A New Asceticism: Who Defines Excess?

February 13, 2019

After considering both the merits and idols of the minimalist movement in the first part of this article, another important question remains: in the realm of minimalism, why is it only a select culture of people who get to define what is and isn’t a healthy internal and external reality? We in the church already struggle with allowing only a select culture of believers to define what is and isn’t “good fruit,” despite the truth that healthy fruit is about more than appearances, and different trees bear different amounts and varieties of fruit. No one person is the template for what the entirety of healthy living looks like. Even Jesus, our tangible experience of the intangible God, was limited in his lifestyle by his skin tone and body type, by his location, time, and economic status. The eternal biblical truths of God-oriented praise, humility, and worship look very different from culture to culture, and even from person to person.

What is excess in one person’s experience might be simplicity in another person’s life. The minimalist culture is precisely that—an entire culture with mores, taboos, and ideals. Despite minimalism having many Asian roots, most minimalist websites and publications are full of gleaming, spotless white surfaces, and young, thin white people. Author and fashionista Gina Tonic, in an article for Bustle, explains that “I have never been interested in minimalism but at the same time, minimalism has never been interested in me,” exposing the overlooked truth that “minimalism in fashion is exclusionary to plus size women.” Minimalism is all about sleekness and lack of excess, so those over size 6 (“plus size” being defined as size 8 and up!) are seen by the fashion industry as being excessive in their very bodies. Yolanda V. Acree, blogger and founder of the Black Minimalists community, also laments that “when I first started exploring minimalist resources online, I noticed that many of the popular people advocating minimalism…were white.” Her website is clean and streamlined, with artful pictures of brown hands and black bodies; I was saddened to realize that the reason I found it so visually refreshing was that it is the exception to the rule, not the standard. Minimalism is exclusionary at its very core: if something doesn’t fit the desired aesthetic, then it is not valuable. And if it’s not valuable, then it needs to go.

Even those of us who might fit the minimalistic standard in our natural appearance or habits are vulnerable to the emphasis on image and displaying one’s life as a curated exhibit. In minimalism, the image is what truly matters, and to get the perfect image, unchecked minimalism would teach us that the reality behind the image must also be light, ephemeral, and effortless. In this scheme, certain things and people are esteemed as being more valuable, if only for their usefulness. Paradoxically, material goods and human beings become less valuable—if we are to follow the exhortation to focus only on what makes us happy. In the world’s reasoning, it is a logical and inevitable progression from “say goodbye to material goods that don’t make you happy” to “say goodbye to people that don’t make you happy.” One renowned minimalist and travel blogger has written a book on “non-standard relationships,” explaining that every relationship (friends as well as lovers) has an expiration date of approximately four months, after which he will move on to another country. His blog, “Exile Lifestyle,” is “all about new experiences, adaptability and learning”—all good things—but the fact remains that if we as believers mindlessly “buy less but invest in quality” and “opt for the same in relationships, business, and everything else,” we may be losing sight of the importance of our own God-given exile.

Lest we in the church become smug in our lofty perspective, a quick survey of our own listless hearts, especially as showcased in the western culture of “church-hopping” and high divorce rates, should draw us back to the truth. We are a fallen, flighty people who struggle to put our love for the material world in its rightful place. We pendulum-swing from one extreme to the other—one minute obsessing over good gifts (instead of the great God who has given them), the next moment tilting unhealthily into a Gnostic preoccupation with all things “spiritual.” Neither of these extremes is what God has for us. In Jeremiah 29, God calls his exiled people to settle in and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” When we buy into the self-focused goals of minimalism, seeing the world as our proverbial oyster, we lose sight of the kingdom. When we are so busy ensuring that our worldly possessions can all fit in a carry-on bag, we might also be forgetting that we were made to live in community, interdependent with one another. When the few clothes we own are more about our sartorial aesthetic than about caring for our bodies, we lose sight of the good work with which we have been tasked in the here and now.

Rather than telling his followers to forsake the material world completely, Christ exhorts us to seek him first. Then, with our hearts focused on him, we finite, creaturely beings can ask for that which we need to serve and thrive. Our longing for the New Heavens and the New Earth must start in our appreciation of and caring for all that is within the sphere of our current earthly reality. Whether our taste in material goods runs to the stark or elaborate end of the spectrum, we find our hope not in minimalism, but in the embodied promise of our king’s second coming. The New Jerusalem glimpsed in Revelation is hardly an ethereal place of Scandi-style sparseness. Our eternal co-reign will not be merely a time of lounging on fluffy white clouds and artfully arranged Ikea sofas. We as believers must rejoice in the earthy, solid promise of a flourishing city with a flowing river, a tree in full leaf, and the glorified, embodied Christ at its center. There our priorities will be fully aligned with God’s will, our agenda and values fully anchored in the lamb on the throne. We will have finally relinquished our grasping, desperate efforts to control things, people, and even ourselves. The passing things of this life will be stripped away, but what matters is not merely a streamlined spirituality, void of material.

We may find ourselves surprised at the solid things we will encounter in that eternal city, realities which were shown dimly in the here and now by the shadowy objects we worked so hard to keep or give away. Someday—O glory!—we will be fully clothed in the weighty, solid, radiant righteousness of our Lord Jesus. Our raiment will be no mere laundry detergent commercial, freshly-washed white. It will be colorful in a way we can’t imagine, washed clean in the blood of Jesus, and reflecting the glory of the Lord in each of our diverse faces. And our joy will be no mere struggling spark, no feeble flicker, but a joy consummate in the holy fire of the Lord. Hardly minimal, our joy will then be complete.

About the Author
  • Chandra Crane (B.S. Education, M.A. Ministry) is a Multiethnic Initiatives Resource Specialist with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a member of the multiethnic Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in a multiethnic/multicultural family in the Southwest and now happily transplanted to the Deep South, Chandra is passionate about diversity and family. Chandra is the author of Mixed Blessing: Embracing the Fullness of Your Multiethnic Identity (InterVarsity Press). She is married to Kennan, a civil engineer, and they have two spunky daughters.  Chandra is a fan of hot tea, crossword puzzles, Converse shoes, and science fiction. She thoroughly enjoys reading, napping, and defying stereotypes. You can follow her random thoughts on Twitter: @ChandraLCrane and on Instagram: @MixedBlessingBook.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?