The Common Good

What Celebrities Can Teach Christians about Simple Living

In my Culture Watch piece in the December issue of Sojourners, I suggest a few things that the currently popular green and frugal movements can learn from the writers who contributed to Living More with Less, written by Doris Janzen Longacre in 1980 and released in 30th-anniversary edition form in November 2010. Here are some suggestions that Christians of the more-with-less ilk can likewise learn -- a few things from the "glossier" versions of thrift and creation care, too.

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Advocacy and media savviness are important. Climate change won't be halted by a lone Mennonite housewife in Lancaster County who washes her sink with baking soda and vinegar and cans every vegetable that crosses her path.

In her Living More with Less chapter on doing justice, Doris Janzen Longacre stressed the government-level changes needed to address the hunger and ecology crises. She pointed Christians toward several ways to work for such change. But by their very genre as literature of practical household tips for living with less, Christian books like Living More with Less can elide the urgency of structural change that is required. The contributors to Living More with Less were experts at making afghans from scraps of fabric and wedding rings from paper clips; most were less adept at figuring out how to get their message across to public officials and corporations. Hollywood and Washington know all about that, and we aren't selling our souls if we take at least a few tips on communicating and agitating from celebrities and lobbyists.

Aesthetics count for something. Building a strong, healthy movement around giving up and letting go is less likely than building a movement around the "more" in "more with less." Janzen Longacre threaded references to joy and richness and beauty throughout her book, but those of us who follow her example sometimes get mired down in the asceticism of less, less, less. Living with less can mean living well, and beautifully. Art, music, and literature can coexist with kenosis. Indeed, we'd do well to reclaim the phrase "the good life" rather than think we need to scuttle the idea altogether. While we can argue with their definition of the good life, the role of beauty in cultural change is something many celebrities seem to understand.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a contributing editor to Sojourners and editor of the 30th-anniversary edition of Living More with Less (Herald Press, 2010).

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