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Contentment in an Age of Excess
By WILL SAMSON
David C. CookCopyright © 2009 Will Samson
All rights reserved.
People Consumed by Stuff
One day Jesus was walking down Main Street on his way out of town, and a rich and influential young lawyer came up to him and asked him: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
And Jesus replied, "Give what you can to the synagogue. Ten percent is a good rule of thumb, but whatever you do, don't be a legalist about it. And make sure you have enough left over to contribute to the economy. You know, 'Give to Caesar ...'"
And the man went away very happy, because that was exactly what he was already doing.
* * *
There are over one hundred brands of deodorant at my grocery store. I counted.
I have ADD—attention deficit disorder. One person recently described the disorder as hearing five different television sets going off in your head, all at once. And, with each American viewing over thirty thousand different media messages a day, myself included, those five TVs in my head are all blaring, "Buy something."
My main goal in seeking out deodorant at the grocery store was simply to not smell bad. I didn't really want to smell like anything—I just didn't want to smell. But the deodorant aisle was an attention-deficit nightmare. I found seventeen different choices of unscented deodorant alone: different colors, different names, different claims to keep me from sweating, or block odor, or to last long. Lord, have mercy.
And I really mean that—Lord, have mercy. I was never really allowed to use phrases like that growing up. I guess it sounded too much like blasphemy. But that little prayer has become part of my inner dialogue. It is a great shorthand call for the divine in places where things seem to have gone amok. Like the deodorant aisle at my grocery store.
Lord, have mercy. In Latin it is Kyrie Eleison. This is the start of a prayer the Christian church has uttered for most of her life. And we need God's mercy in this time. How have we come as a culture to need more than one hundred choices of deodorant? And deodorant is hardly the least of our problems.
We seem to have made a mess of things. As I write this, our economy is hung over from an orgy of spending brought about by cheap money financed by rising home prices and government spending. Gasoline for our cars is approaching four dollars a gallon. Costco has a limit on the number of bags of rice shoppers can buy per day because of a global shortage. Thousands of children will die around the globe tonight from what Jeffrey Sachs calls "stupid" hunger—something easily preventable. Lord, have mercy.
Is there enough for everyone? This is an important economic question, and in our discussion here I am certainly going to try to address the question from an economic perspective. But it is not just an economic question, is it? In fact, the question of whether there are sufficient resources in this world may be one of the most important theological questions of our time. How we answer it reveals much regarding our belief about the character of God: who we think God is, how we think God provides for the creation, and what role humans play in that work—this all relates directly to our understanding of God.
In this book I hope to narrate two distinct visions. The first is a vision of people and communities whose lives are out of whack and who are consumed by stuff. Our view of God and our understanding of the way we participate in God's work in the world have become distorted, and we have transformed ourselves into unthinking consumers of products, ideas, and cultural narratives about what will bring us happiness.
The second is a view of people and communities who are guided, and even made more whole, by a vision of God and God's work in the world by which they are consumed. Our decisions regarding what resources and how many of those resources we use are not rooted in oversimplified categories of "more or less," but instead are nourished by a story of a God who is sufficient, active in the world, and forming a community of co-laborers to manage the created order.
The differences between these two views—consumed by stuff and a community consumed by a holistic vision of God's sufficiency—are not simply practical distinctions. I will not, here in these pages, advocate a life lived in balance, or a vision of people and communities consumed by God because it helps proselytize for Christianity. And I am not advocating a life lived in balance because it lowers our electric bills. These differences have an impact on the very story we tell—the story about God, the work of Christ, and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
I am also not talking about two different stories that can be neatly separated. We do not choose one over the other. Instead, we live somewhere between these two understandings. My prayer in writing these words is that you would become more and more consumed by the vision of a God who is enough, and that you would move more and more toward communities shaped by this vision.
But at some point in a book about consumption, we need to talk about stuff. Stuff is a word I am going to employ often through these pages. I use it as a kind of shorthand for the things that gunk up our lives, things that make our lives more complicated without making us more whole. Stuff is also used as a kind of shorthand for a perspective of people and communities who are more characterized by consuming than by being consumed by God. This allows us to speak of the concept without having to reference big, long explanations each time.
Without taking too great a definitional detour, perhaps I should also pause here and talk about what I mean by the word consume. That is another word that will receive a lot of ink on these pages, and it is never safe to assume that you and I hold the same definitions for the words we use. And what do we do with all the other words, like consumption and consumerism? Well, let me shoot off a few quick definitions before we move on:
Consume: to use something. This can be good or bad, and depends on the context.
Consumption: the act of using something. This, too, can be good or bad, depending on the context.
Consumerism: a way of thinking about stuff that believes the consumption of things—food, cars, ideas in books, new models of church—is what will really, finally make us content. This is always a bad concept.
THE STORY OF STUFF
So let us speak, then, of stuff. How much do we consume? Why do we consume so much? What hole in our lives are we attempting to fill? And is consumption just about the products we buy at Wal-Mart?
The answer to the first question, "How much do we consume?" is an easy one—we consume more than at any time in history. It is rare when we get to make such a bold historical statement. But the simple fact is that we are in a time of unprecedented buying of things, consumption such as has never been before.
In 2003 nearly 50 percent of American household expenditures were for "nonnecessity" items. Compare this to the 21 percent of nonnecessity spending in 1901 and 35 percent of nonnecessity spending in 1960. We are spending more than ever as a nation on items we don't need, but we sure do want. In 2004 American consumers spent $2.2 trillion on entertainment, and $782 billion of that on televisions, radios, and sound equipment. In 2005 we spent $86 billion on sporting goods, including $852 million on snowmobiles and $338 million on archery equipment. (Archery equipment? Really? Who saw that one coming?) Every year we spend more and more on products and services created by our "growing" economy.
Typically when we mention these kinds of statistics, people usually push back by asking, "Well, aren't we making more money now as well? Can't we afford to spend money on things we don't need?" Ah—I thought you would never ask.
Even in a time of income growth, we still spend more than we make. In 2006 the American savings rate was negative for the entire year, the worst rate since the Great Depression. According to one article, "The Commerce Department is reporting that the savings rate for all of 2006 was a negative 1 percent, meaning that overall consumers were dipping into their savings or increasing their borrowing during the year."
Ironically, the same report shows a 0.7 percent increase in personal income. Translation: Even when we increase our income, we still spend more than we have. This is not just a problem that can be solved by tweaking our systems. Something deep within our souls longs for more stuff.
And, there does seem to be evidence we are spending ourselves into a corner we may have great difficulty getting out of. I will cover the economic ramifications of this issue in more detail in chapter 9, but as I write these words in the spring of 2008, the American economy seems headed for a significant correction of the kind that will challenge many of our notions about how much we can spend on things we don't need for daily living.
WHY ALL THIS STUFF?
But merely explaining the history of global consumption does not help us understand why we devour stuff at such massively disproportionate levels. What is it deep within our souls that causes us to want what we do not have and to have what we do not want?
Perhaps we could look to the story of the fall of humanity for some guidance. It seems a logical place to start, since it comes "in the beginning" of the biblical narrative, way back in the early part of the book of Genesis. And this is one of the most fundamental stories within the Judeo-Christian understanding of the world.
Adam and Eve were living in an idyllic world where all their needs were met, including the need to converse in physical space with the God of creation. They did not know what it would be like to want for anything, according to the story. They didn't even know enough to feel goofy walking around a garden in their birthday suits.
But, as you likely know, all this came crashing down when they decided to eat from "the fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden" (Gen. 3:3 ESV). They had all that they could possibly need, but they wanted more than what they needed. They wanted what they could not attain without a breach in the relationship between God, humanity, and the created order.
And that breach is the end of the story of the fall, the great moral lesson. Adam and Eve leave the garden. Humanity toils to produce crops among the thorns. We groan in labor pains to ensure a future for this planet and for we travelers who live on it. This story, this story of the fall is, indeed, a "story we find ourselves in." It can and should be a guiding narrative as we ask questions about why we consume so much. The struggles identified in that narrative are as current as this morning's Wall Street Journal.
Something deep within us, from time immemorial, causes us to want what we do not have. The desire for more drove colonial expansion by Western nations into new territories, causing us to commit unimaginable atrocities against various races and ethnicities. The desire for more was at the heart of American expansion from a few trading companies and religious colonies out to thirteen colonies and eventually to all of what we consider the United States. In the process of this growth we stole land, abused people, and trampled on many of the rights in our constitutional documents.
But we do not have to look to some grand arc of history, or even to government statistics, to understand the effect of our consumption. In my research regarding the plights and problems of folks in Appalachia I see this firsthand. Men and women are stuck with a coal economy that is devastating their job base and leaving little hope for their future. Children are leaving Appalachia in record numbers, crushing families, some of whom have lived in that area for more than two hundred years. Throughout the coal-mining areas of Appalachia, in almost biblical proportions, neighbor is pitted against neighbor, friend against friend (Isa. 19:2). One family fights to preserve ancestral lands from being taken and blown up to get at the coal seams below, while another enjoys ATVs and a new widescreen TV.
ALL KINDS OF "STUFF"
But stuff is not just products we buy at the store, is it? Perhaps one of the biggest areas of consumption these days is information and ideas. We live in a time of a networked information economy. Each day, thousands of new Web pages are added to the Internet. In 1995 there were eighteen thousand Web sites; in 2006 we crossed the one hundred million Web site mark. This does not even begin to account for the huge rise in blogs, podcasts, videos, and other information finding its way onto the Web.
Some of this is quite good and needed. You may have even heard about this book over the Web, or on some blog tour, or through a podcast. Enabling technologies have given people a voice in business and culture in ways that would have been unimaginable a short time ago. New relationships and conversations are springing up around the globe. New movements are emerging and bringing about change as individuals feel empowered to take charge of their lives, and to do so now rather than wait for someone else to take the lead. As the ninety-fifth thesis of the The Cluetrain Manifesto states, "We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting."
Technology saved my faith in a very real way. In the late 1990s I took a few seminary courses at an extension campus of a fairly conservative seminary. A professor there had me read the work of a missionary writer named Lesslie Newbigin, who wrote about how the actions of our churches interpret for the world the message of the gospel. This caused me to weep. I looked at the churches of which I had been a part and was convinced that if people only knew that congregation, knew me, then their understanding of the life and work of Christ would be distorted, at best. I looked at the political captivity of the church to a fairly narrow agenda defined mostly by private sexual activity, and I felt shocked at my role, small though it was, in creating that dynamic.
But what was I to do with these new questions I was asking? I did not know anyone else who was asking the same questions as I. And based on my upbringing, the whole thing felt a little heretical, frankly. I really felt alone. Lisa thought I was losing my mind. My Christian friends thought I was going to ditch my faith. My Republican friends thought I was going soft. Was I becoming that most horrible of all creatures: a liberal?
So I did what all modern people do when they want to have a conversation—I started a blog.
That seems silly in retrospect. But I did not know where else to turn. And soon I found a community of people who were asking the same questions. I discovered other bloggers writing questions I had only thought in my mind and would never dare type onto a keyboard or ask out loud. I found reviews of books asking, in print, the same questions. I came into relationship with so many people looking for an authentic way to follow God in the way of Jesus, and I came into conversations happening among people seeking to be faithful to this way. During some very dark years, those conversations happening on the Web and in books about God's emergent work in the world kept me from ditching the whole of Christianity.
But it also helped to contribute to my "infoholic" tendencies. I am addicted to information. Google News is a kind of drug for me, and Facebook, well, don't even get me started. What has been so generative in my life—the unedited flow of conversation, thoughts, and new ideas made possible by the unmediated global technology network—also has the possibility to swallow me whole.
Excerpted from enough by WILL SAMSON. Copyright © 2009 Will Samson. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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