Friday, June 18, 2010

Has Your American Dream Been Truly Born-again?

There are some sins that every culture seems to be blind to. Like the proverbial frog in a kettle who jumps out if the water is too hot, but is slowly boiled to death if the water temperature is raised slowly, American Christians never realize how insidious the "American Dream" culture is. We get wrapped up in a culture that pickles our spirits and keeps us from ever truly thinking about how caught up in the greed culture really are.

Here's an article from Kairos journal to help wake us up.

McMansions and the American Family

Michael Frisby lives in a “McMansion.” His home, nestled in Fulton, Maryland (between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore), sits three stories high, boasts 11,000 square feet, and includes amenities such as a wine cellar, a bedroom larger than most apartments, a music room, a gym, and a sauna. He has achieved his dream: “I always wanted a house big enough that my kids could be in their room screaming, and my wife could be in a room screaming, and I could be somewhere else and not hear any of them.”1

Burgeoning home size is not limited to those with the means to purchase “McMansions,” however. The average family home in 2004 was 2,349 square feet. In 1974, it was 1,695 square feet.2 That is a growth of almost 40 percent. Kitchens have doubled in size, and bedrooms have grown from an average of 9 feet by 10 feet to 12 by 12. All of this while the average family size has declined from 3.1 to 2.6 people.3

Why have houses grown by 40 percent in 30 years and more than doubled since the 1950s?4 Undoubtedly, multiple issues come into play. Some people cite context, explaining that wealth creates a frame of reference for what is normal and needed. For instance, a modest home in America would be considered a mansion if placed in an African village.5 Also, if parents want to raise their children in a certain environment—in a reputable school district, for example—they may have to purchase a large home because that is all that is available in the district. Because of these and other factors, scholars such as Robert Frank of Cornell University insist that growing home size is deeper than just “keeping up with the Joneses.”6 In fact, it may point to a desire to establish a self-defined “heaven” on earth; the way homes are built communicates what people think is important and how they think they can achieve a good life.7

These trends often have unintended consequences for families. Since the growth in average home size does not at all reflect a growth in family size, the result is more house for less people. As Frisby noted above, a large house means that family members can easily isolate themselves. John Stilgoe, a Harvard professor, sees a problem: “The big house represents the atomizing of the American family.”8 Not surprisingly, 90% of college freshmen have never shared a bedroom before moving in with their roommates.9

These big houses are also being filled with more and more luxury items. Builder Pat Trunzo takes pride in several of the large homes he has built. The biggest was more than 30,000 square feet and included 21 bathrooms. He observes, “One of the crazy things they did was [decide] that the kids needed a little flat-screen TV in their bathroom.”10

Not only does the larger size enable people to avoid each other in the home, the cost of the home often leads to two problems. First, the need for extra income can pull one or both parents into more and more work, removing them even further from their children. Second, buying more luxury than a family can afford can lead to financial crisis when the mortgage simply cannot be paid. As evidenced in the U.S., these housing decisions can have a huge negative impact on a national economy.

While owning nice things such as a large house is not a sin in itself, Christians must be brutally honest about both hidden motives and unintended consequences. The fact that the average home size is growing is not wrong, but it can stem from a desire to create “heaven on earth” or to “get away” from God-given responsibilities (such as children). Indeed, it may lead to the unintended consequence of the breakdown of family relationships. Such relationships are vital to the Christian family life—whether that life is lived in a “McMansion” or in a small village house in Africa.


Margot Adler, “Behind the Ever-Expanding American Dream House,” National Public Radio Website, July 4, 2006, (accessed June 3, 2010).


“America’s Homes Get Bigger and Better,” ABC News Website, December 27, 2005, (accessed June 3, 2010).










For more discussion on the relation of architecture and religion, see Philip Bess, Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).




“Sharing a Dorm with a Total Stranger,” Just Colleges Website, (accessed June 3, 2010).



No comments: