My friend Lindsay told me about a book recently, and how she’s using it to teach her son about the materialism around us. On a visit to her house, I looked at the book she describes and asked her to share how she’s using it. It’s not a children’s book; it’s thick and has a lot of words in addition to the pictures. There are a few places with nudity, although this is a small part of the book, and it is not gratuitous. (Still, this isn’t a book I’d feel comfortable handing to a child without supervision or editing.) Thanks, Lindsay!
(Tracy [edit: Lindsay’s husband] asked me to put a disclaimer up here: as I hope everyone knows who knows us and reads this, we do not think that we have everything figured out! 🙂 These are just some thoughts of mine… things I have been working through and praying through for several years, and more specifically praying through a LOT these last few months. I hope you are blessed and that you know you are always welcome to impart to us your godly counsel and wisdom!!!)
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation started, but we were on the forty-minute drive back from White Sands National Monument when Elia mentioned that, now that his daddy had a teaching job, we had a lot more money. I used the opportunity to tell him about the book I had just started reading, and that I wanted to read to him: Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel.
Just days before, he had expressed concern to me about the number of toys his dad and I let him have. Elia then explained, with sensitivity (not wanting to “hurt our feelings”), that he liked one of his friend’s toys much better than his own, and that he wished we’d let him have a lot more toys than we let him have currently. I explained, with equal sensitivity, that I always wanted to know what he thought, even if it was not something he is “supposed” to think, according to our beliefs. I also told him how I cared for him, and that his thoughts were important to me, and that I really did pray through all of these decisions and would continue to pray about what he told me. I explained how I pray for him every day, and how the reason we choose to live the way we do is through prayer and God’s Word. That doesn’t mean that God restricts us and makes our lives not as much fun, but He does make our lives different and actually much more fulfilling than any amount of things possibly could. Elia appreciated the conversation, as did I, telling me that “most of it” made sense to him.
So our next conversation followed naturally. I related a memory of mine from when I was his age. My brother, sister and I (all very close in age) were looking through catalogs around Christmas time, circling the things we wanted our parents and grandparents to buy for us. (I distinctly remember an excited, but also empty feeling at that time each year.) I think it was my sister who commented that she would be most happy if she could just have everything in the catalog. Grandma’s response was so wise and gentle: “Oh, no you wouldn’t, honey.” “Yes, I would!” my sister insisted. Grandma went on to explain that no amount of things can make you happy, because there will always be something else that you don’t have that you’ll want. And the more you gain, the more you will want. You will be surrounded by all the stuff you thought you wanted, but won’t be happy, because you’ll be empty in spirit. It was a conversation that greatly impacted me, though not as much at the time as the memory of it did later on. I hoped that explaining some of this to my six-year-old son might have the same effect.
I told him about Material World, and why I checked it out for him to see. I reminded him that the reason that his daddy and I live the way we do—and choose the way of life for him that we choose—is based not only on our own needs and wants, but on that of others, because they’re just as important to Jesus as we are. As much as we’re able, we live with the rest of the world in mind. We could choose to live the way Elia thinks he wants to live; we could afford to buy him any toy he wanted each month. Last time I checked, more than half of all Americans live with credit card debt, which we could choose for ourselves, too. Instead, we choose to think about different people around the world, pray for them, and send money to missionaries working in other parts of the world. In fact, it is not even a chore—it is what we want to do, which is a work of God! I went on to explain to Elia how there are millions, probably billions, of children who don’t have any toys like him at all. In fact, many of those children don’t even have enough food to eat. He wanted to know why they didn’t just sell the things they have to buy more food. It’s because they have basically nothing of value. Most of their valuables are actually things they use to prepare and cook their food! Without those, they couldn’t make the food that they were able to buy. And of course, that money and food would run out quickly; it would be only a very temporary fix. Elia could hardly believe it—I don’t blame him. He’d just spent the morning with two of his grandmothers who would feed him until he popped with all kinds of sweets and things he enjoys most. He has never known hunger, and even has the luxury of being quite a picky eater. It is hard for him to relate to the every day life of a family in Mali, but showing him the pictures in Material World is a helpful start.
Before I start in with all of the wonderful things about the book, let me make a disclaimer. For me, there is one major problem with the book: I got the feeling that if couples had 2.1 children apiece that the world would be a better place. Of course, this book was funded by the United Nations Population Fund, so what do I expect? It’s obviously not a Christian perspective, but it is still quite helpful for my own purposes with my son. We used to hear stories from the mission field in Asia and see pictures at least once a week, and we lived with that reality as a staff family with Gospel for Asia. I still live with those things in my heart on a daily basis, but I know with my son it is different. He is young, and is surrounded by comfort and friends and family and doesn’t have those frequent visual reminders besides what we have in our house that he’s probably gotten “used to”. With that said….
Material World is an amazing collection of stories and photos describing the lives of people from thirty nations around the globe. Each family—statistically average for that particular nation—has a portrait of themselves standing outside of their home surrounded by all of the things they own. Though I am aware of our condition in the US, it is still shocking to see the dilemma we face with our seemingly ever-increasing consumerism and self-absorption. I thought the beginning of the author’s afterword pointedly summed up the need of the book:
It wasn’t photographing the oil well fires in Kuwait or the anarchy of war-torn Somalia that pushed me over the edge into Material World. It was hearing a National Public Radio story late in 1992 about the marketing of pop star Madonna’s sex-fantasy book. The original material girl rode the crest of self-generated waves of publicity and consumerism for weeks. The book and the singer seemed to hold more interest for people than the pressing issues of our day. I thought the world needed a reality check.
The statistics for each nation, such as the population, fertility rate, life expectancy, infant mortality and per capita income (given in US dollars) are outlined, and well as the particulars for each family. The size of the family, the size of the home, the number of hours each member works, their most valued possessions and the percentage of their income that is spent on food all tell much about the lives of these precious people. Though it seems to be part of the human condition that it is hard to really understand and care about others that live so differently than we do, this collection certainly helps put us on the right track.
So was the hope for me in sharing these things with my son. I want him to know that life in America is a life spent playing in Disneyland. Most of us don’t know the first thing about work, hunger, hardship… even living itself in some ways. The commentary on the US was interesting. The title is, “Moral Dilemma” under our country’s name. Though our church attendance ranks number one among first world nations, our divorce and murder rates rank second and third. The featured family states that their most treasured possession is their Bible, yet their wishes for the future are just like the rest of the nation: more of this, new that.
Charles C. Mann writes about the United States:
The strains between religious beliefs and secular ideas have always marked U.S. history, but they have rarely been more evident than now. Although most citizens enjoy the media-saturated prosperity of the middle class, they are increasingly alarmed by the signs of what might be called “moral decay”…Yet the certainty of future change is nothing new to the United States, which for better or worse has made lack of tradition into a kind of tradition. Indeed, it is perhaps the only nation on Earth whose founders described its creation as an “experiment.”
One of my greatest desires for my children is to be separate from their media-saturated, prosperous culture. But not separated for separation’s sake. My fervent prayer for them is that they would be separated unto God, for Him and His glory. As my husband and I try to seek that ourselves, we choose it also for our children. We have been warned by so many, even other Christians, that to do this is to set our children up for trouble. They will want what they cannot have now; there will be a hunger in them that could have been satisfied with moderate exposure to the culture and things around them. We decidedly reject that. Being moderate in all things does not include things that God obviously hates, things that take away our appetite for Him.
Some thoughts from a friend who has lived in Mexico and currently lives in India:
In India it is obvious that their idols are statues. But in America it’s deceiving because it comes in possessions. So Christians and professing Christians can easily deceive themselves and make everything a “need” when it’s not. Many Americans don’t realize the many idols they have like their houses, cars, material things, entertainment…etc. There’s nothing wrong with having a house, car, etc. but if you’re working more for your possession that for the Lord then it’s an idol. And if you are fretting and worrying about your possessions and spending so much time maintaining them then it’s a problem. (Luke 14:33)