The new year is full of hope and expectancy for many people; a time to start afresh, to develop better habits, to become more disciplined. What’s more perfect than signing into your Netflix account, only to be greeted by the renowned Marie Kondo and the promise that tidying will bring you the happiness you were looking for.
While I love simplifying life and tidying as much as the next thirty-something millennial mom, from the first episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, my radar was on high alert. While Marie herself is friendly, sweet, and encouraging, elements and core beliefs of her method raised concerns for me.
During my time in seminary, I was introduced to the idea that, as Christians, we need to not only be doing biblical hermeneutics (the art of discerning what a particular biblical text is communicating) but also, importantly, cultural hermeneutics, which could be described as the art of discerning what a particular cultural “text” is communicating. Why is this important? Because we are participants in and partakers of culture, we need to be carefully considering what exactly it is that we are receiving through various cultural “texts.”*
Back to the “text” of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo: is there anything wrong intrinsically with the concept of paring down one’s material possessions, of organizing a closet, or keeping a tidy home? Of course not. But what should be raising red flags for Christians are the subtle (and not so subtle) messages throughout the show which are communicating a variety of anti-biblical philosophies.
Because we are participants in and partakers of culture, we need to be carefully considering what exactly it is that we are receiving through various cultural “texts.”
The Promise of Happiness
On the first episode, Marie Kondo says, “the ultimate goal of tidying is really to learn to cherish everything that you have, so that you can achieve happiness for your family.” (More thoughts on the concept of cherishing the things we own here.) While initially this confident promise for happiness sounds so very appealing, and well, attainable, we ought to be the first to recognize the subtle lie in this sentiment. Will it make you happy to let go of material possessions, to minimize your stuff? If you have ever spent time bringing order to an area of your home or garage or office that particularly needed it, you likely can resonate with this sentiment. It does feel good to tidy. What is it about tidying that brings such satisfaction? Kondo would say that when we free ourselves of the things that do not spark joy and cherish the things that do, we find happiness by prioritizing what is most important to us.
May I suggest, however, that what is responsible for that happy feeling of satisfaction when we bring order to disorder is actually the image of God in us. Who was the first to bring order to the world? God himself, in Genesis 1, where we read that he brought form to what was formless, and it was good. Following creation, the first task God gives to humankind is one of bringing order – Adam is to keep and cultivate the garden, and to classify the animals God created. God is an orderly God, and as his image-bearers, we reflect his orderliness in various aspects of our lives.
So when we experience that feeling of satisfaction or happiness for the good work of tidying that we have completed, rather than look to the clean closet or fewer possessions that we own for lasting joy and proper perspective in life, let us look to the Creator of both joy and order, and rejoice for his image in us.
The Animistic Element
In each episode, Marie begins her time in the home of her clients by finding a special spot, kneeling, and greeting the home in prayer-like fashion, “to thank it for protecting you.” Additionally, she encourages her clients to hold and thank each item after determining that it indeed, does not spark joy for them, and ought to be discarded. While nothing religious is specifically mentioned in the show, Kondo herself has said that her method is partly inspired by the traditional Japanese folk religion Shinto, where inanimate objects are actually believed to possess a divine spirit or energy (kami). In Shintoism, cleaning and organizing things can be a spiritual practice, both through recognizing kami and kannagara (right way to live).
What seem like gentle and harmless touches ought to bring to mind Romans 1:25 for Christians, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” How easy it is for us to turn our focus from the Giver of the good gifts to the gifts themselves! How important it is that we protect our hearts against worshipping things rather than God himself.
In some places I have lived, the animistic element was clear: idols in peoples’ homes, goat skin bracelets to venerate ancestors. In Western cultures, animism, which is the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects, plants, and natural phenomenon, is less obvious but still a dangerous and penetrating message. Marie Kondo’s show is a clear example of a cultural text which is promoting animism, and without careful attention, we can find ourselves sucked into this empty philosophy.
“Oh great, she’s going to tell me to quit watching the show.”
Christians often fall on two sides of culture: one large group chooses to withdraw from mainstream culture, in an effort to protect itself against the infiltration of anti-biblical messages. A second large group fully participates in and enjoys all varieties of culture, but without consideration for how the anti-biblical messages are likely affecting them. I would suggest that being a faithful Christian living in post-Christian times looks like engaging culture through a biblical lens. Engaging culture means that we must be participating in it, at least to some degree, and not withdrawing for our own self-preservation. Employing a biblical lens means that as we consume cultural texts, we are filtering the messages carefully against what we know to be true from God’s Word. At times, wisdom may dictate that we stop consuming a particular text, or avoid certain texts altogether. But it is essential that Christians engage with culture if we are to have a voice in the world for dialogue and for God’s truth.
Engaging culture means that we must be participating in it, at least to some degree, and not withdrawing for our own self-preservation. Employing a biblical lens means that as we consume cultural texts, we are filtering the messages carefully against what we know to be true from God’s Word.
In the end, God tells us to live wisely. Our time on earth is precious, and limited. If we decide to consume a text like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, let us be wary of the empty philosophies presented, and do so with a biblical lens, attributing our satisfaction from tidying to the treasure of God’s image in us and ensuring that our gratitude is focused toward the Giver himself.
*Much thinking and writing on this issue can be attributed to Kevin Vanhoozer. His book, Everyday Theology, is an excellent example of cultural hermeneutics in practice (find it here).
originally published on January 29, 2019