Contentment as a countercultural virtueAugust 04, 2018
One of the many joys of my role as principal of Vose Seminary is that I fairly often get sent complimentary copies of books from publishers who hope I will put in a good word for their publication. Sometimes that is possible, at other times I read a few pages of the book, push it to the one side and diplomatically say no more. Happily, Simon Carey Holt ’s book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life (Cascade, 2018) is definitely in the first category. Actually, it’s sensationally in the first category – an absolute delight to read, deeply thoughtful, often profound and very well written. I will probably come back to it a few times in future blog posts, but for now, simply want to comment on some of the insights from chapter 8 of the book, “God in the Supermarket”.
The bulk of the book is about looking for God in different places. We are often too quick to confine God to the Sunday gathering of our local church. Holt urges us to have eyes wide open and to expect to bump into God at home, at the table, in the neighborhood, on the sports field, at the supermarket, among friends, in the workplace and on the weekend – and he devotes a chapter to each to help train our senses to spot ways we might be encountering God in unexpected moments.
But what about chapter 8, God at the supermarket?
It starts with a delightful story: “I met Jesus in the supermarket. He was in the fresh produce department at HEB restocking the onions. I didn’t notice him at first. I was consumed with picking over the tomatoes when two fell to the ground. Just as I was about to collect them, he appeared beside me. ‘I’ll get those for you, sir,’ he said. As he stood again, tomatoes in hand, I saw his name tag, JESUS, with the store’s motto underneath: because people matter. He was a quietly spoken young man with olive skin and an accent that betrayed his roots elsewhere.” (p114)
An interesting discussion on the historical background to the modern supermarket follows, as we travel the journey away from the local grocer with a modest supply of goods, to the supermarket of today, which in Australia will usually offer you an average of 20 000 distinct items to select from – a figure which suddenly seems paltry when compared with the US whose supermarkets often pack their aisles with a choice of around 39 000 different items. Today we select our cereals from a variety of around 152 – which if you think about it, means that if a box of cereal last a week, you could have a different kind of cereal every week for 3 years. Who says breakfast has to be dull?
But there is a darker side to this. While the choice provided might seem bewildering, when we dig a little deeper we notice that the many different brands usually come from a small handful of suppliers. For example, with only a few exceptions, the 152 breakfast cereals have been produced by Kellog’s, Sanitarium, Nestle or Uncle Toby’s. As Holt comments, “The fact is, it is almost impossible for an independent, local manufacturer to secure space on the megastore’s shelves without crippling costs and the most screwed-down profit margins ruled entirely by the retailer.”(p121) Holt laments that in spite of the impression that we have increased choice, in reality we have eradicated the local, minimized choice of producer, and disconnected shoppers from the source of their produce. There are clearly many ethical questions that flow from this.
However Holt is careful to be neither naïve nor negative about our need to consume. As he writes, “What I see as I shop each week are householders diligently, though often wearily, meeting their obligations to provide for, to love and to serve those within their care.”(p124) Shopping is an act of care – and each journey to the supermarket should remind us that we are surrounded by people who are making school lunches and meals for those who matter to them, while the laundry powder reminds us that there is cleaning to be done, and we are not always the person doing it. How then can we turn shopping into a spiritual practice – an intentional expression of our Christian faith. Holt has three suggestions.
First is that we shop for connection. While he notes that many prioritize value-for money, convenience, status or quality, we could instead intentionally shop for connection, usually selecting a local business and building relationships with particular retailers over the long haul. He writes, “If connection was to become one of the guiding values of our shopping – honoring and nurturing the relationships that shopping provides – we might well find that its impact helps to keep in check come of the more alienating forces of consumerism in our lives.” (p130) In other words, instead of a fickle loyalty quickly swayed by a bargain basement price, perhaps we should shop consistently, working at building relationships with those we encounter week after week. It is a question of what values drive us.
Second he suggests that we shop for sustainability – reducing frivolous and unnecessary consumption, and supporting production processes that take better care of the earth and its people. Part of this begins when we realise how much we already have – when we value what we have rather than anxiously look out for what we do not have.
Third, that we shop for attachment. Holt writes, “At its darkest end, the ill of consumerism is in its preoccupation with the wrong sort of attachment. In fact, as a values system consumerism is built on a profound sense of detachment. It proceeds on the belief that we will find our salvation and fulfilment in the pursuit of things we do not yet have and apart from relationship with the Creator of those things… Consumerism’s drive is in the wanting, not the having. It is the outworking of a restless and dissatisfied spirit, powered by a profound discontent with what we have and a belief that what we do not yet have will bring us the contentment we crave.” (p132) These are strong words – but when you think about it, the sentiment is true. Slick marketing controls much of our thinking, and too often we are so preoccupied with what we don’t have, that we fail to be grateful for the bounty God has already provided for us.
The final paragraph of the chapter includes this thought provoking sentence: “I once heard it said that the statement, ‘I am content; I have what I need’ is one of the most countercultural affirmations a disciple of Jesus can make in daily life.” (p133) Carry the statement into the week. For the truth is, if we have Jesus, we have all we need. And if our eyes are wide open, each day produces example after example of his good and gracious care for us. The witness of gentle gratitude is significant, and it is a witness well worth cultivating.