Saturday, September 10, 2005

Extremism USA

A few years ago a rock guitar player, Joe Satrini, released a recording called “The Extremist,” featuring a photograph of himself on the cover. The extremism was the selling point—a virtue, not a vice, it seems.

When my wife and I take walks in our suburban neighborhood, we marvel at the number of oversized vans and trucks parked on streets and in driveways. They do not fit in the garages originally constructed in the 1970s for civilized vehicles. These beasts are not used for construction or heavy work. They are extreme—for no functional reason. Given the rise in gas prices, we may soon see them up on blocks, serving as playground de facto equipment.

In another more upscale Denver neighborhood, it is common to see so-called Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs)—behemoth vehicles typically used for neither sport nor utility. I see many Lexus SUVs. This makes as much sense as a “Cadillac Jeep.” These are luxury cars that give the appearance of being “sporty.” But no one will take them into the wild. They are displays of extreme wealth pretending to be something useful.

While in a bicycle store to have some work done on my mountain bike (which I do not use for “extreme sports,” don’t worry), I noticed a cycle selling for over $1,000. This was probably was not the most expensive model. In another store I saw a poster of man on a mountain bike that read, “Life is excess.” A thousand dollars for a recreational bicycle is excessive. We can easily avoid making such purchases without missing out on anything. Have you ever seen the motto, “Extreme virtue”?

Portions at fast food restaurants are also becoming extreme. Health journalist Jean Carper notes that “a 1950s fast-food burger contained little more than 1 ounce of meat; a soft drink was 8 ounces (1 cup). Compare that with today’s 6-ounce burger patty and 32- 64-ounce drunks—a quart to a half gallon!” Extreme portions makes for extreme girth, which makes for poor health.

One could go on, but the point is this: Americans tend to be extremist and excessive, especially in times of general economic prosperity. Given the law of diminishing returns and our willingness to spend more and more, the extremism becomes increasingly extreme. It also reveals a disorder of the soul.

Extremism is an external attempt to compensate for a lack of inner peace or purpose in one’s life. We crave stimulation, bigness, and bravado to hide our inner emptiness and to impress others. But beneath it all is the same needy, shabby self, which can never be cured by the excesses of the flesh.

This should remind us of King Solomon, whose restless worldliness led him to extreme behavior. He amassed for himself great possessions, entertainment, political power, slaves, and illicit sexual conquests—all in the hope of finding meaning. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). He also observed that, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (5:10).

The prophet Isaiah understood this perennial problem and its solution: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare (Isaiah 55:2-3).

Jesus offers the deepest satisfactions to the needy soul—not on our materialistic terms, but on his spiritual terms. We must trust in him alone for our salvation, not in our possessions or our entertainment. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus promised (Matthew 11:28). We receive Jesus’ shalom rest, only when we repent of our selfish extremism, take up our crosses, and follow him. The fruit of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives is self-control (Galatians 5:23). This produces a thirst for righteousness, not excess (Matthew 5:6).

Storing up treasures in heaven is far safer, saner, and more satisfying than indulging in the extremism of the world (Matthew 6:19-24). Through Christ, let us claim this holy reality for ourselves and share it with others.

Douglas Groothuis


Mark said...

I'd be curious to hear your remarks on the following.

I'm guilty as charged, inasmuch as I own a number of bikes which are worth in excess of $1,000, as you say is not something I need. However ... in my defense, biking is my hobby. And as with everything we do, we should attempt to excel. Hence when I ride, I train hard and even compete (race) on those expensive bikes.

My question is, is excellence an extreme Christians are called to avoid? I don't think the Greek virtue of excellence is incompatible with Christianity, but ... as I've only "come back to the fold" in my adult years something more than a year ago, I'm afraid I can't quote Scripture to support that. What do you think?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Moral excellence (virtue) is more important than ostentation or "world class" products. I ride hard myself on a good bike, but I bought a very good and reliable brand (a hybrid) for much less than a grand. I push myself, but I don't need to spend a huge amound of money to work out hard.

We always need to consider the needs of the less fortunate as well. There is wisdom in the saying that we should live simply so others may simply live. Less spending on ourselves frees up giving to others. The Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles all exhort us to remember and assist "the least of these" (Matthew 25:31-46).

Mark said...

I'd agree that ostentation or having "world class products" in and of themselves is not good. However, when I said "excellence" I meant it. I'm hoping/planning to compete this year at Master's Nationals. This goal is a stretch for me, and I don't know if I will reach the goals I've set for myself. But isn't that what striving for excellence is about? And you cannot compete with "world class" riders without spending a certain amount on your bike(s) and other training equipment. I guess part of what I'm saying, is that there is "pushing yourself" in solitary training, but you push yourself far more in competition (and the training needed to prepare for competition) than you would otherwise.

On a second note, my eldest daughter (now 10) has shown some interest in bike racing. I think this is an excellent sport for the young. Because endurance sports such as cycling involve pushing yourself to your limits which perforce involves pain and suffering. And as Romans 5:3 indicates this is a thing to be celebrated as it were. I anticipate if she follows this sport much more, I'll be getting a similarly extravagant bike for her, although in her case because it might develop "character and hope" as well as foster a sport which she can pursue all her life.

The key point is the question of whether pursuit of excellence, e.g., athletic, musical, or whatever, can be part of a Christian ethic. I know that charity is a Christian virtue and I try practice that. The question is whether "arete" is not counted among the virtues which should be prized by the Christian.

Susan said...

I've got a different take on this "excellence" thing.
It would seem that if "excellence" were itself a Christian virtue it would be mentioned in the bible.

Diligence, yes. Perseverance, surely. Holiness, indeed. Stewardship of our gifts, of course. But striving to be "all that you can be" or pushing one's self to achieve perfection in an area of skill or knowledge or personal achievement... where is that example given to us in the scriptures? I'm not saying it's not fun or exhilarating to push one's self to do more, or that it is wrong to develop God-given talents and abilities well so that He is praised. However...this idea of "excellence" has become, in my peanut-gallery opinion, another god among the gods of the well-to-do.

Arete is only used in the NT 4 times. In Philippians 4:8 it is not in reference to activities or hobbies or personal achievement but to the thought life. In 1 Peter 2:9 and 2 Peter 1:3 it is in reference to the praiseworthyness of Christ, not of ourselves. In 2 Peter 1:15 the word is translated "virtue," and further underscores that this word is not about pushing one's self to ultimate levels of achievement but rather it is about goodness and wholeness.

The TDNT says this about the word:
In Phil. 4:8 Paul puts it next to “praise” in a series with “what is true” etc., and if the series has mainly a religious ring, what he has in mind is the excellence that the righteous are to maintain in life and death. The same applies in 2 Pet. 1:5 (in spite of a secular parallel that might suggest “virtue”)

DSP said...

Great post and points.
I recently had a friend with a monstrosity of a vehicle brag that anybody who can afford a $90 K car can surely afford the gas it wastes, no matter the increase at the pumps. The extreme consumerism has spawned its own offshoot of a status symbol - the willful waste of resources as a display of prestige.

William Dicks said...

I am a South African who lived in Columbus, Ohio for two years (1999-2000). One thing that I did notice was the extreme on almost everything. Extremes in cars, TV, sport, sales, fast foods, variety of products at the food store and many more.

I found it very odd, but I still enjoyed it. It was great to once in my life being able to have so many choices at such varied prices.

However, when my family and I returned to South Africa (Pretoria), noticed some changes. All these changes were on par with what I experienced in the US.

We never had the big SUVs and 4x4s here in the RSA. Now, however, it is the in-thing to have one of these monstrosities which would never be used what they were made for. They are status symbols. All of this in a country where the average person makes around $6,300 per annum.

Excess and extremism is not just a US disease. It has taken hold of this two-and-half world country too!