People today have more choices than ever. The reason, I suppose, is that we assume that more choices = more freedom, and more freedom = more happiness.
So we have 175 salad dressings available in the grocery store, and innumerable spaghetti sauce options, and cell phones that do all kinds of un-phonelike things. Options are everywhere (if you’re affluent, anyway, and if you’re reading this, you probably are; it’s good for us to remember that 1 billion people in this world live on less than $1 a day – they don’t have the same problem of choice that we do).
We see this proliferation of choice not only because we think it will make us happier, but because we are attempting to construct our identities nowadays by what we buy. I am what a choose – therefore I am what I buy. No longer are our identities furnished by our nationalities or familial connections – we construct our identities every day out of the raw materials of what’s available on the market. We pimp our Myspace pages and try to project an image of originality by our choices. Inventing yourself every day is a stressful project.
The trouble is that none of it is working. We aren’t happier. We’re actually getting more depressed – Barry Schwartz says that part of the reason is that whenever we choose something, we are rejecting all kinds of possibilities, and that tends to make us crazy. If I choose a salad dressing, I am thereby rejecting 174 salad dressings, and what if this isn’t the best-tasting one? The horror! And the identities we create through our purchasing choices aren’t authentic – in the end they always come off as plastic and fleeting.
This gets reflected in our churches as well. We choose a church based on how much it "offers" us. We leave churches if we’re not "getting a lot out of it." So we trot off to the next flavor, hoping to quench the gnawing boredom we feel. Marva Dawn says that oftentimes when we aren’t "getting" anything out of church, it’s because we haven’t really thought about putting anything into it. We treat it like a product to be consumed instead of a community to live and love and serve within. And church leaders have often inadvertently conspired with this trend, trying to "one-up" the church down the block with better graphics, better children’s ministry, better restrooms, a better "product" to attract consumers. But the of course we’re stuck in a cycle of always needing to out-do ourselves, to keep the masses entertained. It’s a downward spiral, because church was never meant to be entertainment, a product. It’s a community, a family, and it requires real investment on the part of its members.
The increasingly world-wide homogeneous consumer culture says you can find happiness and identity through choice. But it’s a lie. All we have to show for our efforts are fleeting, fake identities and temporary distractions from our boredom and hunger.
Ultimately we humans are desiring something more substantial: real Joy instead of infinite choice, authentic identity instead of "Who Do I Want To Be Today?" Both are found in the gospel. Read Matthew 6:25-34 and Philippians 4:4-8 to find out how to find real happiness. And Romans 8 will give us a good clue as to what our true identity is.
Amy Davis says
very insightful post Ben…thank you
Quote:…church was never meant to be entertainment, a product. It’s a community, a family, and it requires real investment on the part of its members.
As the global population becomes more technologically savvy, the experience of community becomes more vital. Our family subscribes to a mail-order DVD club and we’ve recently been watching, ‘Colonial House.’ This is one in a series of PBS projects where 21st century people volunteer to participate in a lifelike setting from an earlier era. What I have noticed about the ‘Colonial House’ series is how critical it is to the survival of the newly planted settlers to think as a community…psychologically as well as physically and spiritually. In previous ‘House’ series, the adjustment to primitive technology was the biggest hurdle. What is prominently critical about the circumstances of the 17th century setting is their very lives depend on one another, whether related by blood or proximity. As each random incidence of 21st century thinking begins to influence the 17th century community, their ability to thrive diminishes. What is striking about 21st century thinking is how self-focused it is…and how subtly it can spread.
One of the 17th century laws of the community was everyone must attend Sabbath meetings. One family with ambiguous beliefs, felt oppressed by this law and eventually broke it only to suffer the resulting consequences. The governor, a 21st century Baptist minister, chose a punishment of being loosely tethered by the foot to a pole for two hours and being made to wear a red letter representing the ‘D’issention their disobedience embodied. In the 17th century, the family would be made to leave the community and shunned. Eventually the governor of the community suspended the enforcement of consequences for breaking this law as the same family continued to skip the Sabbath service. The governor also felt it went against the message of the gospel to require people to attend services, and undermined the community’s ability to complete necessary work. The wife of the man who was responsible to plan the weekly Sabbath service felt it was her duty, as a liberated 21st century woman, to protest this suspension of consequences for not attending the services her husband prepared. As her expression of protest, she chose not to obey the law requiring women to cover their heads. In the prelude of the series, she and her husband are both college professors and the husband remarked about the vast difference between their West Coast liberal religious convictions when compared to what they perceived would be the ideology of a conservative Texas Baptist ministers’ family. Throughout the first three episodes I have watched so far, the subtle unwillingness to think as symbiotic organism is proving to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome without a major shift in ideology from one of isolation to one of community.