The Myth of the American Dream, D. L. Mayfield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.
Summary: A collection of Christian reflections chronicling the author’s awakening to the ways the American dream neither works for everyone nor reflects the values of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated.
D. L. Mayfield reminds me of Tara Westover, author of Educated. Both were homeschooled in strongly religious backgrounds, albeit far more healthy and functional in the case of Mayfield. What distinguishes them are their very different awakenings, Westover to a love of learning that led her to Harvard and Cambridge, and Mayfield to an awakening to how the structures of the American Dream neither reflected her Christian commitments nor worked well for many in the north Portland neighborhood where she and her husband lived.
Mayfield describes this “American Dream” in terms of four concrete values: affluence, autonomy, safety and power. She recognizes that the proclamation of Jubilee of Jesus in Luke 4 speaks to people whose lives are characterized by just the opposite: the poor, the captive, the blind, and and the oppressed.
Perhaps the most winsome aspect of these essays is that the author takes us through the deconstructing of these American Dream values in her own life. Teaching English to immigrant women, she learns by the annoying ringing of phones what it means to live from paycheck to paycheck in an affluent society. She watches the struggles of her neighbors to meet rising rents in gentrifying Portland. She finds her autonomy challenged by Maryan, whose “magic pot” gets shared around the community and is preferred by her and all to the Insta-pot Mayfield thought would make her life better and more self-sustaining. Instead of the free range educational experience of her youth, she understands the critical important of her neighborhood public school to her community.
Perhaps at no time in history has a concern for safety been greater. It has led us to close our borders and fear of the other. Yet we have a 1 in 6 chance of dying of heart disease, 1 in 7 of cancer, but 1 in 3.6 million of dying in a terrorist attack. Yet the reality of the refugee experience turned Mayfield’s perspective around as she came to understand the dangers these people had endured. She describes how she and her mother experienced the welcome of Muslim families, and found herself hoping for her children that they would so learn in these experiences the love of Christ: “that they are known and valued and love.”
She speaks trenchantly of the deleterious effects of American power on the evangelical faith of her upbringing:
Empire focuses on ideological sameness: make the narrative easy, make it clear. Pharaoh will save you. Caesar will put bread in your belly. The president will make our country great again. This leads to small, deformed imaginations–I see it in how White evangelical Christianity has been tangled up in the same pull toward greatness, toward power, toward viewing ourselves as specially anointed by God to rule the world, to hold and be in charge. This leads to a sense of scarcity, a hallmark of pharaohs throughout the centuries: the all consuming fear of losing power. I have seen it in the fights for religious liberty that excludes those who aren’t Christian, in the narrative that says we are losing the culture war and must fight with every tooth and nail to hold our ground…. But most important is the belief that exile is a reality to be ignored and feared at all costs, a strange ideological position for those who claim to follow the God of the Israelites (p. 147).
Mayfield challenges us in another essay in this section to learn from the exiles, including exiles from the American Dream like Ida B. Wells, black anti-lynching crusader who had to flee her business and home in Memphis because of threats on her life. She reminds us that Christians are aliens and exiles in the world enthralled with the vision of our coming King, who look for its coming, not in affluence, autonomy, safety and power, but through the cracks in the sidewalks, the neglected yet joyful schools, poor and yet interdependent neighbors, all anticipating the New City to come.
The phrase that characterizes Mayfield’s writing for me is “raw elegance.” It is raw with the realities of her city and elegant in the depth of reflectiveness that looks beyond failed myths, and the poverty of her community, to glimpse the dream of a greater kingdom. It is a time where the flaws and inadequacies of the American dream have been exposed in its dependence on excessive consumerism built on systemic inequities, and where our impregnable safety and power has been riddled by a microscopic virus. Voices like Mayfield’s are needed to point us to a better dream–one large enough to encompass the poor, the captive, the blind, and the powerless–all of us really. Will we fight to cling to what we must ultimately lose, or listen to what will save us?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.