YEAR OF PLENTY: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living. Minneapolis: Sparkhouse Press. 2011.
Americans live in a land of plenty. Even during an economic downturn most of us who live in this country live fairly well, especially considering what was considered normal a generation or two earlier. We can get a wide variety of food and other products at relatively inexpensive prices throughout the year. I can get blueberries from Chile in the winter and then get more local Michigan grown berries in the summer – no need to deprive myself of the pleasure of fresh fruit and vegetables, even if they have to be shipped thousands of miles, burning large amounts of fuel to provide for my “needs.” But what if we were to do an experiment and try to live not only more simply, but closer to the sources? And if we were to do this, would it have theological or spiritual implications? These are the kinds of questions raised by Craig Goodwin in Year of Plenty.
Goodwin is a Presbyterian pastor in the Spokane, Washington area, and a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. I need to note that Goodwin began his seminary career at Fuller just months after I left the school with my Ph.D. As far as I know we’ve never met, but life is full of interesting connections. The book itself is Goodwin’s first, and for a first book this is an excellent example of writing, and I think readers will find the book to be enjoyable and a blessing.
As for the book itself, Goodwin has mixed narrative with theological reflection, seeking to find a connection between his evangelical Christian faith and his daily life. The narrative begins with what might be considered a rash response to a feeling of discontent at the emptiness of a consumer-driven observance of Christmas. Many of us feel empty after Christmas – all the build up and then let down at the realization the expense of trying to “keep with the Jones” brings us little joy. Thus, as Goodwin and his young family sat in a Seattle area Thai restaurant, just days after Christmas, feeling empty, they decided to embark on an experiment – to not only live more simply and more economically, but to “break free of that hunger, that need for more. We were fed up with being stuck on autopilot and longed to be more intentional about what we bought and consumed” (p. 6). Theologically this experiment would be rooted in a theology of plenty, where following Jesus could have serious implications for living daily life. He confesses that it didn’t start out as distinctly Christian effort, but as Christians, this experiment would both draw upon and test their faith.
Moving from the Thai restaurant to a Starbucks, the family decided on four basic rules that would guide their year-long experiment. First they would buy local goods and products, especially their food. For them, this meant limiting their purchases to products from northern Idaho and eastern Washington (no blueberries in winter!). Part of this effort was designed to help them connect with the producers, which meant committing themselves to not only purchase local goods but go on field trips. The second rule was to buy used products. Thus, Craig’s List and garage sales became central to their lives. Third they would embrace “homegrown” foods. This included pulling out a lawn and planting a garden as well as raising chickens in the backyard. Fourth, they embraced the “homemade” rule. When they couldn’t get what they needed in other ways, then they would try, if possible, to make it at home. To implement this rule they did allow some flexibility in finding the raw materials. Finally, they added a modifier of sorts. Since Goodwin’s wife, Nancy, had once taught in a mission school in Thailand, they decided to use Thailand as a source of products, especially coffee, that were difficult to obtain otherwise.
Goodwin writes that the goal of this effort wasn’t “to reject the economic realities of the world, but rather to enter them intentionally with eyes open to the impact of purchases, even if it’s a can of tuna fish or pineapple, the majority of which we would learn originates in Thailand” (p. 17). The one major problem that they faced in this experiment is that they were committed to starting January 1, 2008 and it was December 27, 2007. That gave them little time to prepare – something that they would quickly learn made the experiment difficult – especially since they were embarking on this effort in January in a region heavily impacted by winter weather. This meant they had to be resourceful as time went on. There would be interesting implications – like when his young daughter needed a present for a birthday party and the rules didn’t allow going down to Wal-Mart to buy the expected toy. They worked it out and actually found a gift – a handmade gift from a local artisan – that proved to be a hit, but it was one of those complications that make living locally difficult.
In the course of their journey they would face many hurdles and even some conflict. They faced temptation to go around the rules, but in the end they experienced a life-transforming engagement with real people and real realities. They discovered the implications of the choices they made. Indeed, the decision to raise chickens even had some important dietary implications. They also discovered what is truly “necessary,” such as community and authenticity. They also discovered – though it wasn’t on their minds when they started – what it meant to be green. The decisions they made to live locally and buy used meant that they entered into the conversations about sustainability, carbon footprints, and recycling.
One of the lenses through which Goodwin views the efforts undertaken during this year-long experiment is the missional movement. As he was embarking on this work, he was a student in the Missional Leadership Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller. He notes that even as he was having his eyes opened to the environmental movement, the missional church movement was also moving in this direction. He notes that he learned from Alan Roxburgh, a leading figure in missional church work, that in the modern era the church had dematerialized and spiritualized Jesus, so that the spiritual and the material worlds no longer intersected – and thus as a result the church lost concern for the environment. He notes that the “good news of the gospel is that God comes into the world not just as a spiritual being, but that God comes embodied in the flesh, spirit, and material wedded in an inseparable unity.” As a result, any honest engagement with Jesus “disrupts efforts to imagine a world neatly divided between the spiritual and material” (p. 166).
The book ends with an account of their trip to Thailand, where they were confronted by two very different worlds in Thailand itself. Having already been sensitized to the impact of one’s decisions on the environment and one’s neighbor, they faced the contrast between what they experienced visiting a mission school and villages outside the urban area, and the resort where they stayed at the end of their trip. This experience only further confirmed what they had discovered living by the four rules. Now, when the year ended they did add back some flexibility to the way they purchased goods and services, but their lifestyles and their faith had been transformed.
The reader will experience a challenge to consider embracing at least some of the “rules” so as to be more connected to the community and the world. We know we live in a consumer-driven world, especially in the United States where the economy is based on our purchasing goods and services. Oh, and if you get inspired there are appendices that cover a number of “issues” including turning your lawn into a garden and raising chickens! So read and be challenged in life style and in faith.