There is an excellent scene at the very end of the academy-award winning war film, The Hurt Locker. Considering how silly and riddled with error this film can be, it may be the best scene in the whole movie. To my eyes at least it was the most realistic. While on leave, the maverick EOD sergeant, SFC James (Jeremy Renner), goes grocery shopping with his wife. With profound acedia, he makes his way through the aisles. He turns, and there a challenge faces him more terrifying than the numerous IED’s and mines he has diffused in Iraq: an endless wall of breakfast cereals.
In this scene, director Kathryn Bigelow captures an all-too-common moment in the lives of soldiers returning from combat. James stands silently before a battery of Cherrios, Fruity Pebbles and Grape Nuts. He doesn’t know what to do. Several seconds go by. There is no music, no dialogue. He picks a box, any box, and walks away. Cut scene.
I have had a similar experience returning from Afghanistan. Not long after my transition back from a small district of Ghazni province, I recall stepping into a Whole Foods somewhere near Fort Bragg, NC. My stomach turned. I gritted my teeth. I was visibly angry. After months of living off of Texas Pete hot sauce and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins (we didn’t have ground resupply where my unit was located), the sheer abundance of food, drink and household products made me feel nauseous.
Too many items. Too much variety. Just too much everything!
But, it was not only that there was too much of everything, it was the insignificance of the things of which there was so much. Seriously, how many kinds of breakfast cereals or M&M flavors does the human person need? How many soda flavors, toilet paper sizes, trash bag varieties, breath mints?
An Abundance of Triviality
We are drowning in an abundance of triviality in the West. Both in regard to material things as well as to ideas. Consumerism has always been the true threat of Capitalism, the real spiritual danger. Whitaker Chambers summed up the problem of a godless Capitalism in one pithy statement: “The West believes its destiny is prosperity and an abundance of goods. So does the Politburo.”
It is not social power or material disparities that many drone on about that plagues us (although it can be). Even Jesus said that the poor would always be with us (which does not mean we don’t help the poor). But the greatest saints of the Church knew to be more like Christ one would have to become poor and not only in spirit. The desert fathers, St. Benedict and St. Francis, Bunyan and even Baxter all understood poverty within and without was the better way to Christ.
The problem we face today is the creating of more stuff than is good for our souls. It is the problem of having too much stuff and of wrapping up our identity in our possessions. However, it is not just too much stuff, it is too much pointless stuff. Too many friends can be a problem of abundance, but not one of insignificant abundance. Too many I-Phones is.
The abundance of pointless commodities and fatuous ideas presented to us on a daily, almost hourly basis leads to something quite awful indeed, namely, an incredible waste of time. Not our time, God’s time. For God is the One Who has numbered our days. And when we waste God’s time on trivial things, we miss out on things that really matter.
None of us needs to ponder for 30 minutes which breakfast cereal to buy. None of us. But, there are other implications too. There are real implications for our daily faith.
Jesus’ Answer to Our Anxiety
Are we less anxious people on account of our abundance of stuff and endless choices? Burger King told us we could “have it our way” and we did. Where has it gotten us?
We could ask how the 21st-century citizen of a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) culture grapples with the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34? After all, here is the Master speaking to people so unlike us. People who lived with no security for the future. There were no insurance plans, health care plans, mortgage plans, savings plans, or retirement plans, let alone multiple options of each to consider, weigh and assess.
Like the men, women and children I met in Afghanistan, these were villagers who rarely, if ever, traveled. Their experiences limited to their village of 150 or 200 friends and family, and their short forty or fifty years of earthly living. Perhaps just coming out to see Jesus’ sermon on the mount was a major life event, and that even before Jesus opened their minds and hearts to God’s new revelation to the world.
How much more challenging was it for these “people of the land” (am ha’aretz) to hear Jesus’ words, words suggesting that they, of all people, should not worry about their next meal or their clothing. We hardly think of these things anymore. How did they react, these shepherds and fishermen who probably only had once piece of clothing, at best two? How do we relate to the same teaching, when we find ourselves so unrelated to its original audience?
What would Matthew 6:25-34 look like in today’s idiom? Might Jesus say to us “do not worry about your life, what kind of hamburger you will eat tonight or what flavor of coffee you will have in the morning, or about your body image, or what manner of underwear will be on sale at Target tomorrow.” After all, “isn’t life more than In-N-Out or 5 Guys?” “Isn’t the body more than yesterday’s tattoo or tomorrow’s piercing?” “Look to the airplanes in the sky? Do their mechanics not maintain them? Aren’t you worth more than a Boeing 747?”
And so it might sound for us today, but the sound is tinny and it rings hollow. In spite of our abundance, we remain anxious. We will always be anxious people, even amidst luxury, for we project significance onto that which is not. Then we fear losing it. We find things to be anxious about, because we are not really comforted by all the stuff around us, even if we think we need it. The stuff cannot do the work of making us who we were meant to be.
And this is why Bigelow’s scene rings true. Sergeant James, having lived with real anxiety, finds himself unable to cope with the triviality of abundance: a 70-foot long shelf dedicated solely to cereal. He is detached, not from the mundane per se but from the almost automatic way the mundane functions in the society of affluence. Here there is no struggle, no grappling with the great demands of sheer existence as one might find on a farm, an Alaskan fishing boat or in war. As such, there is no need for a daily faith. No real worry of what might come next. And certainly no reliance on God for our “daily bread.” Our formerly external anxieties are now all internal.
Battling Abundance: Ascetic Theology and Our Spiritual Good
I have no real answer to this very modern problem. Who, other than God, could have known in 30 AD in Palestine that many today would live like Herod did then? In the end, each one of us is going to have to find our own “wilderness” from which to escape this life of abundance and ease. Eugene Peterson makes one suggestion, however, about how we can start to be intentional about living out a daily faith in the culture of abundance. There is a ancient pursuit that we can reapply to our present context: asceticism.
Alluding to C.S. Lewis’ brilliant discourse in The Screwtape Letters on how the devil alters language, Peterson argues the word “ascetic” has been ruined for most moderns. This may be particularly the case for Protestants (who perhaps instinctively think of the Roman Catholic monasticism that Luther railed against). But, says Peterson, asceticism “is an athlete’s word” (Peterson, Working the Angels, 9). Paul knew asceticism and he did not see it as something reserved only for his stoic contemporaries,
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Peterson continues, considering how pastors might appear if they incorporated ascetic theology into their lives:
Who of us would be pleased to have someone call us an ascetical pastor and then have the adjective grow into a reputation? Think of what it would mean: no one would invite us to share in the frivolities of a party, or join in the vicarious barbarities of a football game [perhaps today, in an MMA fight], or even offer to buy us a Big Mac on the way home from a late meeting. If it were known that we were ascetical–unapproachable, unworldly–we would be cut off from most of the human race and how then would manage a workable pastoral ministry?
Peterson, Angles, 9
At first glace the practice of asectism sounds bleak, even counterproductive to fruitful ministry. But, asceticism is “training for excellence. It is the practice of the disciplines that fit us for performing our very best in an event” (Peterson, 9). Perhaps the audience (or the congregation) do not appreciate the years of labor, habituation and routine that go into the athlete’s gracious performance or the pastor’s seamless articulation of the Gospel. But, that is only because they have not witnessed the numerous steps taken and the manifold sacrifices made.
Peterson concludes: the ascetic practices of our Roman Catholic and Protestant forefathers and foremothers have not been tried and found wanting. The devil has maligned the word– changed it to mean something it was never meant to mean (Peterson, 10). In the culture of too much, asceticism can make us hungry again, spiritually hungry.
Three Areas of Asceticism
Spiritual growth takes place in the desert, not in the city. However, since there are not always literal deserts to go to, we must create desert spaces in our lives. Places for God to work in the midst of emptiness. In Baruch Levine’s commentary on Leviticus, he identifies the three domains of purity for the people of Israel:
Improper sexual unions, which would corrupt the family of Israel
Avoidance of pagan worship, which would alienate Israel from God
Avoidance of unfit food
Baruch Levine, Leviticus, in “The JPS Torah Commentary” (Philadelphia, PA: 1989), 248
It is “by such avoidance, [that the] Israelites are kept from bestiality; their humanness is enhanced” (Levine, 248).
Although no longer under the Levitical law, the law still gives guidance to the believer in Christ. Our habits of sex, food, and worship are what make us either more human, more like the complete human Jesus Christ, or more like the beasts. It is in these three areas that we should apply ascetic theology.
Scripture clearly lays out the boundaries for sex. I need not rehearse them here as I am no progressive interpreter of the Word of God or the Church’s traditions. Of course, sex is the domain where the smallest degree of impropiety has the largest effects. As sexed creatures, the sexual act touches the most intimate part of our human nature. Here, we must be most ascetic and most diligent if we are indeed to “live in our own land, unmolested” (Levine, 248).
However, improper use of food is often overlooked in our sex-obsessed culture. That we have terms like “food porn” (the excessive picture taking of food) goes to show that while all food is kosher for the Christian, our approach to food is often not. The sin of gluttony is a breakdown in purity, the purity of the body and the right use of God’s creation. Diets are not asceticism though, fasting is.
Finally, there is improper worship. This could be in the context of church, I suppose. However, if there are false forms of worship that consume us today, it seems to me they are to be found in the culture of entertainment. Most frequently in the endless watching of sports and streaming of movies. The madness over football, for example, which would include phenomena like “fantasy football” might be an area of serious reconsideration for the churchman or woman. And especially for the pastor and his elders.
It is not my aim to squash the simple joys in life. However, I think we seriously need to question whether our joys really are simple anymore? Or has abundance spoiled that simplicity?
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