A Franciscanist reacts to the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary about Important Things
I heard an NPR interview with the two guys who call themselves “The Minimalists” last week. I stopped what I was doing to listen to the entirety of the interview. They’ve got a lot of things right. When their movie “Minimalism” popped up on my Netflix feed this evening, I got comfortable, happy to have an alternative to going out to see Star Wars (where my family went) for the evening. As someone who has spent a lot of time reading St. Francis and thinking about him, I have a few things to share after watching this movie.
The documentary follows two guys as they travel around the country promoting their book and ideas. Their shtick is that they’ve pared down their belongings to the bare necessities. We don’t catch a glimpse of the living quarters of one of the fellas, so there’s no chance for that curiosity to be satiated, but that’s alright. The film features interviews with several people who advocate for aspects of minimalism: a neuroscientist who thinks we spend too much time looking at screens, tiny house dwellers, a handsome millennial who eschews an apartment in order to couch surf and use Airbnb (presumably). I like all of this. While listening to the guy talk about screentime, I paused the movie to further adjust the limits on the app on my phone (App Detox) which limits how much time I spend using my phone. They give great advice, examples, stories and statistics that will cause viewers to take a minute to consider their own consumption. St. Francis of Assisi jumped up excitedly, recognizing “This is what I want!” when he heard the readings where Jesus tells a young man to go, sell everything he has, give the money to the poor in order to follow him properly. So, these ideas are as old as the hills, but it is great to see them repackaged in 2016 style and to see that 100s of people show up to their book signings/bookstore appearances. They’ve got quiet the marketing machine in place, which gets them interviewed by all sorts of media so kudos to them for going “maximalist” on the P.R. front.
I guessed correctly that there would be some nod toward Buddhism and articulation of its ideas about possessions. There was and it was explained by a former news reporter/drug addict who found through mediation a way to focus and worry less. I wish there were more Francis-loving filmmakers out there who might be able to tell a story like this with a nod to Francis, but that’s not their problem.
It is a movie that could only have been made in 2016, by my compatriot Americans from a certain economic class (upper middle) and has all the predictable conclusions about minimalism boosting personal happiness. There are a few interviewees who toss in ideas about the earth’s resources and for a minute I thought that the statement which started with (I’m paraphrasing here), “It is hard to believe that in a time when Americans enjoy so much comfort and wealth…” was going to end with an assessment of the world around us and the lack of comfort and wealth in much of the world. However, the remainder of that statement was something like, “…and yet everyone is so unsatisfied.” I believe that lots of us Americans are unsatisfied and believe that we need to acquire more and more. I live in a town where all the 1960s and 1970s houses are being torn down to make way for sad, oversized McMansions. So, yes, they are on to something. However, it is compelling and true that we need to take a look at how our choices affect others. Also, about how we can harness the power we have (the money we control, for example) to be a force for good. And, how we need to see ourselves in the context of the whole world. I’m not saying that my fellow Catholics are all knowlegable to analyze these things in light of Catholic Social Teaching and the teachings of our Popes, but it would add a layer of depth to the film. St. Francis of Assisi did not eschew his family possessions and status because he wanted to be happier, but because it is what God called him to do and freed him up to love and serve others all over the world.
I recommend watching this film. It makes a statement which doesn’t get heard very much amongst the din of commercials which are our steady source of information on materialism and how to embrace it. It opened my eyes up to some new vocabulary and I was encouraged to see the number of people showing up to hear them speak. No doubt, they are on to something and they have hit a nerve. I heard a lot of ideas which have been popular for a few years-about working minimal hours so you can chill more. Sounds good to me.
I’d like to know what you think about The Minimalists and their movie, Minimalism.
I love Living Nativity Scenes. This Advent, my goal is to try see 4 or 5 of them, inviting friends and family along with me. One of the most extraordinary descriptions in the first biography of St. Francis (written just a few years after his death) is about the Living Nativity which he pulled together. More precisely, he delegated it, like a smart leader, and had a lay man, John, pull together the townspeople of Greccio, plus an ox plus an ass. I try to imagine how spectacular this scene was for folks who loved a good tableau and the occasional entertainers who came to town. I wonder what it was like for John to talk people into letting him borrow their ox for the night. “No, really, we just want to put it on display next to the so-and-so family who has already agreed to depict Jesus, Mary and Joseph for the evening.”
I love when churches put a lot of effort in to these Living Nativity Scenes, sometimes called Live Nativities or other words. Some churches put on a drive-through experience or a walk-through experience. Yes, I will concede that in most cases, a medieval historian was not consulted to get the costumes just right and, in many cases, peoples’ own bathrobes account for most of the costumes, but the sentiment is right and before I criticize other people, I have to remember that THEY are the ones doing it while I did not lift a finger to help.
I hope that you will take some time to find a living nativity in your town. A lot of northerners have told me they’ve never heard of such a thing-poor lambs. I know that in the south here, we have plenty to choose from . Many of them are just a few nights and most of them close shop way before Christmas, so start looking now. Francis and John put together the first Living Nativity Scene because they wanted the scene to come to life for people and for the reality of the incarnation to be more tangible for people who got to go there, huddling against the cold, singing and enjoying the candlelit scene. I hope you jump in the car with some in-laws to check one out near you. It is what St. Francis would do.