When Craig Goodwin’s account of his family’s year of conspicuous consumption made its transition from a blog to the printed page, it acquired a breathless subtitle: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living.
Those “four rules” of the subtitle are clear enough. The book lists them in the first chapter. But there’s a more abstract — and potentially more contentious — issue lurking in the two words at the subtitle’s end. What exactly defines “Christian living,” and how does it tie in with eating locally grown food and buying used goods?
The answer isn’t an easy one, even for a pastor like Goodwin. That may be why his ground rules are allotted two pages in Year of Plenty, whereas the remaining 198 are given over to musings on the role of Christianity in consumer culture. And vice versa.
Participation in American hyper-consumption presents any number of hang-ups for contemporary Christians. Chief among these is what Goodwin identifies as “a disconnect between … the life of spiritual seeker and materialistic shopper.”
This disconnect results in a false choice between a spiritual life or a material one. It also prompts church leaders to engage in theological acrobatics to reconcile the two while attempting to keep them separate. Goodwin laments that “instead of innovating tenable alternatives, we have tried hard to find ways of making faith fit into the prevailing practices of consumption.”
These thoughts help to sustain a necessary, non-hyperbolic dialogue that is already taking place in many different faith communities. But it also means that Goodwin has had to retrofit his family’s endeavor with a high-minded justification that runs counter to his stated goal of simplicity. There’s something telling in his admission that the farmers market held in his church’s parking lot “was fun and exciting and adventurous but the connections with our faith were not altogether clear.”
Still, Year of Plenty does clear some thorny overgrowth at the intersection of Christianity and consumer culture, leaving fertile ground where an intelligent debate might grow.