More or Less: A Generous Orthopraxis

Review of More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity by Jeff Shinabarger

Is your closet overflowing? Do the contents of your storage area threaten to overwhelm anyone unwise enough to peek inside? Does your junk drawer need a junk drawer? If so, Jeff Shinabarger’s More or Less might be the book for you.

Shinabarger is a man on a mission—a mission to find out just how much is ‘enough.’ Through a series of creative experiences, he and his family/friends/acquaintances explore the excesses of their lives and try to change the way they think about ‘enough.’

I know next to nothing about Shinabarger, but after reading this book, I can say with confidence that he is an incredibly creative individual, that he has a heart for people, and that he is deeply passionate about making do with less so that others might have more.

The ideas here are all first rate and very accessible. Ok, ok, the example where Shinabarger addresses his struggle with being overcommitted/too busy by … well, quitting his job and relocating to Nicaragua for 9 weeks is perhaps a bit extreme. But the other examples—living off the long-forgotten contents of your freezer and pantry to see how long you can go without going to the store, wearing different clothes every day to see how long you can go without having to repeat outfits, going without a car for a set period to better understand the lives of the carless in your community, etc.—are excellent and quite convicting. As someone who frequently feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume of my possessions (city living with minimal storage tends to have that effect), and someone who is rather lacking in the creativity department, I greatly appreciated his suggestions and ideas. Honestly, this was the book I intended to read when I picked up Richard Foster’s rather disappointing and unhelpful Simplicity—unlike Foster, Shinabarger actually offers a path to the freedom of less.  The ‘enough experiments’ are challenging but doable, and Shinabarger even offers ‘baby step’ options for those not yet ready to embark on the more extreme adventures. I definitely plan to implement some of his ideas and keep these principles in mind as I seek to trim the many excesses in my own life.

As this is an Evangelical blog, I feel the need to address not just the practical merit of a book, but its theological substance—especially when the book is written by a self-identified Christian and is categorized as ‘Christian Life’.  Based on my reading of this book, I would argue that is not, in fact, a Christian book at all.

First of all, it does not appear to be written to Christians. At one point, Shinabarger appeals to the words of Jesus, not on the basis of His authority as the Second Person of the Trinity or as the Living Word, but because He is universally acknowledged as a wise teacher and moral man (p.172). Shinabarger is clearly not just writing to Christians. He is, in fact, encouraging people of all faiths to be more generous, to make do with less, and to share their excess with others.

Second, there is no Gospel here.  Passing references are made to Jesus, and even to his birth, death, and resurrection, but the Gospel—Christ’s saving work by dying on the cross to atone for our sins—is not mentioned. This is quite surprising, especially since Shinabarger essentially says, ‘Everyone has a different reason for trying to be generous; my reason is my faith.’ This could lead, quite organically, into an explanation of that faith, of our position as sinners before a holy God, of the penalty we have earned, of Christ’s merciful sacrifice in our place, of His astounding generosity to us, and of our resulting desire to obey God, to emulate His generosity, and to glorify Him by caring well for those made in His image. Shinabarger explains none of this, opting instead for the significantly less compelling ‘Well, Jesus cared about the poor and we all know He was a good teacher’ explanation.

Third, Shinabarger’s arguments for generosity have nothing to do with God. Shinabarger seems to have a fairly optimistic view of humanity—he believes that ‘deep down we are all generous people’ (p.29), that we are ‘good enough’ and ‘worth loving’ (p.71), that every generous act is ‘a little tick forward in the restoration of humanity’ (p.227), and that ‘the greatest love you can give friends is to help them find and achieve their calling’ (p.159). In a book littered with stories of those who lack clean water, sufficient food, jobs, homes, clothes, and health care (to say nothing of saving faith in the Gospel), this last comment rings particularly hollow—a ‘first world’ form of love if ever there was one. But then, Shinabarger is clearly a big fan of the self-esteem, self-actualization stuff. Check it out:

By design, we must fully live the life that only we can live. Every person that lives less than his or her potential is limiting all human potential because that person is not offering the world the fullness of his or her true self. (p. 66)

That seems like an awfully man-centered way of viewing the world. And indeed, the whole book is precisely that: man-centered. Any concern for God or His glory is conspicuously absent.

Fourth, Shinabarger’s analysis of generosity is secular—by which I mean: a compassionate Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, pagan, or atheist could agree with … everything in this book. I find this troubling. While it is certainly true that those outside the faith can be generous and do good things, Christians’ lives should be pervaded by the Gospel such that it is impossible for us to really explain why we do any good thing without reference to Christ the Source of All Good. Christ is the reason we can do good things, He is the reason our sinful hearts want to do good things, and His is the power that enables us to do good things. Yet Shinabarger’s exploration of generosity seemed to be, well, largely secular. Faith lifts right out without disturbing the substance of his points.

For these reasons, I would argue that Shinabarger’s book, while practically useful, is not actually a Christian book. So if you’re looking to simplify, make do with less, or give more, then by all means read this book. Even better, read it with a friend and engage with the material. Open your Bible and see where Shinabarger is right, and where he’s wrong. What does the Bible have to say about generosity? What sins in your life keep you from obeying those commands, and how can you fight those sins? How does the Gospel inform our attitude toward our possessions, our food, our clothes, and our time? How can Christians spur one another on to love and good deeds in these areas? These questions, and many more, are well worth asking. Shinabarger doesn’t ask them, but I appreciate him at least starting the conversation.

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Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.

 


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