Lifestyle or Materialism Pornography, Part 1

You’re not satisfied with your body, are you? How about your living room? Or your phone? Or your smile?

These things can be fixed or replaced new. That’s the message, at least, transmitted to our very souls as colorful, seductive images flood our retinas via TV shows and advertisements, movies, and other avenues of visual communication. And remember, in this day and age, none of these images are touched up to look as pristine and enticing as possible. Ahem.

I live in Austin, Texas and one of the most representative billboards we’ve seen locally in this category is sponsored by a cosmetic surgery firm. It depicts the bikini clad back-side of a tall and shapely female model, probably all of twenty-nine years of age, torso slightly bent forward and leaning on a balcony rail, looking out toward a vast horizon. This image is simply accompanied by the name of the plastic surgery firm (withheld!). Did she have some work done to achieve the assumed bodily perfection projected by the image? Or, do you – who once upon a time blew out twenty-nine candles on a birthday cake – need to get some work done, so you can look a bit more like her?

I understand the need for reconstructive cosmetic surgery for accident victims, cancer patients, and people born with conditions such as cleft lip and palate. Thank God for cosmetic surgery in these cases which restores functionality, dignity, and confidence. But much of elective cosmetic surgery in the United States is an extension of what sociologist Thorstein Velben identified as a new type of consumerism during the Gilded Age in 1899: conspicuous consumption, carried out with the purpose of increasing one’s status and prestige. Oh yes, this type of consumption is also intended to increase one’s overall well-being. And as many of us know by personal experience, the rush of enhanced well-being from a significant purchase lasts about two weeks.

A big difference between Veblen’s day and our day: now our bodies, or parts of them, are things that can be subjected to consumer wants and desires. Your teeth might be relatively straight, completely functional, and cavity free. But, upon closer examination and comparison to pictures of other people’s teeth, they just don’t look good. The solution? Drop anywhere from $2,000 – $40,000 for a better smile. Two dentists (who used to be partners) alternate with regularity their advertisements on the back page of the first section of the Austin-American Statesman. I’m told that ad space goes for about $3,500/day. “Transforming lives, one smile at a time” – business must be booming to cover the cost of the ads. The before and after pics showcased in these ads, especially of older patients with bad looking teeth, demonstrate significant changes. Bravo. The numerous before and after pics of younger adults, only a few having bad looking teeth – do not demonstrate significant changes.

There are folks who are in dire need of reconstructive dentistry work. Again, we’re thankful for good dentists who do good work. And certainly the two dentists I’ve referred to have done plenty of good work alleviating patients of tooth-related pain and restoring necessary functionality. Yet, they do other work – and this is the work advertised – that appeals to conspicuous consumers. From one of the ads: “Walking into (name withheld!) of Austin is like walking into a luxury home” (image of luxurious office provided in the ad, of course). It’s not all that different from plastic surgeons who specialize in today’s most common cosmetic plastic surgery in the US, the boob job. The premise is lucrative: what you have and what you got are not good enough.

Dentists, plastic surgeons, and their patients are free to do as they wish in the realm of commercial exchange. No worries: I’m not advocating a shutdown of their business practices. As if . . .

The examples that I write about here are representative of a society that has its priorities out of whack. Kids raised in this society adopt these priorities, and learn its truth: What you have and what you got are not good enough. Part of this philosophy is good, but when it goes too far, there’s trouble.

Some of us can remember, decades ago, as teenagers, seeing a souped up ’67 Chevelle SS. Va-room, va-room. You said to your dad: “I want to get a Chevelle.” He answered: “Good for you – get a job!” And you did get a job and, back in that day, you could work and save toward reaching your goal. It was a great lesson – and a great car! Times change, however. The earnings of a part-time job today won’t get a seventeen year-old anywhere near a nice, used Mustang. But he, or she, is continually bombarded with visual images that communicate the prominence of conspicuous consumption.

The generic definition of pornography: a graphic image intended to stimulate immediate emotional or erotic response. I want that. I need that! Now!! The images of lifestyle or materialism pornography are all around us, beckoning our involvement in and commitment to conspicuous consumption.

Maybe someday I’ll buy some ad space in the Statesman or pay for a billboard, with the image backdrop of cool blue sky, that says: “Be at peace – You are fine simply the way you are.”

cool-blue-sky_p

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

Connecting the Dots Between Extreme Weather and Economic Growth

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Boundary Waters Trip – 2013

Three generations of my family have been to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), which lies north of Lake Superior and borders Canada within US National Forest territory. The BWCA consists of close to one million acres of lakes, streams, ponds, woods, and portage trails; inhabitants include moose, black bears, loons, eagles, walleye and northern pike. The BWCA’s surface area, incredibly, comprises 20 percent water. No motorboats, no roads, no cars, no cabins, no phones. Your canoe, paddles, map, and compass team up to transport you and your travel companions to and from campsite destinations; your tent, gear, and food – ensconced in backpacks – glide gracefully over the water. These necessities jangle weightily upon your back, however, when you portage them over land. No worries – your canoe comes equipped with shoulder rests. When you turn it upside down and carry it to the end of the portage trail you engage in a workout not replicable on any exercise machine at Gold’s Gym. It’s a great feeling when you throw down your canoe at the end of the trail and simultaneously feel the spray of water upon your legs and hear the boom of the canoe as it bottoms upon flat water.

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Boundary Waters Trip – 2006

My most recent trip to the BWCA, in 2013, was with a high school youth group from the church I serve in Austin, Texas. It was a great trip full of challenges and rewards. At the end of our trip, we came across a US Forest Service worker. Forest Service employees in the BWCA tend to myriad tasks, including trail maintenance. I asked him how long he had been working for the Forest Service – twenty-five years. I then asked him what were the biggest changes he’d seen in that time – extreme weather.

“The storms in the past years have become stronger and greater in intensity.”

Climate change. It’s happening everywhere. Travel writer Rick Steves sees its effects in Europe. Author Charles Fishman writes about the crippling droughts affecting Australia. Haboobs – an Arabic word we now know because of climate change, meaning intense dust storms – hover from the Middle East and North Africa to Arizona and Texas. Straight-line winds in excess of ninety miles an hour hit the BWCA in July 1999 felling an estimated 25 million trees; one person was killed and sixty were injured. Called a derecho (“straight” in Spanish), it was the largest northernmost storm of its type in recorded history to hit the North American continent.

Climate change is now an accepted reality, yet, people still bicker back and forth as to its cause – or whether it’s simply part of the climate variation that has always existed. Will the effects of historically excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (now at 400 parts per million) in the atmosphere doom the planet?

In Just a Little Bit More, I describe the culture of excess that has been prominent since 1980. Three tenets undergird the culture of excess: bigger and more is always better (from restaurant serving portions to silicone breast implants), economic growth is the panacea for all problems (politicians Republican and Democrat agree), and wealth is the highest societal value. (Is anyone ready for a new Rushmore of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and Trump?)

Extreme weather events – and accompanying manifestations, like wildfires – have ravaged the planet for a very long time. Yet, the intriguing connections between recent extreme weather and the current reign of the culture of excess beg investigative thought and reflection.

Economic growth, unequivocally, is the maker and driver of the world we call modern. Before the industrial era (when carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million), poverty and life expectancy rates were – by today’s standards – dismal. The changes and capabilities wrought in the last 250 years simply astound. But how far and how long can economic growth continue as is?

In the bodily progression from childhood to adulthood, limitations eventually halt human physical growth. Human development – in wisdom and maturity – continue on (we trust) as an adult ages. Similarly, I argue that now is the time for greater emphasis on economic development – smart, efficient, and purposeful – as opposed to unabated economic growth.

With religious-type zeal, those who oppose limits on economic growth (see George Will’s recent article on Pope Francis) thunder as if to say whosoever shall stand in the way of the divine right to make as much money as possible be damned! Do not mess with the combination of the three tenets of the culture of excess! Yes, people need jobs – the main mode by which to physically survive on this modern planet. But we must steward the resources of the planet, responsibly and wisely, in the process of working, living, and surviving – together.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body tells you via symptoms that you need more sleep. If these messages are ignored, breakdown is certain. The recent extreme weather events of heat, cold, floods, snow, drought, and wind could very well be symptoms of a planet that is being transformed by an elevated carbon footprint. As the phrase proclaims – life will go on. But whether or not human life is part of the planet’s future is an open question. Theologian Matthew Fox says that we are the only species on Earth that has the power to control our own destiny; but even so, we’ve yet to decide what to do – whether to live or to die.

The next time you wander out in the darkness – maybe on a canoe trip – and look up and see “the stars pinned on a shimmering curtain of light,” think about Matthew Fox’s statement.*

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

*Quotation from Bruce Cockburn, “Northern Lights,” Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979, True North).

“Just a Little Bit More” in Chicago

Basketball was my first love. My home church, St. Mark Lutheran in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, had (and still has) an activity center with a full-size hardwood basketball court. As a youngster, I would lay in bed at night dreaming about making it to the fifth grade. Back in that day, there were no basketball teams or leagues for pint-sized superstars-to-be. Fifth grade was the entry point for organized basketball. We played a competitive church league b-ball schedule for four years up until high school; the last two of those years we played on the church team and the junior high school team simultaneously. Those were the days. I’ve often said that I probably would not have become a pastor without that hardwood basketball court at the St. Mark Center. The center was built in 1969. From my vantage point now having served as a pastor for twenty-five years, I’m pretty impressed that the St. Mark church council and building committee in the ’60s had the courage and commitment to build that center – like I said – with a hardwood basketball court as its centerpiece. Today, the center still hosts basketball games and other activities for youth, and serves as a winter overnight sleeping area for homeless people via the PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program.

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JaLBM presentation at St. Mark Lutheran, Mt. Prospect, IL, September 14, 2015.

St. Mark also funded my seminary education. In the mid- to late-1980s, seminary tuition ranged from $3000-$4500/year, as education costs were significantly subsidized by the larger church. (Seminary tuition currently runs about $15,000/year.) I’m indebted to St. Mark for its support, and grateful for the people of St. Mark who helped shape my faith and understanding of the world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Consequently, it was a privilege and honor visit St. Mark and have a conversation on social and economic inequalities, and the common good. Some forty-five people gathered September 14th for presentation and discussion on Just a Little Bit More themes: Rockefeller’s permission, the dominant religion of the land (the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism), and Jesus as a social egalitarian. It was a good session. I’m grateful for the leadership of Nancy Snell, Dr. Lanny Wilson, Dr. Jean Rossi, and my dad—the original “Carlos”—Carl Anderson at St. Mark as they continue further discussions on JaLBM themes in their adult education book study series. Thanks to retiring Pastor Linnea Wilson and St. Mark’s new pastor, Christie Webb, for their support as well.

Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda, IL hosted a luncheon Q & A session for me and Just a Little Bit More after I preached at the congregation on September 13th. A number of folks at Messiah have read JaLBM and we engaged in fruitful conversation about the common good and the pursuit of justice in the midst of increasing societal inequality. Special thanks to Pastors Dawn Mass Eck and Ben Dueholm (who has written an excellent article on inequality for The Christian Century, linked here) for facilitating a good weekend for their guest preacher at Messiah. I preached on Hispanic ministry as Messiah embraces a study emphasis this fall, “Church in Changing Neighborhood.” The public school district that serves Wauconda, a northern Chicago suburb, has a student population 26 percent Latino; a generation ago there was minimal Latino presence in Wauconda.

It was gratifying to be at “home” again in the Chicago area, seeing faces old and new, sharing some of my JaLBM work and Hispanic ministry experience.

I don’t play basketball anymore, but I haven’t forgot my hardwood court roots. Thanks, St. Mark!

 

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The full-length book (257 pgs) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

Water – The Ultimate Fixed Asset

The first in a series of three blog posts on water.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s water supply is salty sea and ocean water. Of the remaining 3 percent that is fresh water, most is frozen (estimates range from 68 to 83 percent). That means over 7 billion people, and myriad plants and animals, share the relative small amount of fresh water that sloshes around. The planet’s water supply – established some 4.4 billion years ago – is absolutely stable. No new water created, none disappearing – the fresh water that exists today supported the lives of multicellular organisms, plants, and dinosaurs long before the arrival of Homo sapiens.

waves-wallpaper-nature-sea-ocean-water-freshness-hd-ocean-water-hd-desktop-wallpaper-Although there would be no life but for water, we absolutely take water for granted. We do the same with the oxygen content of the air we breathe, readily available wherever we might amble upon the green, brown, and blue planet. Water is different, both abundant and scarce, depending upon circumstances and location. We modern-world, well-to-do types simply turn on a faucet and sweet, potable water discharges. I was born in 1961 in Minnesota and I’ve yet to live a single day in the United States when potable water was not available to me on demand.

In the late 1980s, I lived in the South American country of Peru, serving as an intern pastor in a small pueblito called San Antonio de Pomalca. Located in the Sechura desert, the residents of the village retrieved water daily from a well. The folks of San Antonio de Pomalca knew two things about their water supply: it wasn’t unlimited and it needed to be shared.

This type of simple wisdom flies in the face of what has been a driving force in the United States ever since the early 1980s: unlimitedness. Whether water, energy, creativity, resources, or the all-you-can-eat restaurant buffet (an Americanism, different than the Swedish smorgasbord, meaning sandwich table, where variety is valued over endless supply) – we’re encouraged to go for it – don’t hold back. And why not? The spirit of “just a little bit more” is the driving force behind numerous American achievements and accomplishments, beneficial to you, me, and many others throughout the world. But when the spirit of just a little bit more goes too far, blatant inequalities and unjust inequities are often the result.

A good number of Americans born previous to 1961 grew up in domiciles without indoor plumbing or central air conditioning/heating. Maybe you’re one of these folks. You probably don’t take clean, running water for granted. You’re thankful for it because you remember a time when you didn’t have it.

Author Charles Fishman tells us that the twentieth century was the golden age of water. In his book The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), he attributes the significant increase in life expectancy in the United States – forty-eight years in 1900 to seventy-five years in 2000 – in large part to enhanced availability of clean water. He says that water became “unlimited, free, and safe” – meaning we didn’t have to worry about water. We could take it for granted. And we do.

The golden age of water, however, is coming to an end. Climate change and related drought, population increase, and heightened competition for water usage are combining to wake us up to the reality of water as a fixed, and not unlimited, asset.

The challenge: can today’s generation of Americans adjust to limitedness? Limitedness calls for conservation, efficiency in usage, and sharing. The values supporting these practices go against the grain of the way many of us are accustomed to living.

I’ll have two or three more blog posts to follow on this very topic. There’s a lot to talk about: desalinization, bottled vs. tap water, market forces on the price of water, gray water in your toilet (yup), among others topics.

By definition a fixed asset is tangible property central to the operation of a business, not traded or converted into cash. Water is central to the business of life – we do best to appreciate it, cherish it, and share it.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

 

Just a Little Bit More – The Book – Now Available!

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is now available through the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, http://www.blueocotillo.com. Go to the website and click on the “Purchase Book” category, and then click on the book cover icon.

The first 100 books will be sold at the discounted price of $13.87. Type in “first100” in the Promo Code on the billing info page.  As of May 5, the first 100 have been sold and distributed. The sale continues at the Blue Ocotillo website.

 

Just a Little Bit More book – Foreword

Peter L. Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach has written the foreword for Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good.

 

Writing on behalf of the common good, the author asks how the American economy can benefit all, not a few. As currently structured, it can’t. T. Carlos Anderson argues for an egalitarian approach to fiscal matters.

Deftly, he sets the historical scene of how the economy took the form of religion. Money is the new god, actually, the old god in new design. For a god is that in which you put your trust. By tracing the development of the economy from the land of opportunity to the summum bonum, the reader gets a perspective as to why we are in the present quagmire.

The new religion comes with priests and bishops known as bankers and investors. The free market evangelists boast of the invisible hand that guides the system. There are even rogue angels like Bernie Madoff and other Ponzi schemers. With money as god, financial worth determines worthiness. Money is no longer “the root of all evil” but the essence of the good life. Excess is the sign of cosmic blessing.

Years ago, psychologist Erich Fromm noted that “greed is a bottomless pit,” an apt image for hell. Greed “exhausts the person in an endless attempt to satisfy need,” but Fromm contends that the need is insatiable, leading to addictive behavior and the selling of one’s soul.

Anderson knows that money talks, but it is a one way conversant. He wants economic democracy to be the new standard to define a system that has lost a sense of proportion.

The reader will benefit immensely in seeing how we have shaped the system we are part of and what can lead to a new way of doing economics that embraces the common good.

 

From the foreword of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014). All rights reserved. Paperback edition available May 1 from this website.

Just a Little Bit More

One hundred years ago when John Rockefeller Sr. became the world’s first billionaire, he was asked the following question about wealth accumulation: “How much is enough?” His reputed answer: “Just a little bit more.” The exchange was most likely legendary, but it describes a strong social imprint in the US vibrant ever since: the pursuit of excessive wealth is not only permissible, but glorified.

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Rockefeller circa 1915

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good was published in May 2014. Rockefeller’s story – from the travails of his bigamous father to Rockefeller’s incredible philanthropy – sets the tone for this book that details America’s primary social dilemma, as exemplified in the following questions: Is social inequality the price to pay for the uninhibited pursuit of wealth? Do social inequalities destroy democratic ideals?

Just a Little Bit More uses Rockefeller’s story as a springboard to discuss these crucial questions. Myriad characters and contributors help to sharpen the discussion: Henry Demarest Lloyd, Henry Ford, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Charlie Chaplin, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ken Lay, Anthony Mozilo, Ronald Reagan, Alan Greenspan, Bernie Madoff, Bill Gates, and SpongeBob SquarePants. Yes, even SpongeBob and his friend Mr. Krabs.

Just a Little Bit More is a great read. Good history, intriguing and thought-provoking discussion, and a few surprises along the way. And as the tale is told it doesn’t fail to ask another foundational question: What does the glorification of the pursuit of wealth do to a society’s shared common good?