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Mites, Monocultures, and Making

The book engrossed me so much that I found myself continuing to read it while going on a rollercoaster with my then young son. And I have the photographic evidence to prove it.

Well, to be strictly truthful, I thought it might be cool to spice up the roller-photo with a book, and this was the one I was in at the time: F. S. Michaels’ Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything. But it is certainly engrossing. It’s important and chilling, and deservedly won the 2011 NCTE George Orwell Award. She exposes something so pervasive and insidious that we rarely give it a moment’s thought.

I’m referring to today’s prevailing monoculture, what Michaels terms the economic story. The word monoculture comes from the world of agriculture, applied to the planting of one crop to the exclusion of all others—which inevitably damages carefully balanced ecosystems. This book uses monoculture as a metaphor for contemporary society. The resulting damage has not simply been ecological (though it certainly has been that). It has been ethical, social, and spiritual.

The economic story is built on the assumption that human beings are all essentially thinkers—remember Descartes’ definition of being? “I think, therefore I am.” If that is all we are, then it follows that we will behave rationally and in our own self-interest. The development of human society becomes predictable and, therefore, programmable. This is why the communists put such faith in their five-year plans and capitalists raise funds on the basis of their business plans. Neat economic models are powerful because they appear to account perfectly for everything in society.

But what are the consequences in practice?

  1. Economic growth is deemed unequivocally good. This is true for individuals, corporations and nations. Apart from anything else, it’s what fuels the American Dream.

  2. Long-term loyalties to individuals or groups (such as using the same baker or butcher for years) are less ideal, since they tend to hinder either money-saving or profit-growth.

  3. Related to this, geographical mobility is crucial for economic development. Economic units should always be prepared to uproot to wherever there is work or they can create income-generation.

So do you see? Everything has been reduced: I am an economic unit, my social interactions are transactions, and even my giving is driven by self-interest. Have you noticed, for example, how corporate social responsibility has grown exponentially in recent years? This is often because firms have experienced catastrophic damage to their brands (and thus their profits) when they tried to get away with ignoring the repercussions of their activities. This economic story has been totalizing: it affects everything from healthcare, government, and the military right down to leisure and even church life. Michaels quotes theologian Darrell Guder:

It is now clear, as we look back over the last 100-125 years, that the value systems and operating structures of the large American corporation have become the dominant model for the institutional church… They acknowledge that many things once deemed important in the Christian life do not fit in the management/marketing scheme of spirituality, and conclude that not surprisingly, these matters are neglected in a marketing paradigm.

As far as I know, she is not a Christian, but I couldn’t help but wince when she quotes a former senior executive from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:

…our job is to dispense the world’s greatest product—with the greatest economy—to the greatest number of people—as fast as possible.

Unsurprisingly, the arts have suffered from this monoculture. “Successful” music is too often gauged by its effectiveness at generating income (so often for executives rather than composers). Cinematic or theatrical productions ride high only when box office tills jangle. Art only makes headlines when it breaks auction house records. When was the last time you saw a news item focused on how challenging or thought-provoking an artwork was, rather than its price? This was precisely what Banksy was recoiling against by installing a shredder into his Girl with a Balloon when sold at Sothebys in London last year. He has apparently since claimed that he wanted the whole image to be shredded, not only half. Who knows!? The irony, of course, is that Banksy’s piece is now worth even more.

The values of the Kingdom of God are never necessarily pragmatic nor lucrative nor popular. Instead we are called to value what our king values: truth, beauty, justice, mercy, and love. Mark Meynell

I’ve been chewing on all this for years, not least because four years living in East Africa transformed how we perceive western assumptions (in our better moments). Those who know Wendell Berry’s writing will recognize resonance with one of his most important prophetic undercurrents. Or as one of Oscar Wilde’s characters so artfully put it, “Nowadays, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Our monoculture’s reductionism mutilates on many fronts. It dehumanizes us. And it is antithetical to the Kingdom of God. 

This should be obvious. Just look at how often Jesus subverts the prevailing economic story of his own day.

  1. Matthew 29:1-16. Jesus’s strange parable of the vineyard workers. Everybody gets the same pay, regardless of how many hours they have worked. The earliest workers whinge, despite the owner’s generosity and their initial agreement with the amount.

  2. Mark 14:4-9. Jesus rebukes the critics of the woman who anoints him with her tears and expensive oil (even though they said it could be sold for “more than year’s wages” to help the poor). “She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have… But you will not always have me.” That is unexpected, to say the least.

  3. Luke 15:4. To explain his reasons for “eating with sinners and tax-collectors,” Jesus offers this peculiar analogy: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” It’s peculiar because most business people will make a calculation at this point, surely? The shepherd will hunt down the lost sheep only if the flock is safe. Otherwise, it’s not worth the risk. But such is Jesus’s commitment to individuals (not to mention the fact that he is sovereign!)—he is determined to go after the lost sheep.

  4. John 2:15-16. “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!'” This is as far from Jesus meek and mild as it’s possible to get. He painstakingly makes a whip to close down some exceedingly lucrative business opportunities. Worship is emphatically not to be monetized.

But perhaps the most subversive of them all has to be his interpretation of something he spotted at the temple:

He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.” Luke 21:2-3

This makes no economic sense whatsoever. But it makes all the spiritual sense in the world. Sacrifice and humble integrity are the surest signs of a heart dedicated to the Lord. But unless we grasp the centrality of a relationship with God, Jesus will always seem to spout gibberish.

If the job of the artist (through whatever medium) is in part to expose the emperor’s new clothes and to hint or point at something far better, then what she or he makes can never be reduced to mere currency. Value and worth surely transcend such things, even perhaps into the next life. After all, what will the rulers be bringing with them?

…the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. Revelation 21:23-24

Now, this is no recipe for naiveté. Artists need to eat, which means earning enough to pay their bills. And didn’t Jesus himself use an economic model to convey the importance of making the most of one’s God-given gifts in this life? He told the Parable of the Talents (or “Bags of Gold,” as the NIV has it) to make precisely this point. Nor is it an excuse for the shoddy or mediocre which is immune to criticism or professional assessment (as if offering my mite, out of my poverty, justifies what is actually bad art).

Nevertheless, we must resist at all costs the temptation to reductionism, despite the fact that we are immersed in it. The values of the Kingdom of God are never necessarily pragmatic (“it’s good because it works”) nor lucrative (“it’s good because it sells”) nor popular (“it’s good because the majority likes it”). Instead we are called to value what our king values: truth, beauty, justice, mercy, and love. Our art doesn’t necessarily have to have all of these at the same time—ultimately only God can pull that off! But I suspect this is why it’s worth making art for its own sake, for then, it is seeking to relish these great kingdom values rather than function as a means to another end.

Living and making on these terms will offer the world something far more valuable than economic worth, even if it gets dismissed as just a mite.


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