Gilded Age. Unchecked excess drove the American economy into the ditch in the late 1800s. This is truly nothing new under the sun, even though the SUVs may be only a few decades old.
The same is true of those McMansions in the exurbs with all of the SUVs in their driveways. I don't know if Realtors have the same market research, but vehicle manufacturers had strong opinions about SUV purchasers by the early 2000s. Malcolm Gladwell cites Keith Bradshear's 2004 book, High and Mighty:
According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills.

Brooks doesn't say, but he could, that lots of those bulbous vehicles find their way from McMansion driveways to the parking decks of suburban megachurches every weekend. I don't know if that is necessarily true of Platt's Brook Hills church but I will note that when I looked it up on Google Maps the first vehicle on the street view was a late-model SUV.
Could it be that the suburban megachurch phenomenon is closely related to the megahouse and megavehicle trends? Does it all reflect a deep-seated insecurity that has been with us a lot longer than the Bush-era paranoia that may, itself, simply be magnifying underlying fearfulness?
It is no surprise that a thoughtful, faithful leader such as Platt appears to be would find something missing in the megachurch setting. Fear is the opposite of faith, and in the midst of so much striving for security fear feels rampant. It's hard to be faithful when everyone around you is so scared.
In the face of this, what might the "small house movement" be telling us about the future of faith? I imagine that most of the houses where Jesus broke bread and received gracious hospitality were closer in size and scale to those of the small house movement than to McMansions, and surely house churches were the norm of an early Christianity that could never have imagined today's megachurches.
So, Mr. Brooks, welcome to the party. Better late than never.