Let's Get Frivolous

Michael Metzger

Frivolous spending is out in our current economic crisis. High-end restaurants are hurting. McDonalds is thriving. The government is capping excessive pay for top executives. Trips to the Bahamas are being scrapped (Citigroup instead paid its 1,900 Primerica Financial Services brokers a total of $5,000 each). Rahm Emmanuel said you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Recovering from our crisis will require inventive minds. If however we vilify frivolity, we’ll likely waste this one.

Our current crisis is the result of “a disengagement from reality” that marks all economic bubbles, writes Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the May 20th edition of The New Republic. Reengaging with reality requires rethinking how reality works. For starters, is necessity the mother of invention? Most people assume that crises catalyze innovative thinking. Miles Orvell, a professor of American Studies at Temple University, says this crisis will spark “a rethinking of the fundamentals.” “Stress brings new ways of thinking,” he writes. It “will have a profound effect on culture from people at the bottom to people at the very top.”1 But is this reality? New studies indicate otherwise.

In a recent New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik notes that scarcity “encourages people to hold the rites of scarcity sacred.” Necessity narrows the mind and limits innovation. Inventors, for example, didn’t make a better mousetrap until mice populations were in decline. The first mousetrap patent didn’t appear until 1894, after the rodent was already in retreat, a victim of improved sewer systems and more stringent public-health measures. The same phenomenon can be seen in bird populations. Terence Deacon, a professor of biological anthropology and linguistics at Berkeley, has observed that birds brighten and their songs grow elaborate not in conditions of scarcity, where birds fight for every seed, but in landscapes of plentitude.2 In periods of plentitude, people play. They can be frivolous. They become inventive. Frivolity, not necessity, is the mother of invention.

This is exactly what the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches. The creation story isn’t about necessity. “The first vision of material human existence is not of just “getting by” on a diet of “daily bread,” a counsel of “just enough,” John Schneider writes.3 It is instead a picture of affluence and frivolity. It wasn’t necessary, for example, for God to create humans. It wasn’t necessary to create colors, fragrances, senses, and the thousands of species of fish, fowl, flora, and fauna. He could have just as easily made a monochromatic universe that would sustain life. Instead, God made an incredibly frivolous world because the goal is human flourishing, not sustainability. That’s reality.

Reality is reiterated in the Proverbs. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is alongside God in creation as a master workman. “I was daily his delight, playing always before him, playing in the world, his earth, and having my delight in the sons of men.” People don’t play in hard times. They don’t tend to be as inventive either. That’s important, for in the creation story, the capstone is God calling us to be creative and inventive. Innovation is enhanced in environments of luxury and frivolity, not scarcity. This is why, since 1839, the Trappist Monks of St. Sixtus Monastery have been brewing what is widely considered to be the best beer in the world. Westvleteren beer sells for upwards of $15 a bottle. You can only purchase two 24-bottle cases a month through the monastery’s front gate. For many folks, brewing expensive beer in a recession would seem to be a rather frivolous pursuit. The monks, however, see it as part of promoting human flourishing.

The sad truth is that too few faith communities promote a proper view of affluence and frivolity. I know people who won’t drive their sports cars to church – it’d draw stares. Faith communities tend to treat plentitude as suspect and poverty as spiritual. “Christian tradition going back to very ancient times has been mainly negative in its judgments on the morality of affluence,” Schneider writes.4 In ancient times, poverty was widespread, so that is what theologians addressed. The church did not develop “a similarly advanced tradition on what it means to be rich.”5 St. Augustine said it was good to use material wealth but not to enjoy it. As a result, many people in the today’s church have adopted the Greek idea of the “spiritual” being superior to the “material” world.

There’s no question that materialism can get out of hand. We’ve seen that over the last two years. But a bias against frivolity and affluence can bias us against material possessions. There is nothing wrong with material possessions as long as they are not our treasures. Poverty is not more spiritual, as Dallas Willard writes. “We must never forget that the riches of this world, whether they are to be regarded as good or evil, are realities that do not just disappear if we abandon them, they will continue to exert their effects. Possessions and use of them will occur. Someone will control them, and the fact that we do not possess them does not mean that they will be better distributed. So to assume the responsibility for the right use and guidance of possessions through ownership is far more of a discipline of the spirit than poverty itself. Our possessions vastly extend the range over which God rules through our faith. Thus they make possible activities in God’s power that are impossible without them.”6

The goal of faith communities is to extend the range over which God rules. At present, how is this working out in our current economic crisis? Are the views of faith communities being taken seriously? The realities of our crisis will not just disappear if we continue to be against material possessions and frivolous spending. We need innovative solutions drawn from inventive minds. If faith communities understood that frivolity is the mother of invention, they might make a meaningful contribution to this crisis and gain a place at the table. Otherwise, they risk wasting this crisis.

1 Paul Harris, “Frugal is cool in cash-strapped US,” The Guardian, January 4, 2009.
2 Adam Gopnik, “The Fifth Blade: On razors, songbirds, and starfish,” The New Yorker, May 8, 2009, p. 53.
3 John Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), p. 59.
4 Schneider, Affluence, p. 2.
5 Schneider, Affluence, p. 2.
6 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 202.

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19 Comments

  1. In an ironic vein, Mike, are you beginning to promote the “Prosperity Gospel’? 🙂
    Actually I think this is a great piece.

  2. Peggy: Not at all. Since God made everything, everything is inherently good – including prosperity. Since sin stains everything, everything is susceptible to corruption – including prosperity. As far as I can tell, Christians aren’t opposed to sex, yet it is has been badly abused over the years. That’s because God created it, so its inherently good. We can be for prosperity yet opposed to such nonsense as the prosperity gospel.

  3. How to make a blog out of a misuse of the words frivolous and frivolity.

    Origin of frivolous:
    1425–75; late ME < L fr?volus worthless, trifling; see -ous

    Frivolity’s synonyms are: self-indulgence, irresponsibility, triviality, abandon, levity, foolishness

    I quote in order of appearance:

    “get frivolous” (what you’d have us do)

    “frivolous spending is out” (in our current economic climate)

    “They can be frivolous” (speaking of people in plentitude who play)

    “God made an incredibly frivolous world” (did He really?)

    “rather frivolous” (on brewing expensive beer during economic recession)

    “material possessions and frivolous spending” (what will cause the realities of our economic crisis to disappear)

    “villify frivolity” (if we do we will waste the current economic crisis)

    “Frivolity, not necessity” (what drives the inventive process)

    “a picture of affluence and frivolity” (what charaterized first human existence)

    “luxury and frivolity” (those societal aspects that enhance innovation)

    “a proper view of affluence and frivolity” (what faith communities do not possess, for the most part)

    “a bias against affluence and frivolity” (may lead us to a bias against possessions)

    “frivolity is the mother of invention” (what faith communities must believe if they hope to make any meaningful contribution in our current economic crisis)

    On your last point I will say that what I particularly believe about frivolity (in the sense in which you use it) has very little to do with what God can and will do in this present age in the hearts and minds of people.

    If you want to communicate coherently please use words that mean something in their context.

  4. I’m afraid so. I don’t think he’ll let us buy a round for him. Well, look on the bright side – more for us!

  5. Please accept my apology for cluttering your blog with a third as many spaces as words in my attempt to make a point on word usage. Words and their meanings do matter as we seek to communicate, even more so when it comes to truth.
    Despite my railings, I will let you buy me a round, particularly if it is of the Trappist variety.

  6. Hey guys, you might want to give Michael #3 a break. Metz – are you arguing for self-indulgence, wild abandon and foolishness? Or a proper understanding of abundance and play? Right. Thought so.

    Michael #3 seems to be pointing out that ‘frivolous’ (as a word) portrays the negative connotation of those ideas (abundance and play) and that perhaps it was not the best word to use – although it is certainly provocative. I hope that making a joke out of a serious response to what was hopefully intended as a serious article on your part is not an example of your point. . . .

    C.S. Lewis has a wonderful take on humor in The Screwtape Letters. It’s such a delicate balance; and so easy to fall off in both directions! Way too serious on one side, and flippant contempt on the other.

    My critique is on another level, however: the underlying premise. To my mind, mouse traps and bird song are not particularly authoritative indicators of human behavior or tendencies. No, don’t know Gopnik’s New Yorker article, and am not inclined to read it to see if he gives further support to that point, Metz, which you treat cursorily. From your statement of conclusion, you catapult to God’s creation and aver that the “creation story isn’t about necessity” – but then move immediately to the human level of existence and the wide variety of colors, sounds, smells, types, etc. I don’t see the logical, factual, or even intuitive support.

    “People don’t play in hard times.” Really? They may be tired because they’re working very hard, and they may be worried, but they’re going to be looking for some kind of relief, somewhere.

    “They don’t tend to be as inventive, either.” Again – really? The patchwork quilt was born out of hard times and necessity, and has become an art form. And I really don’t think that the wheel was invented out of a surplus of nothing to move and too much time on hand. . . . It is in our time of ‘prosperity’ that we have idly ‘invented’ the bewildering array of different models, colors, options and sales strategies of motor vehicles – none of which drive better, last longer, or are more environmentally coherent – and which have driven the automobile makers into bankruptcy on a scale I can’t even comprehend. Vaccines do not come out of a disease-free world. And it has often been noted that the greatest art comes out of the most troubled of times or people.

    I do not argue against a proper understanding of prosperity and the use of the material world. That is an understanding that is sorely lacking – and still lacking. A point you do not address is the hardship/plenty problems Moses warned of when the Jews are about to go into the ‘promised land’. It seems to be a pattern that when things are bad, we call out to God; when things are good, we party. [“God who?”] The answer is not – without a whole lot more – a call to ‘friovolity’.

    You’re right, the 4-part gospel you talk about so much, effectively invites us to party with God – and He buys all the rounds! The ‘falleness’ bit explains why we keep messing that up though. I think the better picture for how we can live – now – in between – is summed up by St. Paul when he said he had “the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

    I’ll take contentment over frivolity any day.

    Now – as to what the “faith communities” are doing during these “times of crisis”, perhaps another way of looking at this would be to look at it in terms of contentment and peace, while we continue to spend wisely and generously [if inexplicably to those outside the community of faith] to help those around us who are in need. Meanwhile, we can continue to rejoice daily in the food and drink that God gives us freely on a daily basis, without depriving ourselves today for lack of faith – and fear – that God won’t provide for us tomorrow. We can also continue to observe a day of rest – of play and re-creation – again trusting that all we need will be provided.

    I’m thinking that ‘frivolity’ doesn’t need any more spokesmen. But play, rest, joy, peace, contentment, faith – do.

    Happy to join you for a pint any time!

  7. Yes, Mike #3 – I’ll buy. But none of the Light Beer! In fact, since Marble seems to bring a great deal of wisdom to this, why not ask her to buy for the Three Amigos, er, the Three Mikes.

    Marble – you make great points but I still think people of faith take themselves way too seriously and “contentment” – while of inestimable importance – does not completely capture the scene in the original garden. If God was content with it, why improve it?

  8. Thanks for the offer Mike but I’m buying, at least for Marble, whose allowed me to rise from the ashes.

  9. I would say streets of gold hit on frivolity a bit. Quite the self-indulgence to the senses to choose gold over asphalt or even cobblestone.

    Mike, thanks for encouraging one who has been “tightening the belt” a bit too much of late to start playing again.

    I would even put forward that in the case of necessity (aka patchwork quilt example), there is a bit of play in the execution. While necessity called for extra warmth, the would-be inventor may have resorted to simply adding more layers. Instead a bit of reckless abandon took form, and ended with a work of art.

    Too bad my name’s not Mike, that bier is starting to sound good.

  10. Also… knowing Mike to be a connoisseur of a very eclectic set of musical tracks… is the title a reference to “Let’s get physical” by Olivia Newton John? If not… feel free to delete this comment.

  11. I would also add that I’m using “frivolous” in the sense of something being more playful than it is necessarily of utilitarian value. We are often guilty of being utilitarian (see, I can use big words too) in our understanding of creation. That’s certainly there. But not everything seems to have utility. Consider the peacock. It appears to be a case of frothy frivolity on God’s part, aesthetics over utility. Furthermore, the utilitarian (or instrumentalist) sense can easily lead to a overemphasis on efficiency. Efficiency is certainly not evident throughout all creation (for example, carrying a baby for nine months of pregnancy is not the most efficient way to “be fruitful and multiply”). The aesthetic, which is often frivolous, certainly saturates creation (at least in my opinion it does).

    And yes, Kyle – my bad. I was thinking of Olivia’s song. Ouch.

  12. Mike, your example of a nine month gestation as “inefficient” to comply with God’s command to multiply is a straw man. If nine months is what it takes to get the job done “by design”, then why would you need to declare that paradigm as lacking anything,like efficieny? So we must conclude that what was designed to last nine months is as it should be and, thusly, cannot be evaluated at a level of efficiency. Certainly the long age of first man gave ample time to multiply in number beyond what we now experience with our short window of about 25 years for childbearing. What God set it place was sufficient and perfect for its time, according to the declaration that “it was good”. Prototypical human gestation then possessed the qualities of goodness, sufficiency and sustainability, hardly inefficiency.

  13. All right. . . . pints at Stan & Joe’s? If you can set it up, Metz, I’ll gladly stand my round!

    good discussion – but hey Metz – you played a trump card by moving us back to before the fall. Unfair! Pre-fall garden hilarity and creativity certainly trumps contentment in the fallen world. No debate! Just as you don’t mean the ‘bad’ sense of frivolous, though (but more of a sense of “playful than it is necessarily of utilitarian value”), so also I don’t mean the ‘bad’ sense of contentment, but more of a sense of a cheerful acceptance, joy, playfulness and creativity – even/especially in the face of really bad circumstances.

    The patchwork quilt remains such a good example. Yes, it was necessary, but nobody said it had to be pretty – or unique – or colourful – or such fun (quilting bees), or such a great jog to the memory (remember that old shirt. . . . I loved that shirt!) – and yet it is all those things. . . . It’s the lemonade from lemons idea.

    I would never call for the sourpuss approach! You’re right Mike: we tend to take ourselves WAY too seriously. Way to goad a good discussion, my friend.

  14. Truthfully, it wasn’t so much a sermon as an intellectual exercise, and I think some folks had problems with that, especially when viewed thru the lens of a first-time visitor to Grace. Mike’s interpretations of scriptures were challenging, to say the least. I personally like thought-provoking messages, but had some other objections. He does have an unfortunate tendency to sound like he’s condescending to tell us poor clods what the Bible really says, although we may have studied it all our lives and are still apparently unfortunately thoroughly ignorant of its real meaning. How he got what he said he got from the Great Commission, I’ll never know…

    And in the 9:30 service, I objected to his repeated references to wine and beer as good, Bible-endorsed ways to make good use of our earthly “stuff”. He didn’t just say this once or twice, but at least 5 or more times. Now, you can say I’m sensitive if you want, but sitting just across the aisle from me and my husband was a gentleman who is new to Life Recovery, and struggling to keep sobriety one day at a time after a prolonged period of relapse. I doubt very much if it helped him any or encouraged him to think that the Bible is full of ways to use our earthly stuff to make alcoholic beverages!

    There are plenty of other examples in the Bible of using earthly stuff for the benefit of mankind–like making furniture from wood, creating and using the arts of song and dance for celebration, etc. I would implore anyone speaking in public at a church anywhere to please remember that a certain percentage of your congregation are addicts, whether they have recognized it yet or not (don’t forget that my own husband sat there for a good 5 years plus before facing his addictions. Although most people can handle drinking liquor without a problem, the Bible does tell us not to lead others into sin or into anything that could harm them. Promoting the making and consumption of wine and the world’s most expensive beer is just not appropriate from the pulpit. He could’ve spoken about a monastery which makes art or fabric or has a farm with the most wonderful crops, you get the idea….

    And the texting was rather exclusive, as not every single person in the congregation has a cell phone, and some of us have them and don’t text! So we were unable to ask any questions-life, what’s the defiition of stuff? Does it include animals?? Some of us today were wondering, who was selecting/editing the text entries, anyway??

  15. Peace upon you,Mikes, whatever your #’s! 🙂 Just stumbled upon this blog– very interesting approach. What struck me in the conversation is that, perhaps, Michael #3’s starting point is flawed, no fault to him, but to the whole “faith” community (here I mean all good-willed people of faith, all of whom can band together at many levels to form culture, despite our respective and– hopefully respected– differences)… let me explain.

    You see, if “frivolous” is “defined” with all sorts of negative associations, is it not due to the fact that people of faith are leaving it to others to write the dictionary (a huge cultural force when you think about it!)? And this, I think, gets at the heart of your message: Believers either are shaping culture, or will be shaped by someone else’s, and to opt out in the name of personal piety is really hypocrisy, isn’t it?

    In my own faith tradition, there is no dichotemy between the spiritual and material. In fact, we have a concept called “fitrah” which refers to the innate goodness and innocence of all God’s creation, including ourselves. In Country music terms, “Its All Good!” 🙂 Likewise, wealth is seen as a blessing from God, and our stewardship of those blessings takes everything into account: generous charity, resourcefulness as well as good and grateful playfulness!

    Perhaps a new entry for “frivolous” should read: adj. “that attribute of God and human virtue which tends toward developing the Gardens of Paradise.” 🙂

    Jazakallahu khayran (God bless your efforts)!

  16. Any worldview must address the human condition, past, present and future and answer the questions of origin, morality and destiny. Amir, looking at myself, I can say that a worldview of “Its All Good” does not square with reality. I’ve found that I do not possess an innate goodness or innocence, despite God’s creational design. In fact, a critical view of human history will show that many aspects of the human condition are anything but good or innocent, so we should not expect anything different from ourselves short of a paradigm shift in our innate nature. We are desperately in need of a new nature and I know of none other to turn to for this than the One who made us from the beginning. It would be amoral for me to say less. At the end of the day we must know that our worldview resonates with reality. I end with the question spoken by a Roman governor millennia ago “What is truth?”

  17. Again, peace be upon you all. I realize from the other posts that this must be a blog frequented mostly by Christians who may know each other from some church(?), and I apologize if any of my comments offended anyone’s sensibilities. The last thing I would want is to use this blog to stir up any religious polemic. It is so easy to react to each other with our own perceptions and judgements and to create our own “definitions” (as I had written about the word “frivilous”). Trust me, as an American Muslim, I know this dynamic all too well, as we are often much misunderstood and indeed maligned due to the deeds of some. I don’t believe this style of debate can be pleasing to God. What can help is honest, sincere conversation that can lead to mutual understanding when hearts are open enough. I meant only to add to that conversation.

    Again, not to take over the blog here, I would gladly converse– not debate or battle– with anyone who wishes, and to that end, would give Mike Metzger the freedom to communicate my e-mail address to those interested.

    Kudos to Mike Metzger, who, in “changing the conversation”, helps opens minds and hearts!

    Assalamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu! (Peace be upon you, and the Mercy and Blessing of God!)

  18. Amir, I agree that our goal should not be the polemic arguement but your rather your suggestion of conversing; that is an excellent point. Let’s seek by our dialog to bring more light on the discussion of and less friction in the pursuit of truth.

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