by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
December 7, 2010 - Pagan asceticism is increasingly all the rage among young evangelicals. Of course, it doesn’t wear the pagan label. After all, creating the right brand identity is essential for the propagation of heresy. (Just ask Arius – whose alluring hymns nearly derailed the early church’s affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ.) Today’s pagan ascetic evangelicalism wears the moniker: Simplicity.
As one recent book puts it, “Simple is in.” Just like Apple and Google, Jesus, “the revolutionary,” knows simple. This is why, according to the purveyors of austerity, we are to follow “the simple way” – laying aside every weight of consumerism and the stuff which doth so easily beset us ... looking unto a guynameddave, the author and finisher of the 100 thing challenge.
To be fair, Americans by and large have an inordinate attachment to stuff. Evangelicals are no exception. But the remedy is not Buddhism. The Apostle Paul chided the Colossian Christians for failing to grasp this. “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
Of course, Paul’s admonition is not a license for uninhibited consumption. But it is a caution about the seductive quality of ascetic detachment. Despite having “an appearance of wisdom” such asceticism reflects an equally disordered relationship to stuff. Rather than being a remedy for our inordinate attachment, the proposal to “reduce, refuse, rejigger” (the 100 thing movement’s banner that bears an odd resemblance to a slogan from Bob the Builder) merely trades one disease of the soul for another.
The trouble is that avoiding both extremes is not, well . . . simple. For it requires that one wrestle with the painstakingly messy and complex process of learning rightly-ordered attachment to one’s stuff. To learn to love the things of this world as we ought, as opposed to loving them too much or not at all, is the business of sanctification. Sanctification resists simplification.
As importantly, sanctification isn’t sexy. This is precisely why, when imagining those means by which Satan and his minions might lead Christians astray, C.S. Lewis has Screwtape instruct Wormwood to get his “patient” to focus on philosophies of the future that are “strong, or stark, or courageous” keeping his mind “off the plain antithesis between True and False.”
The monastic mood of Spartan-Jesus-plus-soul patch may be hip. But cool can be employed so as to distract from truth-seeking. And as the very structure of Lewis’s Screwtape Letters makes plain, the strategy of peddling falsity by freshness is older than Arius.