MNMLSM

There is a tale about Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher, in which he and some of his disciples were people-watching outside an arena. The story goes that a group of Corinthian youth walk by in their silver makeup, absorbed in their digital accessories, higher than kites and disagreeing about some minute detail of some even more minute controversy within esoterica. One of the disciples turns and asks the aged mentor what he thinks: ‘Affect’, he says. ‘Mere affect’. Some time passes and a small band of young Trojans make their own way rowdily into the stadium. Their work-boots are scuffed and unlaced, their Carhartt jeans have holes in them, and they are spitting tobacco juices into empty Bud Light cans. The same disciple turns to Diogenes with a questioning gaze. ‘Affect’, the man repeats. ‘More affect’.

The story serves as a way to portray a relevant point about aesthetics. There are aspects of our character that we only want people to become aware of through perception and not through admission. It would be awkward for a guy at a party to come right out and say, ‘I’m a pretty humble guy. I’m not like the louder people in the room. I stand in distinct contrast to the way the gregarious gentleman over there is acting’. Our hypothetical man doesn’t want to say those things, but he wants them to be perceived; so, he may be drawn to earth tones, to shirts without advertising on them, to downward glances, to not speaking unless spoken to, etc. He then doesn’t have to say a thing if his image can speak for him.

The problem, of course, is that images don’t speak. That’s the point. A picture is worth a thousand words, or 10 billion, or none. Without context, without syntax, and without logic, all things in which language specializes, our hypothetical man may be perceived as humble, or he may be perceived as dowdy, or tasteless, or homeless—but he was going for humble. Image is an emotional expression, not a clearly delineated statement.

Apart from its presence in music, a conversation about minimalism finds its home in a conversation about images and aesthetics. Minimalism’s parents are art and philosophy. When minimalism functions as the teacher, we can learn about the rudiments of form, structure, and the basic building blocks of ideas like beauty. When minimalism functions as a dictator, we may see an agenda of efficiency and order, or we may see an agenda of wanting to appear to be efficient and orderly. In our day, it is not only simpler and more organized efficiency that is drawing people to minimalism; it is the appearance of simpler and more organized efficiency.

Stratford Caldecott has described the difference between symbol and sign in the following way: ‘A “symbol” is something that, by virtue of its analogous properties, or some other reason, represents something else. It is not just a “sign”, which is made to correspond to something by an arbitrary convention (like a road sign), but has some natural resemblance to what it represents.’ [1] This sign/symbol question is not a new dilemma. The conceptual art movement thrived on asking minimalist-like questions such as, ‘Can I get a person to imagine a giraffe even if I don’t paint a giraffe?’ In music, John Cage ultimately overextended the question by asking, ‘Could I still make music if I refuse to make music?’

The mass appeal of minimalism in our day is that it is possible to buy the gifts and blessings of discipline without having to be disciplined. One can manifest an image of spirituality without actually being spiritual. There is an appearance of both discipline and spirituality in minimalism. It is the apparent environment of the disciple. One need only think of the solitary garment of a monk: one solid wall of color. We think of a bare room. We think of a small table in front of a window, with a single book opened. In most religions, minimal matter implies maximized spirit. It is not true in every religion, however, because in Christianity matter is not rejected as evil. This is why Jesus got into so much trouble with the religious elites. When they were abstaining from food, when they were sifting out their flakes of tithing on portions of cumin dust, Jesus was eating so much that he was accused of being a glutton. Certain biblical passages suggest that religious fakes of every generation will demand that Christian disciples must abstain from certain food and drink. You can imagine the disdain from religious leaders for a spiritual teacher like Jesus who shows up at the party, not with a small bottle of organic dandelion root wine, but with over 150 gallons of what everyone liked drinking, the equivalent of about 1000 bottles of wine. The minimalist, by default, would agree with Christ’s critics. ‘This is too much. This won’t encourage craftsmanship. This is excess’. But Jesus doesn’t seem overly stressed. Even in his parable of the Prodigal Son, there are two prodigals. The very definition of the word means to spend excessively. The clearest culprit is the wayward son. It is often missed, however, that the father is also a prodigal. He spends excessively on the son’s departure and return. The minimalist is concerned with excess. In many Bible passages, this pits them against the character of God.

There is an appearance of both discipline and spirituality in minimalism. It is the apparent environment of the disciple.

Of course, as already stated, minimalism can be a great teacher. It shows us the basic lines of symmetry—lines that would otherwise be covered by quantity. In this way it reminds us of sacrifice. Sacrifices are those things whose normally unseen inward parts are exposed to the clear light of day. In the Old Testament, the people would see the blood of the animal run out onto the ground. They would see the organs removed, washed, and set on the altar. These were things that were normally hidden, hidden by ‘stuff’. In the New Testament, living sacrifices confess their sins, one to another. They expose the rotten beams willfully. They are vulnerable and open. The true lines are visible because the veil has been torn. We no longer employ the cover of darkness because we are children of the morning. There are big windows and lots of natural light. In this way, the environment of the New Covenant is minimalist. There is very little gear. There is very little clutter. Not many shadows. Clean straight lines. Lots of light. Minimalism-as-teacher emphasizes the truth that beauty requires a simple and symmetrical ordering.

An aesthetic of simplicity posits that minimal matter implies maximized spirit. This is the draw of minimalism; for the new Gnostics, it is the engine of spirituality. The problem is that the new Gnostics, like the old Gnostics, can’t escape the material; Gnosticism will either overindulge in the material or reject it, but, either way, it will always objectify it. It has to because, without the Gospel, every attempt at religion must place something other than the Creator on the throne. The only other candidate in such an election is the created.

What does an image of a scantily clad woman imply? Usually, that sex is power. What does an image of a woman in a burqa imply? Usually, that sex is power. Flaunt it, or bottle it. Overindulge in it, or reject it—the spotlight is still on the power of sex. To err in either direction is still objectification. Similarly, this is why René Girard ties bulimia with anorexia—at the core, they are both a rejection of food. [2] It would be a mistake to miss this point. Whether we like it or not, the Bible does seem to argue that there is a direction in which the spiritual person should err, and, perhaps surprisingly, it is neither asceticism nor minimalism. This is not because fasting or simplicity have no place in the spiritual life. They most certainly do. To appear as spiritual, however, does not necessitate that one be spiritual.

Minimalism, ironically, can become a much adored accoutrement of the bourgeoisie, one which does not have to truly contain that which it signifies. At their best, simplicity and efficiency should produce peace in having more space made available for filling. Yet minimalism as an elitist merit badge cannot be filled. By necessity of being a sign, and the signification itself being the final goal, it must remain empty. Empty space is the thing to get for the person who has everything. To intentionally empty a space and keep it that way is its own kind of wealth. Who would have ever believed that it could be a social power play to utter the words, ‘Tina and I have very few belongings’? And yet, here we are.

The same way in which Gothic architecture teaches someone to reduce their speaking to whispers and to shift his or her gaze toward Heaven, minimalist aesthetics often encourage the person to move through quickly. People with empty apartments often eat out. When minimalism is touted as being in relationship to small carbon footprints or the like, the human is under pressure to not become debris. A human being will be the most out-of-place piece of furniture in the minimalist’s room. The danger of clean lines and monochromatic schemes is that one human being is a variable of disturbance. Anything more than the basic structure is slouching toward chaos.

All that being said, minimalism does not need to be disparaged. We develop reputational images through perception and not through admission because the act of self-disclosure would require true content. This is not solely a by-product of living in an era of social media, although the voyeuristic/exhibitionistic tension of such digital environments pairs well with classic narcissism. The truth is that this imaging comes from being human. We are not only the most social of all creatures, but we are the only ones created in the Image of God.

The Christian’s answer to consumerism cannot be minimalism, any more than the Christian’s answer to hunger should be gluttony.

Sometimes preachers, speaking of moderation, are fond of saying, ‘There is a ditch on either side of the road’. In this regard, they would be right. The Christian’s answer to consumerism cannot be minimalism, any more than the Christian’s answer to hunger should be gluttony. A content soul is not troubled by imbalance. Contentment is often a peculiar equilibrium. The apostle Paul suggests that the secret of how to address the material world is not to reject wealth, nor is it to reject poverty—it is to be content with what you have. One of the greatest untried antidotes of hoarding is gratefulness. If the over-consuming materialist would simply trust God and be thankful for what they have, keeping 75-years-worth of Wal-Mart ads would seem strange. As it is written in Philippians, ‘I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need’ (Philippians 4:12 ESV).

With this in mind, we can recognize that truly simple and ordered efficiency has the potential to appear differently from a sign that points in its direction. The clean, straight order of the minimalist seems to be both disciplined and spiritual, but it may be neither. A person who is thankfully content for what they have been given by God, including trials and chaos—this person has the straightest lines around. This person is so efficiently ordered that he or she could fall asleep in a boat while it is being splintered in a storm. This is true spirituality and true discipleship. Though there is a natural ordering toward which both God and nature incline, its appearance is often chaotic. The mere appearance of order often lacks the true pulse of life. As it is written, ‘Where no oxen are, the crib is clean’ (Proverbs 14:4a KJV).

Christ’s disciples are given empty wombs so that they can become parents. [3] Christ’s disciples are given scant food so that they can feed the thousands. [4] Christ’s disciples are given more so that they can have less. [5] Christ’s disciples are given power so that they can become weak. [6] There is a constant dance in Scripture between more and less. They are not to be pitted against each other. That would ruin the dance. They must keep moving to the music. Contentment is the true golden mean we should seek. Asceticism, minimalism, and simplicity all have a form of godliness, but without contentment, they deny the true power thereof.


Notes

[1] Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009), 46.

[2] René Girard, ‘Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire’, https://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/contagion/contagion3/contagion03_girard.pdf (Accessed 25 September 2019).

[3] Isaiah 54:1.

[4] Matthew 14:17.

[5] Acts 2:45.

[6] 1 Corinthians 7:22.

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1 Comment

  • Brad Davis says:

    It seems to me a wonderful function of simplicity, be it a Japanese tea house or the vast interior space of a Gothic cathedral, is as a balm for the overwhelmed. So Jesus says, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” And the Father says, “Listen to him.” And having listened to him, Jesus says, “Follow me.” And his mother, “Do whatever he tells you.” This is simplicity that opens onto the fullness of life, making room for persons, turning the lifeless emptiness of a trailside hut into a restorative base camp for another go at summiting the (overwhelming) mountain. Thank you, Garrett, for your provocative essay.

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