I just read The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life, by Lisa Graham McMinn. The book received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which lauded it as "an excellent guide to spiritual practice . . . this book will especially delight those interested in understanding how inner peace is vitally connected to peace in the exterior world." The book provides substantive content and is elegantly written. McMinn, a sociologist at Wheaton College (and about to depart for George Fox) uses the tools of her discipline to help readers understand why contentment is elusive for many of us and what forces militate against contentment.
She traces how society has shifted us from understanding ourselves as soul (spiritual being in relationship with God) to self (as autonomous, self-determining psyche in pursuit of self-actualization and self-fulfillment) and ultimately to consumer. Along the way contentment shifted from being an internal state dependent on our connection to God to an external state dependent on our consumer purchases and acquisitions.
Of particular interest to me is the fact that she is writing as a suburban Christian in the context of a suburban environment. While she is not offering a study of suburbia per se, her analysis and insights give concrete ways to live Christianly and contentedly in suburbia. While her book is not a self-help book, it is full of examples and illustrations of what the contented Christian (and suburban) life might look like.
For instance, McMinn retrieves an old chair from someone’s curbside and restores it, recovering functional use and aesthetic value while countering consumerism. She hangs clothes on a traditional outdoor clothesline, saving energy and inspiring neighbors to do the same. She grows her own vegetables, buys from local farmers’ markets, commends the Slow Food movement, practices sabbath and voluntary simplicity, promotes economic justice and supports handcraft stores like Ten Thousand Villages that work toward sustainable living for people around the world.
Yet the book is not a prescriptive how-to book about things to do to find contentment. Rather, with a sociologist’s eye, she provides a descriptive portrait of the contented soul and shows us that life is better when we sip and savor life slowly, when we leave a smaller ecological footprint, when we embrace our limits and avoid getting sucked into the lies of consumer culture and western individualism. I came away from the book inspired to be the kind of person who cultivates contentment and experiences God’s goodness and shalom right here in my suburban environment – and also works to extend shalom and contentment to others.