Dunbar grad's 'The Christian Consumer' encourages thoughtful spending

Lexington native's book encourages putting thought into it

ctruman@herald-leader.comJune 29, 2012 

  • From the book

    Examples cited in Laura Hartman's book The Christian Consumer of how Christians have engaged in thoughtful consumption:

    ■ Ronald Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, first released in 1977, urged affluent Christians to simplify their lives and use the resulting money to help the poor. Suggestions include: live communally, buy used clothing, fast occasionally.

    ■ Creflo Dollar Jr., who has ministries in Atlanta and New York, advocates prosperity theology," urging congregants to gain control of finances as a way to control their lives and avoid a "poverty spirit." Dollar himself owns two Rolls Royces and two jets. Limited expectations limit God, he reasons.

    ■ Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, delighted in sharing good food and coffee with the poor. However, Hartman's book notes that Day also kept an apartment for herself and appreciated gifts of good food.

    ■ At times it is important to remember others who play anonymous roles in the network created by our consumption — by patronizing local stores, using products with minimal packaging and making environmentally friendly choices such as composting waste.

If your living room is an homage to Pottery Barn littered with Sony electronics and iPod-driven music which you carry in from your $40,000 sport utility, can you consider yourself a thoughtful Christian?

How about if your coffee costs $5 a cup and isn't free trade? Or if your clothing is made in low-wage countries and sold at discount stores accused of running local merchants out of business? What about if you are sitting on your upscale Trex deck, watching your kids play while you fire up steaks on the grill?

What Christian intentions require is a sticky question: whether it's rice and beans and a bicycle commute, or filet mignon with a first-class seat on the jet. For Christians, it's also a question of how best to love God and their neighbors.

Lexington native Laura Hartman's book, The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World (Oxford University Press, $29.95), says that many Christians try to hit a middle ground between profligacy and austerity, a kind of "festive frugality."

The Paul Laurence Dunbar graduate, who later attended Indiana University and the University of Virginia, grew up in a tree-filled neighborhood near the University of Kentucky with two sisters in a kind of festive frugality, she said. Her father is a now- retired professor of plant pathology at UK, her mother an artist.

Only when she got older and began supporting her own household and son did Hartman, an assistant professor of religion at Illinois' Augustana College, notice the sacrifices her family made to live a simple yet emotionally and intellectually rich life.

Like her father, Hartman washes and reuses plastic bags — in part to honor the living matter it took to make the petroleum to make the plastic.

She cringes at plastic items that have a shelf life of, say, 20 minutes: the amount of time between your picking it up on a lunch line and ditching it in a trash can.

"I look at it and see that it's old; that plastic used to be dinosaurs," Hartman said. "I want to play tribute to it."

But being a thoughtful Christian in a world of consumption doesn't mean living a barren life, Hartman said. Rather, it's about striking a balance between simplicity and ostentation, and thinking about why you buy what you do, how much goods cost in terms of wear and tear on the environment and how much you really need, and whether there are alternatives to your purchase.

As an example, Hartman says, people need transportation and access to information and entertainment: Those are basic needs. But whether they must fulfill those needs by owning their own car or television is a choice.

Hartman also encourages people to think of how they spend their time as part of the consumption equation, saying that many people have scheduled themselves into "time poverty" by overscheduling themselves.

Good food enjoyed in the company of friends, time carved out for one's self and reflecting on the eucharist as a custom that allows worshippers to become part of a greater body of believers are all components of thoughtful consumption, Hartman writes.

She uses examples of how religious thinkers have dealt with the issue of consumption of food, clothing and shelter — from the self-imposed poverty of St. Francis of Assisi to the "prosperity theology" of Atlanta minister Creflo Dollar.

She is sympathetic to Thomas Aquinas, who, she said, "recognized that we have needs and that it's OK to fulfill those hungers." But, she cautioned, gluttony is not part of thoughtful consumption: "If we gorge ourselves, we're settling for second best."

"What I'm trying to encourage is not a particular model but rather a way of thinking about it," Hartman said.

Balancing long-term planning, such as church construction, with current needs also is important, Hartman said. At her Illinois church, for example, money raised for a construction project includes an allocation for immediate needs in causes in which the church has an interest.

Christian consumption doesn't have to mean a terrible, joyless life, Hartman contends.

"In some sense, this is an appeal to the churches to help their congregations realize there is an alternative to buying into the consumerist vision," she said. "I don't have the answer. I mean, who does? But we need to talk about it."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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