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« Re: Another Reason | Main | What’s the Point? »

September 27, 2006

Responding to questions on Consumerism vs. Creative Culture

Brian Hollar, an economist and Christian over at Thinking on the Margin, has asked some thoughtful questions regarding my earlier post, Consumerism vs. Creative Culture:

1) Why do people make themselves and their children so busy? Do they do it out of neglect or from misplaced, but good intentions? I think a lot of parents want to avoid denying their children opportunities to develop skills and have experiences they think are good. What starts off as good motives sometimes transforms itself into an insane flurry of activity. Do you think the church helps or hurts more in this area? ... (You can see some of my thoughts on the busyness of families in a post I wrote in May ... )

Do any of our readers or other contributors with children want to take a stab at this? I think busyness varies from person to person in terms of motives. And each one of us, even when our motives are good, needs to frequently stop and re-evaluate our level of involvement and decide if we are honoring God and giving due diligence to concepts of Sabbath rest. Honestly I think sometimes we run from rest because we are running from the quietness where we have to confront God and our own deepest questions. But I've written more about that here.

Next Brian asks:

2) Hsu’s terms "production and provision" particularly stood out to me.  In this context, I wonder if there any fundamental difference between "provision" and "consumption"?  Provision certainly has a nicer ring to it and harkens to beneficent intent, but doesn't it ultimately mean the same thing as producing for the sake of self-consumption? Is this better or more moral than producing something that has value to others and exchanging it for goods to provide for your loved ones and yourself? Aren't consumption and production just two sides of the same coin? Isn't production without consumption really just a form of waste?

Here's some food for thought (pun intended) to illustrate my point: Imagine an over-ambitious mom who bakes fifty pies every day for her family of four.  Unless she gives some to the neighbors to eat (consume), she baked (produced) far more pies than what the family could reasonably use (consume). Isn’t she being wasteful?

In response Brian, I'm not sure if Hsu says anything about production vs. provision. I made a distinction between consumption and production, quoting Hsu, and he is saying that they are two opposite sides of, yes, the same coin. Taking your example, I think Hsu would suggest the woman share those pies as a means of Christian hospitality, something that has sadly been lost in our culture. But who knows, perhaps Mr. Hsu would comment on this for us. I'd encourage you to read his book and hear what he has to say in the context of living out a Christian worldview in a suburban culture. Finally, Brian asks:

3) Have our values changed or do we just have new opportunities now? One hundred years ago, it would have taken the better part of a day to go to and from town… and that was without bringing the kids along! Now we can easily zip around between cities in nice, air-conditioned mini-vans with a multitude of kids, groceries, sports gear, Gameboys, and Rover in tow. Are our priorities different today or is it just a matter of having new options open to us? Doesn’t this mean that families who focus on spending more meaningful time together have greater ability to do so than at any time in the past? Does the absence of this in a family indicate a lack of opportunity caused by our culture or a lack of priority in the choices made by individuals?

Good questions. I'm definitely not trying to deify a pre-urbanized culture. Every culture faces its challenges and has particular difficulties in learning how to express a Christian worldview. I was saying however, that in the past because parents and children did more actual work together in many cases problem-solving was more of a fluid part of their everyday lives. I will say our culture has elevated entertainment to a whole new level. It is hard to be counter-cultural in this. One great way would be for families to spend time serving together, whether that's working at a soup kitchen, restoring an elderly neighbor's fence, or working with another family on a shared project.

Finally Brian asks:

4) Is there an inherent dichotomy between consumption and creativity as Hsu alleges? For example, imagine how difficult it would be to develop theatrical skills if you never had a stage to perform upon, being a great writer with no one to read your work, or becoming a master composer without someone first buying a piano (which had to be produced by someone). The actor produces while the audience consumes. Once again, don’t production and consumption go hand in hand? If this is true, don’t we need consumption of some sort in order to for creativity to fully thrive?

Is the biggest problem with our culture the fact we produce vs. consume or is it more a problem of what we, as individuals, choose to consume?

Brian, I think in the context, you would see Hsu's not taking such a different approach than you. He's simply suggesting that in this culture where families and individuals spend so much time consuming, a healthy corrective is to spend some time creating, especially when that creation can further the Kingdom in some way. Thanks for your good questions. Hope this is helpful. I look forward to more good comments.

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Comments

MaryEileen

As a mom of 4 I once had my children in several activities each. One day when I called them, as usual, "quick like a bunny hop, hop" I realized this running around was crazy. I limited them to one activity each and that worked better for the spiritual, mental, and physical health of all of us.
My eldest son was made to discontinue soccer when games started to take place on Sunday, the Lord's Day. Churches do not hurt families; families that put sports, shopping, etc. ahead of God hurt churches. They are showing their children what is important to them. This so saddens me!
As a teacher I see parents put their children in so many activities that those take precedence over school work. Believe me the excuses we hear because their child had something else to do!
I try to do things WITH my children. That is the difference parents should make when they think they're doing their child a favor. Give them the best gift - your TIME.

Brian Hollar

Thanks for the response, Catherine! I feel honored to get mentioned in a post! Your answers are indeed helpful and give me some further thoughts to think about.

I will have to get a copy of Hsu's book. He has a blog called "The Suburban Christian" which can be found at:

http://thesuburbanchristian.blogspot.com/

Your idea for getting Hsu's feedback is an excellent one! If I can't track down his e-mail, I'll try leaving a comment on his blog and refer to both of your posts. It would be great to get him involved in this dialogue.

Al Hsu

Brian - Thanks for all your illuminating comments on this theme! I don't recall offhand now why I happened to use the word "provision" there and certainly didn't imagine that it would spark this degree of detailed discussion.

A few thoughts. "Consumption" and "consumerism" are easy targets for critique, but of course the challenge is that in modern society, for most of us, consumption is inescapable. How, then, shall we produce and consume more Christianly? I'm taking many of my cues from Vincent Miller's excellent book Consuming Religion, where he points out that consumer commodification is one of the key problems. Production and consumption have become divorced from local communities, so both producers and consumers are dehumanized and commodified into mere economic units. So the creational good of production becomes fallen when the good goal of provision becomes distorted - items are produced not because they are intended to meet a particular need, but because they can generate a particular profit. And that of course leads to exploitation, sweatshops, etc., where the economic engine of production overwhelms the personal, human values of provision.

Miller argues that in our modern industrial society, we are so many stages removed from workers that when we buy things at a store, we have no idea what the labor conditions were or the human costs involved in producing this or that commodity. A baker of pies feeding a local community is one thing - a multinational corporation with outsourced factories and eight or nine steps in the supply chain is something else entirely.

I just read The Long Tail, which talks about the shift from a consumer culture to a producer culture. He's primarily talking about media artifacts (blogging, books, music, video), but it's interesting to think about alternatives to mass industrial production and more local connections between producers and consumers. Production and consumption are always at work together, but my sense is that both can be done more or less justly. Production need not be exploitative, and consumption need not be mindlessly materialistic and greedy. I need to think more about "provision" as an overall theme for characterizing both ends of the process. It seems to me that this motif would help recenter us in how we do things - that production is done for the purpose of providing for real needs, not false ones.

As regards to the other topic of families having time together, something interesting I came across is that parents are actually spending more time with their kids now than they were twenty years ago (though in many cases, that "time" is little more than watching TV). But social capital is declining - nuclear families are focusing inward on their kids' activities rather than spending time in community service, volunteer work or church events. There's certainly much to be said about families recovering this sense of working together and doing life together - I just read the book Rumspringa, about the Amish, and it mentions how the decline of farms means that more Amish young people are working outside the home, away from parents, and that this eroding the Amish sense of community. How much more of a challenge it is for Christians in mainstream American society!

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