Archive for category Consumerism

Can I have my quinoa and the Andean farmer eat it too?

“If you are dependent on people who don’t know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe.”  Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community.”

The irony of it is staggering and sobering – and, please, may it lead us to serious reconsideration of our economic habits and practices.

Quinoa – a beautifully simple grain, low in fat, rich in protein, nutritionally loaded, with a fashionable, exotic touch to it – a miracle gift to those concerned with marrying a diet for personal health along with a concern for low environmental impact living.  It is coveted by the well-intended as a new super-food and it’s celebrity status was marked by the UN declaring 2013 the Year of Quinoa.  Yet in another instance of the butterfly effect of the global farmer-quinoaeconomy, an article in the Guardian reports that this grain, a staple for Andean communities in Peru and Bolivia, is now so overpriced that local populations can’t afford to eat it, turning instead to low-cost alternatives (aka. junk food).

It’s enough to make you crazy – and it should because it seems another example of the economic confusion we call normal.  You know the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over again but expecting different results.  We replicate this quinoa scenario over and over, raiding local communities through the global reach of a market economy and trusting the whole venture will turn out for the mutual benefit of all but with the same dispiriting results – local economies irrevocably altered, local ways of life disturbed and often damaged, local communities and cultures ignored.

The Guardian article observes that “the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there.”  But it’s more than that – it seems another troubling example of a damaging economic order.

Or maybe it’s just all earnest hand-wringing in the face of inevitable economic change.  That’s what food-economics author and University of Toronto professor Pierre Desrochers claims – this is the typical speed-bump along the road of economic development that will bring some improvement in standards of living to subsistence economies.

But I hear a note of economic determinism in the professor’s words, a sense that there really is no standing in the way of such global economic development so might as well lean into the inevitable change.  I mostly lack the smarts to understand the economic complexities or the prophetic edge to speak like this often, but there’s an unmistakeable totalitarian vibe to this global economy.  It’s like the colonialist impulse all over, so that we, in the well-resourced west, can tap the resources of a far-flung geographic community with little, if any, consideration or forethought for the impact on that community, without naming human values and community needs that trump economic imperatives.

Wendell Berry, a true prophetic voice, writes that “the global economy does not exist to help communities and localities of the globe.  It exists to siphon the wealth of those communities and places into a few bank accounts.”  Read Mr. Berry – deeply and often.

All this leaves me convinced again something has to shift.  Economists out there, can we not imagine new economic practices and systems that serve the well-being of all, especially the poor?  It strikes me as morally and economically off to produce a local product in such a way that prices it out of reach for the very ones who cultivate it and depend upon it for basic living.  Something stinks in the system and I’m left overwhelmed by the scope.  I mean, seriously, how do you do no harm and transform a global economic order?  And that drives me to my knees, doing the one thing I can do confidently: praying for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  But I want that prayer to get me off my knees too, doing something to see that Kingdom come in our economic order.  Any suggestions?

Ah quinoa, I was just beginning to love you – but unless we can find a better way, I’m called to love my Andean neighbours more.

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A saint, a dude and an ordinary joe

A saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects. G. K. Chesterton

No, Virginia, that paunchy, red-suited, white-bearded stranger who breaks into people’s houses once a year is not real – he’s an imposter, a sham and serves as st-nickthe front-man for the consumer empire we live in.

But yes, Virginia, Saint Nicholas is real – the real deal and tomorrow, December 6, is his day.  I know, it’s not Christmas – and that’s the whole purpose.  The Feast of St. Nicholas is perfectly timed to get us in a generous, Jesus way of being, giving us the space and time to focus in on the gift of Jesus at Christmas.

And even if he wasn’t true, you should want him to be.  Think of the differences between these two polar opposites:

  • Santa is the ultimate moralist, keeping his harshly judgment “naughty/nice” list on everyone – St. Nicholas got the gospel groove and poured out his resources for others, no matter how badly they lived.jvanovsky6-sm
  • Santa won’t let you be emotionally authentic (better not pout, better not cry); St. Nicholas heard the cries of the poor and was moved by compassion.
  • Santa Claus is a jolly, ho-ho-ing fellow who isn’t insulted by whatever you might believe about Jesus, or for that matter about anything; St. Nicholas is a dude who will pop you if you pull any of that historical revisionist schtick on Jesus (see video below)
  • For Santa to do his thing, traveling across the globe in a single night, he has to break all known laws of physics.  For St. Nicholas to do his thing, it requires a broken heart.
  • Santa teaches kids that their role in life is one of consumption; your primary function is to simply open up all the goodies that magically appear at no cost to you.  St. Nicholas teaches that a life of gratitude is lived in service to others.
  • Santa’s favourite hangout is in climate-controlled, highly polished malls; St. Nicholas was mostly found on the mean streets with the poor.
  • Santa is the patron saint for mass consumerism; St. Nicholas is the patron saint for compassion for the poor.
  • Santa has a massive marketing network in operation; St. Nicholas preferred to do things on the quiet.jvanovsky-12-sm
  • Santa has elves working as slave labourers; St. Nicholas was an early crusader against human trafficking, paying the debt of a father who was about to sell his daughters into bondage (doing so by throwing gold coins in through a window where they landed in stockings hanging out to dry).

Yeah, I hear you – “but he’s a saint, a mythical, air-brushed image of perfection that you could never be even if you tried really hard.”  And sure, there’s some legend that’s grown around Saint Nicholas.  But let’s think for a bit about saints.

Popularly understood, a saint is a spiritual superhero who has lived a life of uninterrupted virtue.  But the bible and church history point other ways, showing us that a saint is one whose life is a virtuoso display of God’s grace in a sometimes muddied and muddled life.

The genius of ordinary joe’s like Nicholas lies not in their unattainable virtue or heroic devotion but a grace that is available to all of us.  As poet Margaret Avison writes: “The best / must be, on earth / only the worst in course of / being transfigured.”

Saints like Nicholas are a witness to the truth, they are, as Kathleen Norris writes, “Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.”   They offer you and me a fresh display of what this Jesus life looks like in everyday living.

imagesAnd they give us a needed jolt to our culturally blunted awareness of holiness and grace.  In our “shopacalyptic” consumer world, Saint Nicholas offers a sharp prick of Kingdom reality to our understanding of a gospel life.

So, Virginia, tomorrow, mark the day and celebrate the real deal – St. Nicholas, the saint, the dude, this ordinary guy.

And let me help you get into a St. Nick state of mind: before you head out tomorrow, grab a fistful of loonies and twoonies ($1 and $2 coins) and give them away to anyone (I mean anyone) who asks.  Stash a few extra bills in your wallet or purse for the sole purpose of giving them away to help someone in need that day.  Do something kind for another person; sponsor a child (http://www.causekids.ca/ or https://children.worldvision.ca/sponsorship/Forms/Child.aspx?service=page/Child&lang=en&type=A&mc=3335304); call up that lonely person and just listen; get informed on the reality of human trafficking; find out what IJM is doing about women sold into sexual slavery; buy some groceries for the homeless guy; encourage someone – and do it all secretly.  But mostly, have your heart broken for all things God’s is.

And one more thing – a life of justice and compassion feeds and is sustained on God’s goodness, so treat yourself to a chocolate or two as a reminder of that  (a good tradition my Dutch tribe celebrates on Sinterklaas).

Go for it now – be what you are, a saint.

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An anthem for Black Friday – reprise

Just had this piece posted on the CRC Network site so figured I’d repost an edited version of it here today.

Today is Black Friday south of the 49th, the biggest consumer bender known to humanity.  Called black because merchants’ books finally crossover from the red into the black, it’s an apt adjective for other reasons.  And it would be so easy to watch the spree and smugly gloat, believing I’m free from that, above it all.  Truth is, what separates me from a Black Friday binge is merely opportunity.

In the past year, since stepping down as Sr. Pastor at River Park Church and stepping into a time of pared down living, I’ve spent a fair bit of time simply scraping away the accumulated clutter of life.  I find myself surprised, wondering where all this stuff came from? I’m developing a theory about the reproductive capacities of inert material things, certain that my books, the children’s toys, electronics and clothes are all mating with each other, my desk drawers, filing cabinets and closets their dimly lit breeding grounds, with Barry White playing somewhere in the background.

I’d happily settle for that convenient explanation but the uglier truth hitting home is that for all this stuff, I saw it, I desired it, I justified its importance to my life, I had to have it, I pursued it, and in the end, I bought it.  Here’s an illustrative event, the moment a box of books (my drug) arrives from Amazon (my dealer) – the immediate hit is like a drug entering the bloodstream; I’m flush with excitement, feeling a boosted sense of identity (just having “that” book or clothing item/gadget/outdoor gear/music/artwork/whatever makes me feel smarter and savvy, well-read and in-touch, manly and spiritual).  And yet the same unbelievably boring cycle repeats itself, that in weeks, if not days, the gleam is gone and whatever it was I saw and wanted now becomes what it really is – stuff that clutters my life, needs to be maintained and cared for, and gets stored away somewhere, forgotten, stumbled upon, then hauled off and either sold, recycled or tossed.

I’m struck scared by how deep the demon is in me (the evidence is strewn all about me), how my life has been discipled into this consumer way of living without me really seeing it happen at all.  Consumerism has become an alternative but dominant religion in our world, hawking meaning, identity and purpose for our lives.  Count up all the time, energy, and hope, let alone money, that get invested in researching, ogling, desiring, pursuing, purchasing, enjoying and acquiring stuff – then tell me how free you are from this thing.

Arguably, the problem is not the stuff itself, it’s the wantings.  It’s your heart, my heart sick with desire, the wanting for something that an Ipad, sweater, new house or Chia-pet will never fill.  Something has us and how we need healing.

Which brings me to needed beauty, a shot-to-the-heart song of confession from the Avett Brothers.  If you’ve never heard of them, Seth and Scott Avett are two Jesus looking dudes with raw, beautiful music that heals and brings life.  They blew me away two summers ago in a fantastic festival show, and now they’re on repeat in our Ipod at home.  And I can’t think of a better anthem for Black Friday than Ill with Want.

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The end of my carnal affair

C.S. Lewis described his conversion to Christianity this way: “I was dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of God.” Those are words that describe my reluctant conversion towards a vegetarian diet.

The simple truth is I love being a carnivore. BBQ ribs, chicken masala, grilled Alberta steak, souvlaki skewers, pulled pork sandwich, cedar-plank salmon, tri-tip, filet mignon, ossobuco, bratwurst, roasted lamb, the ordinary hamburger … you know I could go on and on. I love meat. Come on, I live in Alberta, home of beef ranches and beef lovers. And yet, as much as I hate to say it, I think my long, very carnal affair with meat may be drawing to a close.

So why consider such culinary madness? It’s not a health issue, definitely not a moral “animal cruelty” issue (as one restaurant says, there’s plenty of room for all God’s creatures, right beside the mashed potatoes). It’s the carnivore’s dilemma – how can the world sustain the consumption of meat at North American rates? Simply stated, you can’t.

Tomorrow, October 16, is is World Food Day (here’s a new acronym for the file, FAO-UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). I’m not a big fan of all these special days but this is an issue that needs not only our focused consideration in the west but our changed dietary practices.

Here’s the nub of the issue – increased standards of living and wealth means many people worldwide are wanting the lifestyles we, in the West, take for granted as normal. More and more people want to eat more and more meat and dairy products. This shift is driving up the demand for and the price of animal feed. All these grains, often the staple of most of the world’s diet for bread, pasta and other grain based food, are now gobbled up in meat production.

Track out the net effects of this and a number of compelling arguments for an increasingly vegetarian diet emerge. There’s the basic humanity argument – should we not be using grain to feed fellow human beings instead of raising protein? This is a no brainer – how can we fatten a cow to grace a dinner plate yet watch a fellow human wither from famine?

There’s the justice argument – how can I deny to other humans the lifestyle I expect to enjoy as a basic norm (accessible meat at pretty much any meal). If giving every family in the world a pig to eat breaks the limits of sustainability for earth’s resources, how dare I expect to enjoy meat every day?

There’s the energy argument – a 6 oz. steak requires 16 times more energy than a caloric equivalent (360 calories) of vegetables and rice. In the same comparison, growth of beef generates 24 more times of greenhouse gasses than the vegetables and rice (from NY Times – see here). A vegetarian diet simply has a much smaller carbon hoofprint.

There are a number of writers on the matter but I really like the approach of Mark Bittman (author of How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and Food Matters – my good, food-conscious friends Pam and John say this is the one to check out). I like Mark Bittman’s flexitarian approach (check out his website for articles on the matter and loads of recipes). He has some basic principles that make this conversion do-able. Here are a few:

  • Eat one pound of meat a week (two pounds at most). (Besides, going “cold turkey” is still carnivorous so this is a more attainable goal)
  • Rely on meat for flavour more than bulk.
  • Think of eggs and dairy as treats. (oh, but I can’t do without the cream in my coffee)
  • Go crazy on plants. (Ok, but teach me how to cook these in an interesting way instead of boiling the life out of them into a mushy, tasteless, greyish-green blob)
  • Eat legumes every day.
  • Vegan until six (p.m. that is. Again, this seems pretty do-able).

So I’m thinking flexitarian. I’m shooting to start out with a meatless meal a week. I could spiritualize it and call it a fast from meat … and maybe that wouldn’t be a bad way to frame it because I think this is a grace issue, a way to map out the meaning of the gospel for daily life. 2 Corinthians 8:8,9 says “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

I know that grace, so why can’t I become a little meat-poor so someone who shares God’s image can become life-rich. And because I know that grace there’s a little less kicking and screaming going on.

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The eighth deadly sin?

I think we need to update the list of deadly sins – and  I vote that shopping just might be the greatest modern enemy to living the Jesus life.

The church in North America is in such a dangerous place and we hardly know it.  We exist in an environment of consumerism; it’s the air we breathe and so we hardly notice it – even in church.  The demon is in deep and we’ve been discipled into a consumer way of life instead of a Jesus way of life.  It shapes our expectations of church, our hopes for the Christian life, the desires of our hearts.  And I’ll be the first to own this: “Hi my name is Phil and consumer living has co-opted my allegiances and heart desires.”

We need to start frank conversations in churches about this.  There’s a few good books out addressing this reality.  For example, James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom explores how we are formed by our desires and less so our thoughts.  It’s a very important introduction to the reality of how we are formed, despite what we might cognitively hold to be true.  Skye Jethani’s The Divine Commodity is an accessible critique of the consumerism that grips the North American church.

And there’s a new book out I’m looking forward to reading called The Renovation of the Church.  Here’s a soberingly good quote from the book:

I don’t know how to say this in a gentle way, but we should not assume that those people who are attracted to our church have been captivated by the message of Christ and his alternative vision of life. In truth, most North American Christians are not riding courageously on warrior steeds with swords waving wildly in the air, crying out, “Let’s change the world for Christ.” Rather, they come in the air-conditioned comfort of their SUV or minivan with their Visa card held high in the air, crying out, “Let’s go to the mall!”

We should be more truthful with each other here. They come because their high-school kid likes the youth program, or because their children don’t get bored, or because they like the music, or because the pastor preaches the Bible the way they believe it should be preached, or because they happened to be greeted by a smiling face one day, or because the worship leaders looks like Brad Pitt.

This is the hard, raw reality of life in the North American church. The people who come to our churches have been formed into spiritual consumers. This is who we are. It is our most instinctive response to life. And you can hardly blame us. Almost everything in our culture shapes us in this direction. But we must become deeply convinced that this is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one who invited us to deny ourselves and lose our lives in order to find them. If we do nothing to confront this in our churches, we are merely putting a religious veneer over consumerism and nothing is changed. We offer no real, viable, attractive, alternative way of living. And what is worse, our churches become part of the problem. By harnessing the power of consumerism to grow our churches, we are more firmly forming our people into consumers. Pastors end up being as helpful as bartenders at an Alcoholics Anonymous convention. We do not offer what people really need.

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A “pretty” dangerous place

The mall is not my friend as a dad to two children, not hospitable to raising healthy human beings.  Sure, it provides clean and supervised play areas as well as interesting food courts with carousels but the rest of the place is a damn hazard.  And not because it is the temple of all things consumer – in fact, you don’t have to buy a thing there to pick up something far worse.  A simple stroll through the mall sends enough devastating messages to distort our character and wreck our moral imagination.  I can sift, sort and discern my way through this as an adult, but my kids simply absorb it all.

Maybe I’ve been been able to filter this out before, could be I’m becoming an old fart, or likely it’s because I’m dad to a daughter, but a recent walk through a local mall left me unsettled by the siren images in so many of the store-fronts.  Call me a prudish, Victorian, censorious, stuffy prig but I was shocked by the brazen sexuality on display in that mall (and I feel like I’m not easily shocked).  So many of the female models wear little clothing and the most prominent thing they do sport is a receptive open mouth, a come-hither gaze, or a coquettish pose.  If there is a male-female couple in the image, the female is usually draped over the male, pretzeled into a seductive embrace.  And this is not only the strategy of secretive Victoria but includes shoe vendors – even a children’s clothing store wickedly (I use that word with precision) hawks their goods with images of kids vogueing with faux seductive looks and poses.

I’m a fool to take my kids to the mall for an afternoon.  Strolling through this marketing gauntlet, my daughter is trained in what it means to be a woman in our culture: “Let your appearance be flawless; live up to an impossible standard of physical beauty; don’t bother with your character, intellect, or heart – your greatest asset is your body and it is a sexual tool – flaunt it.  Discretion limits you – the way to find worth is through seduction.  Buy that perfect blouse, the right dress and you will be acceptable.”  And my son, already able to pick up most every nuance of any message, is discipled into what our society considers manhood by these images alone: “Women are for your pleasure – viewing pleasure, sexual pleasure.  Don’t engage them as real persons; they are beautiful bodies.  Keep them abstracted in your imagination as creatures of desire.  Dominate them, wear them like clothes that can be discarded when they are tired or out of style.”

Don’t misunderstand my ranting.  The human body is a glorious thing of beauty; sex is a spectacularly great gift of God; we are sexual beings.  But the whole of human is so much more!

I track this out ten years from now: what do I tell my daughter after all these messages have sunk deep into her anxiety-riddled psyche and she tells me how much she hates how she looks?  How do I help my son, bombarded with titillation and innuendo, to see women as far more than how hot she is?

Maybe you think is just me, a guy struggling with his own repressed sexuality, importing all my “stuff” into innocuous images in a store window; if so, give Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia a read.  Or check out this brilliant, moving video of slam poet Katie Makkai called “Pretty” (and again, if you find the f-bomb offensive, this video has one use of it.  Sorry, two of those in one day).

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An anthem for Black Friday

Tomorrow is Black Friday south of the 49th, the biggest consumer bender known to humanity.  Called black because merchants’ books finally crossover from the red into the black, it’s an apt adjective for other reasons.  And it would be so easy to watch the spree and smugly gloat, believing I’m free from that, above it all.  Truth is, what separates me from a Black Friday binge is merely opportunity.

In the past few weeks, since stepping down as Sr. Pastor at River Park Church and stepping into a time of pared down living, I’ve spent a fair bit of time simply scraping away the accumulated clutter of life.  I find myself surprised, wondering where all this stuff came from? I’m developing a theory about the reproductive capacities of inert material things, certain that my books, the children’s toys, electronics and clothes are all mating with each other, my desk drawers, filing cabinets and closets their dimly lit breeding grounds, with Barry White playing somewhere in the background.

I’d happily settle for that convenient explanation but the uglier truth hitting home is that for all this stuff, I saw it, I desired it, I justified its importance to my life, I had to have it, I pursued it, and in the end, I bought it.  Here’s an illustrative event, the moment a box of books (my drug) arrives from Amazon (my dealer) – the immediate hit is like a drug entering the bloodstream; I’m flush with excitement, feeling a boosted sense of identity (just having “that” book or clothing item/gadget/outdoor gear/music/artwork/whatever makes me feel smarter and savvy, well-read and in-touch, manly and spiritual).  And yet the same unbelievably boring cycle repeats itself, that in weeks, if not days, the gleam is gone and whatever it was I saw and wanted now becomes what it really is – stuff that clutters my life, needs to be maintained and cared for, and gets stored away somewhere, forgotten, stumbled upon, then hauled off and either sold, recycled or tossed.

I’m struck scared by how deep the demon is in me (the evidence is strewn all about me), how my life has been discipled into this consumer way of living without me really seeing it happen at all.  Consumerism has become an alternative but dominant religion in our world, hawking meaning, identity and purpose for our lives.  Count up all the time, energy, and hope, let alone money, that get invested in researching, ogling, desiring, pursuing, purchasing, enjoying and acquiring stuff – then tell me how free you are from this thing.

Arguably, the problem is not the stuff itself, it’s the wantings.  It’s your heart, my heart sick with desire, the wanting for something that an Ipad, sweater, new house or Chia-pet will never fill.  Something has us and how we need healing.

Which brings me to needed beauty, a shot-to-the-heart song of confession from the Avett Brothers.  If you’ve never heard of them, Seth and Scott Avett are two Jesus looking dudes with raw, beautiful music that heals and brings life.  They blew me away this summer in a fantastic festival show and now they’re on repeat in our Ipod at home.  And I can’t think of a better anthem for Black Friday than Ill with Want.

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