Review: The Myth of the American Dream

The Myth of the American Dream

The Myth of the American DreamD. 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?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Less of More

less is more

Less of MoreChris Nye. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that the American dream is making us miserable and that the vision of the kingdom turns the American dream upside down, leading us to a truly rich life.

Chris Nye proposes that the American dream is killing us. Visions of unlimited growth are pressing up against the operating limits of the only place where we can live. Depression and suicide among the young are rising. Our politics are mired in discord pitting groups who share a common citizenship against one another. Nye writes, “we never had more than we do now, and we’ve never been more depressed about it,”

Nye’s challenge in this book is the counter-cultural message of Jesus that we must lose our lives to save them. He contends that the American dreams of growth, self-sufficiency, fame, power, and wealth are gained at the cost of our souls. In chapters on each of these “dreams” he articulates the alternative the gospel of Jesus offers.

He speaks to our infatuation with growth, especially the infatuation among Christians with church growth and measuring goodness by bigness. He counters that the message of the gospel is one of “pace,” of keeping pace with God’s often slow but certain work of transformation. He challenges the hyper-individualism of our culture and the idea that we are more connected than ever with the reality that many are more isolated than ever. He observes the gospel alternative of the connectedness of the welcoming table. He contrasts the quest for fame and gaining a name for oneself with the practice of hiddenness and the downward journey exemplified by Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier at the L’Arch Communities.

The culture defines greatness in terms of power. Nye proposes the humble and vulnerable community, where we reveal rather than hide weakness, and stoop to serve and protect each other. Finally we define ourselves by how much we are worth, by the wealth we have accumulated. Nye invites us to discover that while saving might feel good, giving feels great.

Nye concludes with a pointed challenge. Despite dreams of American greatness, history tells us that the American Epoch will end, the Empire will fall. Christian hope has survived the fall of every empire and challenges us to consider to which we have given our allegiance. He writes, “To follow Jesus is to follow him out of America and into the kingdom of God, from our own weak, man-made houses and into the mansions he has built that await us.”

I wouldn’t be surprised that there is pushback to this book (and perhaps this review). We want both the American dream and to have Jesus to as our eternal insurance policy. It seems to me that Nye is on good ground here in arguing that these are diametrically opposed to one another and that we can’t have both. Jesus himself said that we can’t have two masters, and the truth is that both the American dream and the call of the kingdom of God are a call to serve a master. But Nye goes further. He names the things that make are making us miserable, and the alternative life of the kingdom that restores wholeness. Nye diagnoses our American sickness. The question is whether we will recognize our dis-ease, and what can make us well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: A Shooting Star

shooting starSabrina Castro is the wealthy and attractive wife of a Pasadena physician and also the offspring of a transplanted New England family that found wealth but never a sense of purpose. Life begins to unravel for Sabrina after twelve years of childless marriage as a “trophy” wife when she takes a vacation in Mexico and has an affair with a married man.
Torn between her New England family rectitude and her frustrations, she confesses her affair and yet refuses to utterly break it off, until she sees the other husband for who he is, one who won’t sacrifice his family but wants a bit of something “on the side”. Meanwhile the marriage continues to unravel and with this, Sabrina’s life as she goes on an alcoholic binge, ends up sheltering in the home of a Tahoe dog-boarder, and finally comes home to her mother’s house and the conflicts within her own family.

Underneath it all is the emptiness of Sabrina’s life, rich, and idle, barren (until she discovers she is pregnant by the errant husband) and purposeless. She reconnects with her good friend, Barbara and her husband Leonard, who have worked their way up from poverty to respectable middle-class life in a new suburban community nearby. The book title comes from an evening spent with this family watching a meteor shower and seems a kind of metaphor for the question of her life–will she spectacularly flame out and fade?

The story moves between discovery and despair as she grope to re-establish some kind of relationship with her aging mother separated from her husband early in the marriage, her ambitious brother who would turn the family land into a subdivision of tract homes, and her husband with whom she fails to reconcile. The story reaches a climax on the night Barbara gives birth, Sabrina sits her other children, and Leonard comes home to a drunken and distraught Sabrina. I will leave it to the reader to discover whether Sabrina flames out or survives and what this means for those around her.

The story, set in the late 1950s, explores the discontents of those who have achieved the American dream yet found it wanting. At another level, Stegner as a writer of “place”, explores the changing landscape driven by car culture with its attendant freeways, suburban sprawl, growing pollution, and the destruction of natural habitats to make way for tract homes. While this latter element is in the backdrop, it also reveals the illusions and follies of the American dream and its inability to give us either good purposes or good places.