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Against consumption Phariseeism: When minimalism and materialism collide

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In a recent reflection on Christmastime consumerism, I explored the underlying challenges and opportunities of creativity and generosity in a free economy, arguing that the forces of materialism can be overcome if we maintain the right heart/mind orientation.

“Economic growth and increasing prosperity are not identical with consumerism,” writes John Bolt in Economic Shalom. “Though it is a demanding challenge, one can be both wealthy and a faithful steward of God’s gifts.”

Yet, lest we forget, such an integration is camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle territory—a feat that may seem unreachable, but which, according to Jesus, is surely possible.

In a recent essay for Comment Magazine, Sarah Hamersma highlights this same challenge through the specific context of the “new minimalism” movement, noting how the tensions at play are not always easily applied in daily life.

Among the “new minimalists,” for example, there is much to admire and imitate. But there are also a variety of ways that new iterations of consumerism and materialism can easily emerge, creeping in undetected despite our outspoken anti-consumerist principles and sentiments.

“Is there room for others in our tiny homes?” she asks, as but one example. “Can one be a ‘consumption Pharisee’?”

In our quest to oppose or reject or escape the material stuff, we may end up over-obsessing with it in a different way, lending it more power and attention than it deserves. As Hamersma explains:

Other aspects of the broader cultural movement [of new minimalism] strike me as less inspiring and more concerning. For instance, things are still at the centre of this new movement that is purportedly anti-consumerist. It seems to me that minimalists are obsessed with “things.” This is true whether it is optimally furnishing a tiny house or optimally parenting little ones using just the right toys, introduced at just the right times, and in just the right quantities. It’s weirdly specific. Can one be a “consumption Pharisee”?

I also worry about what happens to hospitality when we decide that having “extra” is uniformly bad. I have read about people making the case for “one” of everything, with the example, “If you drink coffee each day, you just need one mug, not ten.” To which I say: “as long as I don’t ever have anyone over!” Similarly, I struggle with purposely choosing tight spaces to live that make hospitality difficult; it seems like another form of individualism and even social isolation, at least if it isn’t paired with other kinds of commitment to using communal spaces regularly and intentionally. Am I just defending my big house, which was purchased partly because we knew what commitments we would have for hosting people? I wish I knew.

Drawing from Richard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity, Hamersma points to the “conglomerate of selves” within us and the range of corresponding and competing internal voices and leanings. “All of these selves are rugged individualists,” Foster writes. “No bargaining or compromise for them. Each one screams to protect his or her vested interests. If a decision is made to spend a relaxed evening listening to Chopin, the business self and the civic self rise up in protest at the loss of precious time. The energetic self paces back and forth impatient and frustrated, and the religious self reminds us of the lost opportunities for study or evangelistic contact.”

To discern and make sense of such voices, Hamersma continues, we need to find a “common cause in the single goal of seeking Christ.” Fundamentally, it is not about a narrow, tunnel-vision view of work or vocation or consumerism or anti-consumerism, but a unified vision of life in Christ. “It manifests in a life characterized by a certain kind of cohesion—an integrity and coherence—where the simplicity then spills from the inner to the outer life,” she writes.

To retain that proper focus, Hamersma points to range of more practical possibilities, such as being “less encumbered” (in general), prioritizing Sabbath rest, or manifesting minimalism and simplicity in other non-economic arenas, such as “creation care.” These are helpful tips and practices, some of which mirror those recently offered in Bart Gingerich’s Black Friday reflections, provide good tangible and intangible reminders to help orient our spirits, souls, and imaginations.

But there’s something even closer to our everyday economic lives that we musn’t forget or neglect. We are invited, each and every day, into fellowship with the Holy Spirit—not only through prayers and observances and religious tasks or disciplines, but also through actually asking and seeking and partnering with the divine in whatever we put our hands to.

Whether we are creating or consuming, producing or purchasing, buying or selling, we have the opportunity to unite our reason and character and personal disciplines with actual, real fellowship with Christ through the Holy Spirit—glorifying the Father with a robust, “unified vision,” to be sure.

Again, this, too, is camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle territory, rooted in the upside-down economics of the Gospel: the profound mystery of living to die and dying to live and losing your life to find it and so on. God’s abundance is amplified through servanthood, sacrifice, and simple obedience—not systems—which confounds the ways of the world. Such is foolishness in the eyes of man, whether from the standpoint of the dogmatic materialist or the dogmatic minimalist.

But, yet again, with God, all things are possible.

Image: Uwe367, Miniature House (CC0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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