Saint Francis vs. the Minimalists

The challenge for the Christian lies in not mistaking these ideas for the Gospel.

white wooden table

In the first decade of this brave new millennium, the internet was a very different concept to me than it is now. For starters, my grandparents still subscribed to AOL, so every Christmas when we’d visit, I got to experience a World Wide Web that inspired a great deal of patience. Or, perhaps could inspire patience were I not a young boy. To me, born as I was to a tech-savvy father who worked remotely long before it was cool, the technology was both immensely fascinating and deeply inconvenient. The otherworldly song of the modem, the fact that we couldn't take a phone call while I used it: simply mind-blowing. Why would we need to take a phone call when I was engaged in the much more important task of waiting for Flash games to load on the BBC's Doctor Who webpage? (Some of these games were legitimately excellent. Shoutout if you remember the Dalek one.)

My grandparents have long since subscribed to the faster internet of today—perhaps at this point even faster than what my parents have. I recall when I moved to the city, the slowest speed I could choose was 200 Mbps. A great speed when I'm downloading very legal Linux ISO's but hardly utilized the rest of the time. And in some places the “default” speed is significantly faster. The series of tubes flows with more bandwidth than ever.

Partially as a result of this overabundance, the Web is also heavier than it has ever been. Back when it took dozens of seconds to load a single image, developers found many clever ways to optimize load times. As more of the Web has become interactive, the strain has shifted to servers and clients alike as content is generated in real time and pushed to the user. Not to mention ads. If we were to tally the potential energy savings of re-designing the Web according to those 90's principles, I wonder how much electricity we would save. Hell, forget electricity—have you ever looked up how much water it takes to cool all the massive data centers we've built? Talk about a Colorado River…

All this to say, by way of long digression, it's no surprise that reactions to the trend have emerged. Publications such as Low Tech Magazine have written excellent manifestos on the subject. A number of easy-to-use static site generators have popped up in recent years, combining web 2.0 functionality with the speed and efficiency of plain HTML. Probably the most mainstream manifestation of this has been where the “tiny web” interacts with minimalism more broadly. (Ah yes, at last we get to this post's subject. My mistake for starting with a title and then having to pilot my thoughts in that direction.)

Good old minimalism. Darling of the 2010's. Making “less is more” cool again. Arguably the worst thing about the movement is how trendy it became, how many YouTubers who professed its creed began advertising “minimalist” products on their platforms, blurring the line between consumption and its absence. I admit, I’ve fallen into this trap myself. For example, I bought a feature phone to un-tether myself from the internet in my pocket. Legitimately a useful decision, but the lack of functionality also means I need a second device so I can cash checks or use apps like Signal. It's a workflow that works, but it's also rather... “more” that ends up being less, rather than the inverse. Plus I could argue it wouldn't be necessary if a had a little more self-control.

corded rotary phone

Back in undergrad, I joined a group of men devoted to Franciscan spirituality—not something as hardcore as a third order fraternity, but something akin to it. One of the pillars of that brotherhood was poverty, something Saint Francis himself lived in a radical way. While we didn't go so far as to renounce all our possessions, we did strive to analyze every potential purchase through the lens of whether it was necessary or useful to our vocation as students. For me, that sometimes meant foregoing things I really wanted but knew would ultimately distract me. (I cannot tell you how many times in the past few years I've very nearly picked up a Nintendo Switch secondhand.)

Herein lies the paradoxical nature of poverty, and it’s something religious communities have understood for centuries. Without reducing pious practices to psychological life hacks, there's a very real connection to the simplicity of religious life and the degree of peace it brings these men and women, the freedom they find without so much physical distraction. Minimalism aims, at its best, the tap into a similar mindset. When we un-encumber ourselves from having so many things, we lessen the friction between on thoughts and our actions. That which we do own should support our day-to-day lives in an obvious way. As Kierkegaard might say, these possessions ought to help us “to will one thing.”

Thus we come to the fundamental difference between the minimalists and Francis. Because, while I think the practice of minimalism can be healthy and beneficial, it doesn't tend toward the radical nature of sacrifice that the early Franciscan community embodied. A recurring theme I see in various reflections on the minimalist life is the pursuit of quality. The idea is that if I'm only buying two sweaters instead of eight, I can afford to purchase something much nicer than I would have otherwise. Don’t get me wrong: there are good reasons for doing this. Buying a high-quality item is often less wasteful than buying something that will wear quickly and soon be discarded. But I often find these choices can drift into the realm of excess. One channel I follow recently featured a hoodie that retails for $120. That's practically a third of an iPad.

So, as often as I can, which is to say imperfectly and too infrequently, I try to ask myself, “Do I really need something this nice?” If it’s something career or passion related, the answer might be yes. (E.g. by far there are more expensive pens out there, but my Twsbi Eco goes with me everywhere and was well worth the $35 I paid for it.) But in other areas, it’s worth asking, do I really need the best of all hoodies? Could I perhaps find a suitable alternative at the thrift store? (Ultimately, it is impossible to create a design process as sustainable as buying something used.) Can I accept I might not look as cool? Could I instead devote the money to the cause of people who need it much more than I do?

I suppose the gist of this extended ramble is that in finding the synthesis between the timeless truths of faith and the cultural atmosphere of today, we often discover there's something to be learned of both. The tiny internet, minimalism, related ideas of slowing down and living with intentionality, these can all be valuable things. The challenge for the Christian lies in not mistaking the idea of “owning the right things” for the good news of the Gospel, which asks us in many ways to leave all we have and follow after Him. In the words of Sierra Demulder and Waveney Yasso’s track “Self Care”

“If you were to ask the world, which is to say, the internet, what self care looks like, it would tell you: candles. Hundreds and hundreds of candles … It would tell you it’s drinking your weight in water. It’s buying a new set of nice, fancy sheets. It’s a gym membership. It costs money. It doesn’t spill or stain or fray. It would tell you nothing about how hard you have to cry to break a blood vessel. … These days, self care seems to come with a price tag or a filter. Healing is rarely so photogenic.”

Everything we own from bookshelves to bones will one day pass into dust and be gone. When we go—and we're all gonna go—what legacy will we have prepared to take with us?

rocks along the coastline

If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up to receive new posts via email. You can also subscribe via RSS or follow me on Mastodon (a)luke(a) As always, stay swanky, and have a very good day indeed.