Book Review: “Year of Plenty ", by Rev. Craig Goodwin, Sparkhouse Press, 2011

by james on April 12, 2013

in Books, No Post, Reviews

Introduction: Maslow at the Beach

One of the founders of the school of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow, is often given credit for the learning theory of the four stages of competence. The first is unconscious incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know. The second is conscious incompetence. For surfers a new stage often arrives as a flash of insight just before being owned by a wave. For example, “Maslow had a gnarly wipeout.” Conscious competence may follow. For instance, “Dude, check Maslow tear that wave!” The fourth stage is unconscious competence, a fluid zen where water and rider are one as in, “Dude, Maslow is a saltwater Buddha!

Having grown up near some of the world’s best surf I find it interesting to review a book about food and gardening, each page curling like the crest of a wave, leading me to think not about food or gardening but of the whole surf culture. I can almost smell the salty air.

Rev. Craig Goodwin’s book Year of Plenty (Y0P) describes the trek of an unconsciously incompetent environmentalist towards conspicuous and conscious incompetence. Y0P is a charming book written by a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor. It features self-deprecating humor but packs a serious worldview message: the satisfaction of our physical appetites has spiritual dimensions.

Unlike recent books of the same genre[1] YOP is not loaded with lists of rules and regulations to save the planet. Instead YOP focuses on the personal experiment the Goodwin family undertook to reduce their dependence on the American food ‘system’.

The Goodwin experiment was not intended to be a form of Kulturkampf, but something far more individual and poignant. For Goodwin it was an exercise in spiritual self-discipline, almost like learning to surf. It was a method of pricking himself to see if he still felt what one should when paddling through icy water. His experiment was a form of defiance, albeit somewhat housebroken, against the materialism so prevalent in our society. YOP is a Rev.’s form of the barbaric yawp against ‘the man’.

Deprivation: California Dreamin’ style

YOP describes the efforts of Goodwin and his family to ride the barrel, to stay faithful for one whole year, to four spiritual laws of food and life: consume only things that were local, used, homegrown, or homemade [24].

Goodwin explains his rationale as follows,

Our actions, for the most part, were arbitrary, illogical, and ultimately indefensible. But in many ways, that was the whole point, to do things that don’t compute, to intentionally follow labyrinthine pathways in a world stuck in ruts of commodified efficiency, to choose relationships over saving twenty cents a pound of ground beef, to waste time with the kids, to stock up on pineapple and tuna fish from Thailand and at the same time refuse to buy cottage cheese from Seattle, to push our children like a pack of mules on Halloween night in order to stock up on chocolate and caramel, to walk home from work at the end of the day in the middle of winter, to exercise our rebellion against consumerism by spending twenty bucks on a tin of cheese, and as if that isn’t enough nonsense, to envision it all as a spiritual discipline, the meeting place of God’s unfolding kingdom and our attempts at faithfulness.” [193, 194]

One of the many small pleasures of the book is the opportunity to enter into the genuine struggles of the Goodwin family, of the resistance of the children to unpalatable dietary laws, their grudging acceptance, and final appreciation. Some of the voluntary deprivation included

instead of buying Lily the $7 shiny new Beanie Baby at Toys–R–Us, we were going to buy the $2, not so new variety at Value Village.” [91]

For her birthday Goodwin’s wife, Nancy, received a bag of sugar.

The Goodwins slice away fat in their life, and I for one will not judge them. Each man needs to live humbly before his God, beat the flesh, cut off whatever idols linger. But without judging motive one can certainly say that the Goodwins define deprivation – all in a spiritual cause – in sumptuous ways. Their deprivation is not so very different from the normal life of tens of millions of Americans.

It may be that YOP is more revealing than Rev. Goodwin ever hoped. One of the difficulties of being immersed in the relatively wealthy mainline American church culture is that it is difficult to get one’s mind around real deprivation. We live in a time where celebrities can experience elective deprivation like a day without toilet paper, all digitally recorded so we can enter into what is presumably, for them, a spiritually moving experience. YOP has something of that same plastic surgery texture, mercifully without the video.

The book does express a certain retiring self-consciousness, an awareness that the Goodwin efforts at green liposuction should blush with inadequacy. A sad symptom of our entertainment-drunk culture are reality TV shows, like The Simple Life, where one can watch spoiled socialites stretch themselves spiritually by giving up their cell phones and chauffeurs to do daring things like pump their own gas for a day.

Where The Simple Life is vulgar, YOP is naïve. However unfair it may seem to mention these two cultural exhibits in the same breath, both cater to the same emotional deficiencies of sanitized middle-class life. Eating expired food, or wearing used clothing, hardly seems to be a valid reason to feel deprived, or heroic, or spiritual (never religious).

It is telling that the Goodwin mission began at a Thai restaurant, and the pact was sealed at a Starbucks©[15]. The only thing missing from the narrative is the trembling lip, the suppressed sob over that final Chai latte.

Man on the moon

Suddenly I am reminded again of the surf culture.

When Neil Armstrong took that small leap in 1969 South Africa was one of the few advanced countries unable to watch the event live. In 1976 television, and America culture, arrived in the country. Foreign as a moon rock, but smoother, TV made one think that everything cool came with a Californian drawl.

I remember feeling interest in that accent oozing from the little black box. It was so novel to me, so lush and effortless. It never failed to conjure slow motion images of fresh orange juice poured from cataracts in the sky. I don’t mean to be flippant about an important topic, but the levity of YOP invites one to be flip about serious matters.

Radical environmentalists of the West – the dark green – intentionally encourage the iron fist in the velvet glove to save the planet. They encourage collective action on an international scale because of an alleged planetary ecopalypse that is, by any empirical measure, nonexistent. Greens cheer on high energy prices, high prices for everything. In fact, Greens share a large part of the credit for the imposition of government policies to intentionally raise prices.

And they enthusiastically pursue such policy in spite of evidence that economic prosperity and environmental health are two sides of the same coin. Health and wealth go together. Poverty is not a positive thing for a healthy environment.

Unfortunately, those in the Green movement fail to understand this economic axiom. They – their name is Legion – cheer the mothballing of power plants due to Green regulations. They cheer the high price of oil. Why? Because they believe that if humans have fewer economic choices they will also have a lower carbon footprint. Contrary to empirical data, Greens believe that fewer economic choices for human beings are somehow good for the environment.

This is the mythology that YOP buys into in a big way, in beach bum style. People like Maurice Strong, mastermind of the United Nations Earth Charter, and Agenda 21, are speaking about international taxation and the necessity of collapsing the American economy to save the planet. Rev. Goodwin urges planetary salvation in flip flops.

Writes he,

I’m not ready to give up bacon yet, but I don’t live in fear of being a vegetarian, and I don’t see why any of us should. It could be worse, we could be talking about a future without coffee and chocolate. Oh, wait a minute. Some scientists are warning that climate change could bring an end to coffee and chocolate as well. Now that’s a future worthy of apocalyptic angst.

YOP should be retitled, “Saving the world, slacker style.” The book has a slightly bemused tone throughout. Goodwin mentions hard core locavores who sacrifice to save the planet. He’s fascinated by their green faith, even inspired by it, but settles in the end for cutting out Starbucks©, eating only at locally owned restaurants, and consuming only coffee beans grown in Thailand. It is hard to enter into the spirit of this botoxed kind of suffering.

Useful idiots

While the dark Greens are effectively hobbling global economies with all kinds of onerous regulations, light Greens like Goodwin (or perhaps one should say lite greens) play a less important, but still useful role in the cultural struggle that features the rise of green and the suppression of genuine Christian spirituality.

One is reminded of the role of Walter Duranty who won a Pulitzer Prize for failing to notice twelve million Ukrainians starved to death by the Soviet regime. “Russians Hungry, but Not Starving,” reported Duranty in a New York Times article published on March 31, 1933.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Goodwin has anything like the power, or influence, or intent of somebody like Duranty. Goodwin recognizes the evil of a modern American culture that indulges in all kinds of materialism, gluttony and perversity. But his lite Green arguments to counter these sins are, like Duranty’s platitudes, useful to those with forbidding visions of planetary salvation.

Goodwin is useful because the greatest challenge to the pagan spirituality of environmentalism is robust and manly Christian faith. Although the faith preached in mainline churches these days is neither robust nor manly, it nevertheless still wears the mantle (at least publicly) of Jesus. It stands to reason that if the gospel of Jesus Christ is severely degraded and confused, then its power to influence the culture will be significantly diluted.

Diluting the gospel is precisely what is done in books like YOP where the author writes, “

To take up the cause of caring for the earth is to take up the cause of Christ.” [12]

There is a genuine spiritual hazard in replacing the Biblical emphasis on Christ. We may find to our dismay introduction of a false gospel that causes humans to worship the creation, instead of the Creator.

Dying churches

Perhaps YOP is not so serious though. Rev. Goodwin writes,

We framed it as a personal journey to save ourselves, not a crusade to save the world.” [18]

Environmentalism as a fad is sweeping mainline churches and is increasingly offered as a means for Christians to deepen their relationship with God. Rev. Goodwin evidences this admirable yearning for relationship, writing elsewhere,

Out of our experience, buying or not buying something becomes a sacred event, an access point to God’s kingdom[i].

Unfortunately, nowhere in Scripture is personal economic activity, like buying organic coffee, counted as “an access point to God’s kingdom”—or as any other a means of grace.

Well-meaning Christians might easily get a sugar rush from environmentalism. The church has shown itself to be remarkably susceptible to cultural fads. This is particularly true at this point in time when attendance in mainline churches plummets precipitously, as across the Northwest, where Rev. Goodwin ministers. Rock bands have failed. Contemporary worship services don’t seem to pump up crowds like they used to. Environmentalism is increasingly seen as a way to revitalize congregations in a culture steeped in ecological consciousness and nature spirituality.

Christians once scandalized the Roman Empire by their no-nonsense embrace of Christian exclusivity. In our own time the church has itself become something of a scandal. A belligerent atheist like E.O. Wilson makes so bold as to suggest that the church should now promote policies for what he calls a sustainable new world order.

Perhaps Wilson dares to make so bold because he recognizes (1) how different modern mainstream Christianity is from the religion of Jesus, and (2) how so many modern Christians are susceptible to his arguments since they base their faith almost exclusively on mysticism and the search for novel experiences.

Wilson expects the emergence of a synthesis of Christianity and other faiths to resanctify the Earth. How will this be achieved? Wilson replies:

That’s easy: through the secularization of traditional religions. Already most of them accept the idea of evolution. Already most of them accept that the human mind really does have a physical basis. And, furthermore, most of the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity have shown themselves very prone to the conservation ethic when the information is made available to them. There’s a very strong green movement in Christian sects at the present time. So that is part of the evolutionary process.[ii]

Mainline church leaders agree. They see environmentalism as an entry point for a meeting of the minds. I do not believe that Rev. Goodwin intends to be one of these ministers. He decries the use of environmentalism as a tool to revitalize the mainline churches. For him newfound appreciation of the spiritual dimensions of environmentalism runs parallel to, not ahead of, his desires to revitalize the church. But he is not immune to appreciating such possibilities. He acknowledges this in a New York Times interview,

It’s like we’ve got more going on in our parking lot than we do within the walls of the church.”[iii]

Instead of looking for ways in which churches can take up concern for the environment, and thinking farmers’ markets are excellent in this regard, why not go out street preaching Christ, not environmentalism?

Conclusion

If required to summarize the book in just a few words I would do so as follows: sweetly, and dangerously, naïve. YOP offers nothing of substance to the debate about global warming and environmentalism. It is intended as a personal testimony. It is saccharine smooth. The author candidly admits this. It is his modest effort to add something to the conversation. In this it fails. But it may succeed elsewhere, in creating confusion in the minds of already confused Christians.

Goodwin is a pastor in a fading denomination, one increasingly divorced from the gospel of Jesus Christ, flailing about desperately to justify its existence. More and more biblically committed Christians are leaving. Fewer and fewer of the worldly see the purpose of joining a church that believes in everything they already do—and nothing they don’t.

Church as debating society is useless in a world desperately seeking a solid reason for being. Arguing about whether “padding in the pews and more electric guitar” [167] brings bums to pews, goes nowhere quickly. This frustrates Goodwin. He sees the growing irrelevance of modernist churches in a postmodern world. In this context there is, as Thomas Altizer noted, the sense that “all traditional theological meaning, all our inherited religious meaning, is in process either of dissolution or of transformation.”[iv]

Although settled in his ministry, perhaps Goodwin is himself asking the same kind of question? He writes, “While environmentalists are setting a course to save the world,” [167] the church is essentially playing games and arguing about irrelevancies. It is this context that frames his efforts to go Green as a noble, spiritual, but ultimately irrational and hopeless, token effort to do the right thing.

While environmentalism can be ugly it is often just dangerously silly, such as among the latte sipping Hollywood elite who solve the problems of the world at yoga retreats and beach parties. Who better to describe the heart of self-affirmation and self-realization? Being Green is, like, the coolest fashion accessory ever.

YOP leaves me with that same kind of plumped feeling. It leaves me feeling a little bit melancholy about the abbreviated stamina of the mainline Presbyterian Church. There we find a form of religion with no power. As surely as a retreating tide leaves a draining shore behind it, so surely a vanishing Christian faith leaves behind it a world empty of truth and meaning.

As a young man the notable 17th-century Puritan Thomas Goodwin, perhaps a faithful ancestor of Rev. Craig Goodwin, heard and obeyed this advice:

Young man, if you ever would do good, you must preach the Gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.”[v]

Preach the Christ! Now that would be truly dangerous, truly revolutionary in contemporary American pagan culture. Such preaching ushers in ages of spiritual plenty.


James Wanliss, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC, a Senior Fellow of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a lay theologian, and the author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death (Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, 2011).


 

 



[1] For instance, The Gospel According to the Earth, reviewed at http://www.wanliss.com/?p=1643

 



[i] Family and church model sustainable options to promote eating and buying local, The Fig Tree, December 2009, Online at http://www.thefigtree.org/dec09/120109goodwin.html

[ii] Fred Branfman, Living in Shimmering Disequilibrium, Salon, 22 April 2000, Online at http://www.salon.com/2000/04/22/eowilson/

[iii] William Yardley, Pastors in Northwest Find Focus in ‘Green’, New York Times, 15 January 2010, Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/16/us/16church.html

[iv] Thomas J. J. Altizer, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963, p.13.

[v] Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans, Reformation Heritage Books, 2007, page 268.

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