Living in an intentional community, Chicago's Jesus People USA, and living in the inner city does help this soul to see American materialism as the blight it is. But that doesn't mean I'm not a participant in that blight. To what degree? is the real question. I fear I'm far more enmeshed than I will ever know.
By American standards, I live well below the poverty line. Last time I checked, that meant an income somewhere around $6,000 a year or so. I don't own a car, or my own house. I don't have a "nest egg" set aside for my old age. So praise me praise me? Mother Teresa, save a seat...?
Not quite. In fact, not even close.
I own four computers. Yes, two of 'em are really old. One I purchased for just 2 bucks at a yard sale and then took home, upgraded a little bit with cannibalized parts from other ancient boxes, and turned into an open-source SuSE Linux machine I use as a server/backup at work. Pretty thrifty, eh? And at home, I have another equally ancient Linux box I use as a second backup and just so I can play around with SuSE when I feel like it.
My laptop is very nice, though a little dated. And my main work machine is loaded. Those machines are worth far more than 2 bucks, probably around $2000 together. But why four? I guess just because I could, and because I enjoy putting old junk together and making it work.
I am surrounded by books. For a one room apartment, we have an incredible number of book shelves. And that's not all. Books are stacked on the floor both at home and at work, many of them books I meant to read, or mean to read, or half-read but never can quite finish. And then there's clothes... I have way, way too many T-shirts; I think they multiply whenever I open and close the drawers.
Now truth be told, I get many of my books and my clothes second-hand. It is a sort of Jesus People gospel, materially-speaking, that there is glory in getting a great deal at a local second-hand store called "Unique Thrift." And my wife and I haunt yard sales in the summertime; my entire stereo system cost me around 30 bucks, and includes a turntable, cassette deck, CD-player, modest home threatre amp/tuner, Stereo VCR ($5 from a friend; I fixed it up). Four speakers, two givent to me and two others costing me $10...
Oh, the DVD player was a gift from my wife last Christmas and cost $75.
The TV cost $225 around five or eight years ago, and is quite outdated these days. But speaking of TV, we're thinking of (ominous drum roll) getting DirectTV. Oh, great... now corporate America can beam into our home on a gazillion different channels instead of just Chicago's normal handful of broadcast channels. Is that a good idea?
Well, I hope so. Pretty tepid, but there it is. I think more in TV's case, despite the many witticisms that come to mind, really may be better. There is such a thing as quality television, as PBS is often able to prove (or sometimes disprove, but usually not as flamboyantly as its commercial competition). My wife and I in the evening often are quite tired, and like watching something vacuuous.
Yet isn't city life itself already making war on the contemplative? Do I really need more TV? Do I need more books? More stereo equipment? More computers? More clothes?
I guess I'm still sorting it all out. The real trouble is, of course, that I already am embedded into American materialistic culture like one of those reporters was embedded in Iraq when we invaded. My story is no more trustworthy than theirs, is it? The spin is pre-determined by the cultural blinders I am wearing.
All I can say is this: I'm trying, however feebly, to live a life that at least in some ways is not about consumption but rather is about Christ, the antithesis to consumption. That is the great irony of Christmas, that a holiday all about the Universe's Greatest Gift -- and Giver -- has become a generic "holiday" mostly about getting. Yet let me not be totally reductionist here. Even the buying is, on a vulnerable human level, also about wanting to bless with a gift, a shadow of the great Gift in that manger.
I consume, yes. But at least can I try to stay awake? Can I try not to be swept under by the relentless adverts blasting away from the soon-to-be more multichanneled than ever TV in my room? Can I keep yelling back?
I do in my tiny way want to keep living the life I am; living simply compared to many Americans, if more richly than 90% of the rest of the underdeveloped world. By sharing many of the material things of American life -- the building I live in, the cars I drive, the money I live on, the food I eat -- with others in intentional community, I do I hope and pray make a little difference.
These things are no hardship to me. I don't want a car, a house, a mortgage. By living as I do, I have been freed from some of that. And by enjoying "trailing edge technology" stereos and computers (i-pods are cool, esp. because I run a lot, but I don't think I'll get one until a newer "thing" comes along and makes them cheap), I'm able to avoid massive spending.
But there is the heart. And inside my heart, I cannot claim purity regarding lust for material objects. When I see my neighbor's new furniture, or brand new flat screen TV, I feel the tug of greed and covetousness. I bite on the lure, and the line of this materialistic culture begins to reel me in. Maybe has reeled me in!
All I can do is repent, try to live moderately, try not to be focused on material things but rather on relationships (both horizontal and vertical). After all, there is a simple rule I learned long ago about the inanimate world vs. the animate world. The more stuff I own, the less relationships I'll have. The stuff requires my attention. It breaks. It malfunctions. It needs updating. But so do my relationships. The stuff will burn one day, to put it into fundie terms. But the relationships, good or bad, have eternal consequences and eternal value.
Christmas. Where does it play into all this? Look, God is into material stuff himself. He came to earth, after all, in a body. That is an affirmation of "stuff" as being really cool, really wonderful. But more it is an affirmation of all humanity being wonderful.
If stuff is getting in the way of God, I'd better watch it. And if stuff is getting in the way of me loving my neighbor, I'd really better watch it. If stuff is instead helping bond me to my neighbor and to my Lord, then I will handle it with pleasure and even reverence as a gift. Yet it is a shadow-gift. Just as I choose not to drink alcohol for the sake of the many addicts I know, I choose to draw a line in my consumption. It may be a pathetic, half-baked line, one that many others who've drawn a harder line would laugh at.
It is Christmas. And this is a time to celebrate, give gifts, recieve gifts, and most of all receive one another.