One day several years ago, I sat bored in Opry Mills as I waited for family to emerge from various stores. I found myself staring at a Coke machine. It was one of those newfangled ones with a screen. Glowing from this screen was the ideal bottle of Coca-Cola, dripping with just the right amount of condensation, spinning in empty space, asking my eye to behold every angle of its sugary splendor. It struck me that I wanted this perfect imaginary Coca-Cola far more than I could ever imagine wanting a real one.
And after all, isn’t it rather illogical to desire an imaginary Coca-Cola more than the real thing? I can’t drink the image on the screen. Why should I want it so much?
I think it’s because we humans want things less for their own sake than for their promise to awaken and fulfill our desires.
Rather presciently and forebodingly, Herbert Hoover remarked in 1928 that commercialism had “taken over the job of creating desire” and “transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines” which have “become the key to economic progress.” Hoover knew that the ideal consumer is not slave to things, but rather to their own desire. In order to capitalize on our desire, commodities expertly promise fulfillment while simultaneously deferring this fulfillment, ensuring that we will come back for more.
Every created thing is infused with the grace and presence of God. Drew Miller
It follows that the ideal consumer’s home is not one in which physical things are overvalued, but rather one in which they are carelessly thrown in the trash. This led Dorothy Sayers to observe in 1942: “A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.” The disease of consumerism is not attachment, but a profound detachment from the physical world around us. We have become a population numb to a world entirely at our disposal.
What’s more, we’ve found endless ways to position ourselves over against our disposable world. The smartphone, for example, is the epitome of an object we buy not for any tangible function—it is notoriously fragile, purposefully made of glass—but for its ability to conjure up anything we wish at the touch of a finger, from anywhere, at anytime. One of my favorite songwriters, Chris Thile, sings, “How long, oh Lord, can you keep the whole world spinning under our thumbs?” This is the picture of a humanity fundamentally detached from the world of things.
Perhaps the most amusing progression of our detachment is the recent popularity of the loosely defined “minimalist” aesthetic. Kyle Chayka writes in the New York Times, “The nearly four million images tagged #minimalism on Instagram include white sneakers, clouds, the works of Mondrian, neon signs, crumbling brick walls and grassy fields. So long as it’s stylishly austere, it seems, it’s minimalist.” Under the guise of purging ourselves from consumerist frenzy, the minimalist lifestyle quietly sells us yet another empty promise: that we can “simplify” our way to a primordially pure existence. This promise plays directly into our desire to transcend a world “spinning under our thumbs” as we attempt to disentangle ourselves from the excess we’ve inherited. The self-sabatoge of the minimalism fad is that in attempting to disentangle ourselves, we merely move on to a new manifestation of our detached and ultimately irreverent relationship to the world of things.
The question I find myself routinely asking is, 'How could a Christian perspective redeem our relationship to the material world?' Drew Miller
I often feel that I must choose between the numbness of compulsive consumption or the numbness of cynical asceticism. Thus begins the binge-purge cycle: I give in to the temptation to consume, moving from one novelty to the next in an attempt to quell my desires. I quickly become disillusioned with that and let my guilt propel me away from material things in a futile attempt to escape my complicity in excess. When I get tired of that, I return to compulsive consumption again. Rinse and repeat.
Neither binging nor purging truly respects material things. Neither impulse is grounded in true reverence towards the physical world or towards myself.
The question I find myself routinely asking is, “How could a Christian perspective redeem our relationship to the material world?” Because no matter what external changes I make to my way of life, I still partake in God’s creation burdened by a shameless appetite and a guilty conscience.
Plenty of books have been written in an attempt to answer that question. One particularly beautiful one is For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann.
On the very first page of his book, Schmemann writes, “In the biblical story of creation, man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being…he is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: ‘…that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.’”
The fall of humanity is that we have forgotten this truth, and having forgotten, we have lived a lie. Drew Miller
This banquet is not the Coke machine at Opry Mills—the Coke machine is an alienating perversion of true consumption. I desire the Coke because of an image on a screen, an image divorced from the actual Coke it represents. Once I drink it, I find myself drinking something whose origin and story is completely unknown to me. When finished, I throw away the bottle, never to see it again.
The banquet of which Schmemann speaks is more like a nice long dinner with loved ones. Over the course of the meal, we hear the story behind each dish. Every bite brings us closer to the one who prepared it. Here, we consume not out of alienation or detachment, but as an act of communion.
And that is precisely the point: the world was created to commune with its Creator. Every created thing is infused with the grace and presence of God.
The fall of humanity is that we have forgotten this truth, and having forgotten, we have lived a lie. We have constructed a man-made world in accordance with this lie but in discord with the fundamental truth of God’s world: that all is sacramental, a means of grace and communion with the one who made it.
The redemption of humanity is nothing less than the Eucharist: God in Jesus eating his last meal with us, extending his body and blood to satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst. It is a new way to consume by which the relationship between creature and Creator is finally restored.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
—”God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins