Mike Elgan, tech journalist (who also writes the quirky little newsletter called “Mike’s List“) recently wrote an article at ComputerWorld.com wondering if gadgets have become too small and cheap to be realistically useful. (My source was Cranky Geeks, by the way.) Cheap is good, right? Not necessarily, Elgan opines.
“The problem with such low prices is that if everybody gravitates toward zero margin (or below) electronics, then quality will suffer. Just look at the airline industry. People now use the Internet to book flights based exclusively on airfares. The result is lousy service, no food and overworked, underpaid pilots.”
The American auto industry offers another great example of this same phenomenon. American cars are functional, but they are not particularly nice. A decade ago GM decided to try to put the shine back on the Cadillac brand name. They promised they were going to create the first true American luxury car in a generation. The decidedly lukewarm results came out a few years later. The new three-letter car line (CTS, SRX, DTS, XLR, etc.) was nice, but they certainly were not up to the standards of either the European or Japanese luxury cars. Doors and molding didn’t match perfectly, the leather was not quite top grade, the ergonomics weren’t as good as the competition, etc. It seemed the American auto industry was only able to make things that were almost luxurious. GM’s original goal was to compete with European luxury cars in Europe. Other than the decidedly in-your-face Escalade (which Latin American drug lords purchase by the clip-full), non-U.S. sales of Cadillac continue to founder, partially because of reputation but primarily because they’re built with a very low standard of luxury.
The trajectory of this process is clear. When price is overwhelmingly the most important factor, three things happen: First, quality suffers as prices decline; second, we forget how to make quality in the first place, and third, eventually (as we settle into the pattern of mediocrity) quality becomes a nearly impossible goal to achieve.
This same phenomenon can be found in the realm of spirituality. After the60s when western young people turned to India to fill the spiritual void created by the Enlightenment and resulting consumerist culture in the West, a spiritual export industry was created in India. All sorts of Hindu-Lite gurus showed up in Europe and the Americas. I am told that real Hindu spirituality is extremely rigorous and difficult; it takes years of discipline to become adept at these practices. But ordinary Indian folks in the sub-continent saw these watered-down forms of Hinduism being practiced in Europe and America and clamored for this easier and gentler religion. Soon the gurus were migrating back to India from the West. The result is a greatly diminished Hinduism that the old guard rails against.
And of course, the same is true for Christianity. Evangelical “discipline” in some of the “emerging churches” means getting to church 15 minutes early to get your latté because the line at the coffee bar in the narthex has gotten quite long since the church began to grow. Okay, that was a cheap shot and a bit of an extreme. And yet it’s not that far from what a scholar as mainstream as Leonard Sweet has recommended: church as bistro (Sweet) rather than church as athletic arena (St. Paul).
The number one complaint I hear about Eastern Orthodoxy is that it is too hard. The services are too long, the expectations are unrealistic, the canons about fasting – well that’s at very minimum “excessive effort” and probably a form of evil that is tearing apart Christ’s real Church.
But when a person was nurtured in a Christian tradition that has all the fine characteristics of the AMC Pacer or Chevy Chevette, it’s no wonder that an “imported” Christianity with all the bells and whistles seems a bit excessive. (Imported from the Middle East, no less … did anything good ever come out of the Middle East?)
But I digress. What got me thinking about all this is the Thanksgiving holiday itself and one of my “Thanksgiving memories” (which I’m pretty sure didn’t happen on Thanksgiving at all, but rather during my brother’s college Christmas holiday break). He was home from attending Bible College back in Michigan and that day he was talking with our parents around the dining room table. I was listening in. In the course of the conversation, Phil. 1:10 came up.
[Phil 1: 9] And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,  so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,  filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul is calling us to approve or discover the excellent, and by implication, to do that which is excellent. Marc’s point was that Paul is not calling us to merely good stuff, but to the excellent, to the superior, to the things that are better than good. Marc mused that the biggest danger in most Christian’s lives is not the bad, but rather the good that we become satisfied with when we don’t get around to doing the excellent for which we ought to strive.
Someone somewhere that I read called it the cult of mediocrity. Excellence is hard. And once we become accustomed to mediocrity, excellence becomes close to impossible, on the one hand, and on the other hand, excellence appears to be elitism.
I’ve since come to find out that my brother’s insight is a somewhat common homiletical theme for this passage, but I heard it first from him, when I was young and impressionable. And strangely, I always associate that conversation with post-Thanksgiving meal conversation.
This year, with the rise of netbooks priced well under $200 running a Linux or possibly Android OS on an Atom processor – tiny and mediocre computers that are only good for tiny and mediocre jobs – I add a question, as a new thread to this old Thanksgiving reflection: Is my church (whatever that church may be) too small and cheap to be particularly useful? Just how much do I have to give to get the spiritual life I need?
It seems an excellent question.