What Consumes Us?
A Review of
Enough: Contentment in An Age of Excess
by Will Samson.
by Brent Aldrich
There are any number of books being written at present about economics; many of these that have been on my reading list have to do with the sorry state of the global food economy. Take, for instance, The End of Food, a thorough and necessary account of food economies, but one that commonly assumes a default of “a food economy…defined by scarcity.” Indeed, the buzzwords of current economic discourse all seem to connote doom and gloom: “economic downturn,” “recession anxiety,” etc. So how welcome is Will Samson’s new book Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess, which goes right to the heart of modern economics, namely that “we are people consumed by stuff” (notably, this point is missing from almost all conversation about “the economy”). Further, as Samson goes out of his way to make clear that he understands this problem to be theological as much (or more) than just cultural, he posits that “we are not consumed by an incarnational God the same way we are consumed by stuff.”
To begin to address the question of consumerism, the “way of thinking about stuff that believes the consumption of things…is what will…make us content,” Samson makes some general remarks that guide the rest of the book, and that I hope will inform an even broader conversation:
“Is there enough for everyone? This is an economic question, and in our discussion here I am certainly going to try and address the question from an economic perspective. But it is not just an economic question, is it? In fact, the question of whether there are sufficient resources in this world may be one of the most important theological questions of our time. How we answer it reveals much regarding our belief about the character of God: who we think God is, how we think God provides for the creation, and what role humans play in that work – this all relates directly to our understanding of God.”
Samson’s understanding of the kingdom of God is first of all radically incarnational; it is played out in every facet of the world, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Secondly, it is communal, realized most fully in the gathered body, what Samson names the “Eucharistic community.”
The Eucharist meal is the common image of abundance throughout Enough, and seems particularly appropriate this Easter week. Samson reminds that this meal is the model for the church: “the bread and wine are made of other elements but are no longer able to be described as a simple composite of these elements: they have become new creations. In the same way, we are called to give of ourselves to our communities and to the world. But, we are called as communities to do so” (emphasis added). Additionally, the elements are “given graciously,” the meal is sensual and physical, and it “provides an alternative telling of the other stories that have come to dominate the church in modernity.”
The flesh and blood of the Eucharist meal, then, is the image of the abundance of God, embodied in Christ crucified and risen, and offered for participation to the church, that it be “one body,” incarnate in the world. Samson offers a rich understanding of the ways we have failed to embody this sacrificial calling, turning instead to a fascination with stuff – commodities of both the free market, and a commodified religion.
Enough is told through much of Will’s own narrative, from early formational experiences of the church and American capitalism, to the present, as members with his family of an intentional community in Lexington, Kentucky. Much of the book is a large theological framework to understand an economics based on the kingdom of God, perhaps similar to what Wendell Berry has called “the Great Economy.” And for all of the thoughtful theology, Will remains easy to read and funny (he is perhaps the first to use language like “mac daddy” with regards to eschatology.)
Several chapters in the second half are devoted to specific practices that would give shape to a “Eucharistic Community,” such as eating together, seeing the local neighborhood by walking or biking, investing in people rather than corporations, and spending locally; all of these are suggestions being made by many today, but for Samson these practices are tied to larger telos: “we must find ourselves in a broader story, namely the very presence of God that occurs within the gathered community of Jesus followers.” Conversion, a continuous process, wholeness and gratitude are also at the heart of this community.
Enough is an encouragement that the gathered body of the church need not worry “what we will eat…” if we begin to embrace a Eucharistic understanding of the abundance of resources given. Particularly as the use of this world’s resources are being called into question at every turn, Samson reminds that perhaps the question is not Is there enough?, but rather, how shall we use what has been given?