In my early twenties, I discovered Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster. I’d like to say it changed my life, though it’s probably more accurate to say it changed my thinking. I love the teaching itself, but when it comes to implementing the beautiful, biblical simplicity that Foster offers—a simplicity drawn from the unity of Christ himself that drives us to a simple (but not simplistic) way of being in the world—I always come up short. My choices lead me to clutter. I am married with two kids, and without spending much money we find ourselves laden with goods. Most everything is from a garage sale or thrift store. (It’s only fifty cents, so you might want to have it on hand, right?) Other people’s trash is truly our treasure. And there is no doubt that the piles in my house reflect (or form?) what can feel like a cluttered spirit. To put it simply, I have been patently unsuccessful at simplicity.
With this backdrop, I have been excited to see more attention given lately to simplicity along with its cousin minimalism. And yet I find myself almost immediately suspicious of what I hoped would be a cultural move in the right direction. I am referring to the “tiny home” thing and the “only keep things that spark joy” thing and the “do everything efficiently” thing. All of these seem to have both a large base in pop culture and a corollary in the church. Should I go with Getting Things Done (a classic efficiency book) or Do More Better (which seems like a Christianized version of the first book)? Do I need to read Marie Kondo’s bestselling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up or the Christian rendition, Unstuffed: Decluttering Your Home, Mind, and Soul? Will any of these do more than tell me what I’m doing wrong? Can they provide alternative routines that are sustainable? Can they captivate my heart in a way that really changes how I live?
There is a lot to like about this movement from a Christian perspective. The North American church surely does overconsume, and moving toward the right kind of simplicity would be beautiful and countercultural. (Would it look anything like the minimalism movement? I’m not sure.) Richard Foster’s simplicity is seamless, from the spiritual to the practical, and so he would agree with the minimalists on some things. (Better to have one high-quality item produced with integrity than cheap plastic Walmart stuff.) On the other hand, Foster is coming out of a depth that I think most minimalism lacks, so I am not sure how much culture is likely to move, really, or whether it will sustain these practices if they fall out of vogue. Foster’s idea of simplicity begins with “inward” simplicity. He starts by describing us in our natural state:
Within all of us is a whole conglomerate of selves. . . . And all of these selves are rugged individualists. No bargaining or compromise for them. Each one screams to protect his or her vested interests. If a decision is made to spend a relaxed evening listening to Chopin, the business self and the civic self rise up in protest at the loss of precious time. The energetic self paces back and forth impatient and frustrated, and the religious self reminds us of the lost opportunities for study or evangelistic contact.
(Cue up “Strumming my pain with his fingers, / Singing my life with his words”!) Foster starts here and moves us to the idea of unity of purpose—of getting these arguing voices to find common cause in the single goal of seeking Christ. Fundamentally, this is all about a unified vision of life “in Christ.” It manifests in a life characterized by a certain kind of cohesion—an integrity and coherence—where the simplicity then spills from the inner to the outer life.
I have to think movement toward simplicity leads us toward certain kinds of holiness and obedience that we’re lacking. Surely Sabbath fits in here somewhere. Tish Harrison Warren’s thoughtful writing has convinced me that being less encumbered could be good for staying in touch with both the daily “liturgy of the ordinary” as well as actual Sabbath. And then there’s creation care. I have Christian friends who do something sort of like minimalism for the sake of the earth that God made, and toward the goal of maintaining its beauty and utility for both God’s image bearers and his other creatures. It is beautiful. It is intense. I struggle because I admire them, but also know that if I did that, it would be the only thing I did. It seems like a full-time job to try to generate zero waste.
Other aspects of the broader cultural movement strike me as less inspiring and more concerning. For instance, things are still at the centre of this new movement that is purportedly anti-consumerist. It seems to me that minimalists are obsessed with “things.” This is true whether it is optimally furnishing a tiny house or optimally parenting little ones using just the right toys, introduced at just the right times, and in just the right quantities. It’s weirdly specific. Can one be a “consumption Pharisee”?
I also worry about what happens to hospitality when we decide that having “extra” is uniformly bad. I have read about people making the case for “one” of everything, with the example, “If you drink coffee each day, you just need one mug, not ten.” To which I say: “as long as I don’t ever have anyone over!” Similarly, I struggle with purposely choosing tight spaces to live that make hospitality difficult; it seems like another form of individualism and even social isolation, at least if it isn’t paired with other kinds of commitment to using communal spaces regularly and intentionally. Am I just defending my big house, which was purchased partly because we knew what commitments we would have for hosting people? I wish I knew.
I am so excited about this issue on minimalism because I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I know people whose insights will help all of us. Jamie Smith once wrote an essay about “posers” that helped distinguish among types of Christians who might be labelled “hipsters.” It turns out you might like Wendell Berry and care about social justice because it’s cool, but you also might like Wendell Berry and care about social justice because it’s good. With simplicity, de-cluttering, and minimalism, both among the faith-motivated and others, some people are doing this to be cool (creating a special kind of consumer, but fundamentally still just a consumer). But others—and many in these pages—are embracing some really beautiful practices for beautiful reasons, even godly ones.