Do you have too much stuff? If you are an American, the answer is almost certainly “yes.” A few years back Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus decided to do something about this. The result, in addition to the radical changes of their own lives, was the book Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life and (later) the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. This review covers the documentary, which itself is not just about Millburn and Nicodemus but also a number of people who have made efforts to simplify their lives. These efforts have included everything from abandoning
all most earthly goods and living on the road to living in tiny spaces (whether houses or apartments) to simply getting rid of lots of extraneous things. In other words, this was a forerunner for the recent Marie Kondo business.
The common narrative that each individual in this documentary shares runs something like this:
“I was living a financially successful life, and realized that I had everything the American dream said I should have and yet was still miserable. So I gave all my stuff up and went on the road/downsized everything but the bare essentials/things that spark joy. [The latter are of course Marie Kondo’s words, not theirs, but the idea is basically the same.] Now I’m happy and fulfilled, and you all can be too.”
There is a lot to talk about here. Practically, we might ask how on earth anyone with children is ever supposed to do this. (There are a couple of kids who pop up in the documentary, and it is admitted that most of these rules don’t apply to the wee ones.) Likewise, we could ask what this sort of thing means for the poor. All of the people featured here are affluent and in a position where they can give up their stuff. Which isn’t to let the poor off the hook–all Americans have too much stuff. But being in a position financially where you can take the time needed to go through and purge everything, well, that’s really not for those of us in the bottom half of society.
Above all, just how the heck does this work practically? For example, with regard to the gentlemen who give away all but a couple of changes of clothes: I get the appeal of having a simpler wardrobe. But once your wardrobes are reduced, that has to mean one of two things: either your clothes are dirty most of the time (including underwear?) or you are always doing laundry. The same is true of dishes. The same is true of, well, there’s not much in our daily lives that this won’t be true of. At some point there is a cost/benefit analysis that has to be made. And while we should have less stuff, quantity has to be measured alongside other factors.
Beyond these practical questions, as Christians we should have even more to say about this. For example, there is much here to commend itself theologically. Again, Americans do have too much stuff and we are far too addicted to material prosperity. And yet, the response of eliminating the excess in our lives isn’t actually a solution to the theological problem. It’s true that we won’t find happiness and fulfillment in stuff. That aspect of American society is a lie from the pit of hell, propagated not only by the culture but by people who claim to be Christian and preach a prosperity gospel. But it’s also true that we won’t find happiness and fulfillment in purging our material goods. That’s still a form of materialism that has to be rejected. Stuff won’t make you happy. Lack of stuff won’t make you happy. Change between the two won’t make you happy.*And that last point is especially critical. The narrative the people in this documentary have (see above) is going to be inherently appealing to Christians, because it sounds very similar to our conversion experiences. And yet, a surface similarity in narratives is not sufficient. Moving from X bad thing to Y better thing is not the same as dying and coming back to life as one of God’s children redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. A good parallel here can be found in Deuteronomy 2: 10-13. The Israelites are being given instructions about their cousins the Moabites, the descendants of Lot. God tells Israel to pass them by, and gives a brief overview of how Moab came into the region:
The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim. Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim. The Horites also lived in Seir formerly, but the people of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them and settled in their place, as Israel did to the land of their possession, which the LORD gave to them.
These people’s story sounds a lot like Israel’s. Prior to Moab’s arrival, their land was inhabited by giants and other powerful peoples. Like Israel, Moab drove out and destroyed this people and settled in the land. Heck, like Israel Moab is descended from Abraham’s family. And yet that doesn’t ultimately save them or make them God’s people. A similarity of storyline does not bring one in the covenant body.
I have no doubt that the people in this documentary are sincere about their experiences. I’m sure they were despondent in their affluence and genuinely believe they have found a better way. For that matter, they very well may have found a better way in some limited sense. Americans are too consumerist, too acquisitive, and should be content with less. Nevertheless, we should keep that in perspective. Simply reducing the amount of stuff you’ve got (or even just tidying up) will not bring you ultimate peace, because at the end of the day our stuff isn’t the source of our discontent. Our discontent is caused by our separation from God, which itself is caused by our rebellion against him. Peace comes through only through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
Which isn’t to say that we all shouldn’t trim things up a bit. Just that we should do so with the proper perspective.
* Obviously this isn’t saying that severe poverty and starvation aren’t legitimate problems that need to be faced immediately. Kindly assume all reasonable disclaimers here…
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. He firmly believes that when minimalizing or Marie Kondoing or whatever you’re doing, BOOKS DO NOT COUNT.