Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Return to Eden (Jul-Aug 2002)

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by Darryl Tippens
July – August, 2002

Could a fast from media make you more hungry for the real world?

We live in a popular culture created by the likes of the Beach Boys, Annette Funicello, and Walt Disney according to a new book by Kirse Granat May called Golden State, Golden Youth: The California Image in Popular Culture, 1955-1966. Whether you live in California or elsewhere, it makes no difference—our thinking has been shaped by the images of pristine beaches, beautiful people, and fast, shiny cars that have been endlessly disseminated by mass marketers in the last four decades.

May argues that California youth culture, which emerged in the mid 1950’s, has become the world’s culture. Commenting on this phenomenon, Jonathan Kirsch observes:

The opening of Disneyland in 1955 fixed California in the collective unconsciousness of a whole generation—and, indeed, the whole world—as ‘the land of America’s destiny.’ Above all, Disney elevated the pursuit of happiness from an aspiration into a commodity to be packaged and sold to what May dubs ‘the child imagination market.’

The pursuit of youth, beauty, power, and pleasure is not new, of course. Covetousness is as old as Adam and Eve. (The human race seems hardwired to desire stuff.) But something relatively new has entered the mix and may be compounding this ancient vice: the capacity for temptation seems to have been enhanced through modern tools of marketing. In traditional cultures, there are spaces where one can escape the constant drone of marketers. Such spaces are rare in the modern state. The magnitude of the cultural machinery designed to promote a purely materialistic vision of “the good life” can scarcely be overestimated. Henry Nouwen’s description of a drive through Los Angeles captures the spirit of our age: “Wherever I looked there were words trying to take my eyes from the road. They said, ‘Use me, take me, buy me, drink me, smell me, touch me, kiss me, sleep with me.’”

Saying “no” to consumerism

The final prohibition of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17), directly challenges the cultural mandate to acquire all that you can. Parents, ministers, and church leaders must boldly expose the toxic power of greed—the craving for possessions, the inordinate desire for wealth or possessions. Christian adults must do more themselves to model holy living and simplicity, and they must limit their children’s exposure to the relentless appeals of mass marketers.

Churches and individuals should consider engaging in collective acts of resistance—through “media fasts,” for example, in which believers voluntarily refuse to ingest the “diet” of media marketers: no television, no commercials, no popular magazines, no newspapers, for a period of time. Such fasts can be very positive, “cleansing” us of burdensome, false, and irrelevant data, freeing us for positive reflections and activities.
Children, especially, need “free time” when they are not subjected to media manipulation. These timeouts can result from turning off televisions, computers, CD players, and electronic games. They can liberate us for positive activities: outdoor play, picnics, reading, games, and family conversation.

In our churches and homes, we must teach our children to recognize and resist consumer messages. We must teach one another to discern the deceits in advertising, particularly the big lie that more stuff will bring more happiness. We must boldly proclaim: The materialist model is false, for it cannot deliver on its biggest promise: it cannot deliver fulfillment, meaning, or significance. Materialism’s failure to deliver is most evident by examining contemporary stories of those who’ve stumbled on the path of narcissistic indulgence. We should heed these cautionary tales. Jesus was right. Humans cannot live by bread alone.

Saying “yes” to creation
A warning. Critiques of consumerism contain the seeds of their own defeat, unless they are wedded to a clear, positive counter-force. A religious system solely animated by “world flight” can easily appear joyless and unattractive.

Preaching world denial alone is inadequate for a simple reason: a religion of denial lacks sufficient motivational power. Everyone knows the potent attraction of forbidden fruit. If we dwell on what we cannot have, we don’t want it less; we want it more. Freud reminds us of “the return of the repressed.” Often, the very things we most steadfastly reject and repress have an astonishing power to seize us unexpectedly. One thinks of the ascetic mayor in the French movie Chocolat. He is a cheerless man who despises chocolate confections—until the night when he pillages a display window, devouring every chocolate in sight. This is the return of the repressed. Denial, to be effective, must be over-matched by something good, something greater.

Though God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of one particular fruit, he first gave the couple a generous permission. Eat, eat freely of everything else, God told them (Genesis 2:16). Similarly, after the flood, God instructed Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3, my emphasis). In God’s world, prohibition is offset by God’s superior, resplendent generosity. There is freedom, joy, and even sensuous delight, in obedience.

The antidote to consumerism, therefore, is not a fierce, puritanical attack on material creation. The answer is found in paradox: a proper love of creation can help cure a desperate materialism. The way out of the consumerist trap, then, is not through dreary negation, but through an appreciation for and understanding of creation.
Yet we are hindered by our lack of a clear theology of creation. The problem is not matter, for matter is good. After all, God made it and pronounced it good, very good. The problem is not “creation” or even “the world,” for God is the source of nature and the cosmos. He loves creation and intends to redeem it.

Creation, in Scripture, has a positive place in the order of things. We are to enjoy it, care for it, and use it for the good of all. Dostoevsky got it right:

Love all God’s creation, the whole of it, love every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. And once you have perceived it, you will be able to comprehend it ceaselessly more and more every day.

Love of creation, I would argue, is actually a protection against hedonism, provided we understand nature sacramentally. “Sacramentalism” holds that matter has a sacred origin, contains a divine message, and serves a godly purpose. Sacramentalism is suggested in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” and in Paul’s writings, “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s” (1 Cor. 10:26). It is a common theme among the great poets: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins); “Earth’s crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

Sacramentalism is not pantheistic. It celebrates the nearness of God to his creation, but it honors the important distinction between creation and Creator: “The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter,” said Simone Weil. Such a view prohibits the worship of nature, but it does call us to enjoy it, care for it, and use it for the good of all.

The spiritual disciplines of hospitality and stewardship preserve a right relationship to creation. We are mere guests, enjoying the resources that are Someone else’s—God’s. And we are here to use his resources as good stewards to serve and bless others. We respect creation just as we respect the Word of God. Both are vehicles of truth. In the words of Luther, “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars.”

Loving the world rightly
Clement of Alexandria once declared, “The world is the first Bible that God made for the instruction of man.” If this is so, then perhaps we can begin to heal the disease of consumerism in a roundabout way—not by abandoning creation and the world, which would be a false and futile form of “spirituality”—but by moving towards creation, enjoying it and using it as God intended. The Creator’s words to Noah are for us too: “I give you everything.” Relying less on gadgets and the virtual reality and hyper-realism of manufactured products, breaking free of what Richard Foster calls “thingification,” let us move towards God by rediscovering his creation. In it, we discover his beauty, true splendor, deep joy, and liberating simplicity. Owning nothing, enjoying everything, step by step, we reverse the mistake of Eden. New Wineskins

tippensDarryl Tippens is provost of Pepperdine University and a section editor for New Wineskins.

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