Tidying up

January 14th, 2019

In a stroke of marketing genius, Netflix released the show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on New Year’s Day, just as people were making resolutions to clean up and get organized. But the show has also provoked some backlash as well.

When the book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up came out in 2014, it sold six million copies and became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller. It seemed like everyone was employing the KonMari method of removing clutter. In the show, Marie Kondo herself visits the houses of eight individuals and families to teach them her method and help them organize their lives and their stuff. The thesis undergirding the show seems to be that, by sorting, organizing, and discarding our “stuff” based on whether or not it “sparks joy,” we will have more energy, time, and space for the things that truly matter.

As with any method, every part of it is not for everyone. When Marie Kondo herself stated that, ideally, she keeps fewer than thirty books, there was some backlash on social media. Other criticisms concern the spirituality that Kondo brings to her method, which includes thanking things for their service before being discarded. At times, the tone is slightly discordant — as if organizing our homes and things might somehow quell our existential anxiety in the face of the effects of climate change and growing wealth inequality.

On one hand, the KonMari method is a challenge to our typical American consumerist ethos that demands we continuously purchase more and newer things only to find ourselves surrounded by a lot of things we don’t even like. It asks us to be intentional about our possessions in an era of cheap consumer goods. To that end, it gave me permission to dispose of those ill-fitting but expensive pants I never wear and those gifts I’d received that weren’t quite my style but that I felt obligated to keep.

On the other hand, all of this organizing feels a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The first episode features a couple with two young kids where the father is working sixty hours a week, and the mother is the primary caregiver and housekeeper on top of working part-time. Both of them appear overwhelmed, with an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with their lives and each other. This is about more than their possessions; it’s also about the unending demands of late-stage capitalism on their time and relationships.

From a faith perspective, what might Marie Kondo and her television series teach the church? Some of our churches have become dumping grounds for things that no longer “spark joy,” that we feel obligated to hold on to “just in case” or out of fear of offending a donor. Or we might be clinging to items that remind us of a more robust era in the community, like outdated Sunday School curricula when the youngest member is 48. In other words, it isn’t just our homes that are drowning in “stuff.”

More broadly, we might ask if involvement in faith communities is something that “sparks joy” in the lives of people. Joy is not necessarily the same thing as happiness, but in a world where the people in our pews are overwhelmed by the demands on their time and energy, the church needs to be something besides another obligation for overworked individuals struggling just to keep their heads above water. The church can be a place to experience the transcendent, a helpful community where members pitch in to help one another, and a place where we are reminded of God’s grace no matter how messy our houses are.

Like Kondo does in her show, the church needs to meet people where they are right now, not the imagined, idealized world of fifty years ago. The decline of trustworthy institutions and existential fears about the future of our economy and our planet weigh heavy on the minds of people who are being asked to do too much to prove their value. As we move into post-Christendom, it is more important than ever that the church not replicate the ways of the world but stand distinct from them as a place of grace, peace, and joy.

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