Christian Walmart and the Paradox of Choice

I am sitting here in Starbucks with some of my favorite baristas when I hear Jennifer say (mocking a drive through customer) “Aaaaahh…too many choices!”  It’s a common phenomenon apparently: people flustered in the drive through because of the myriad of coffee options presented to them.

Have you ever noticed that the amount of time you spend looking at a menu is often directly related to how quickly you make a decision on an entrée? The more you read the slower you are. And that is not the worst part about reading entire menu. When I know that I could have ordered steak, three varieties of shrimp, or quesadillas, it is much harder for me to be satisfied with my pesto pasta.

Several cheesecakes in a display case at The C...

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If you have ever been to Cheesecake Factory with its veritable novel of scrumptious selections, you probably know what I mean. “The chicken dumplings were pretty good…but I wish I got the coconut shrimp on page 28!”

Barry Schwartz, psychology professor and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, appeared on the Colbert Report a while back. He explained to Colbert that since arguably the most esteemed value in American society is freedom, we love choices. We want the 31 flavors of ice-cream to choose from. We want jeans that are relaxed fit, straight legged, boot cut, acid wash, stone washed….well, you get the picture.

I think that this attitude is due largely to our definition of freedom–the type of freedom we value. We value what philosophers call “negative freedom” or freedom from restriction. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, and we don’t want any circumstances limiting our options.  When we say “freedom” we basically mean “the ability to do whatever I want to do.”

This shows up both in church and in the ethics of Christian life.

In a recent Christianity Today article entitled “The Cultural Medium and the Christian Message”, D.H. Williams makes an incisive quote about the consumerist culture generated at some mega-churches:

Our consumerist culture has co-opted many churches….When the church becomes essentially a purveyor of religious goods and services, it reinforces the believer’s own consumerist habits, allowing him [or her] to pick and choose according to taste and functionality. Inhaling from the cultural atmosphere a mania for unlimited choice, churches breathe out as many different programs as possible. Perhaps unintentionally, this approach treats personal liberty and the inalienable “right” to choose as the highest goods in life.

Essentially, these churches are creating a Christian Walmart. “Welcome to Christ-mart! You can find almost anything you want here, and you won’t have to pay much to get it!”

The other medium in which this love for options pops up like an all too eager Jack-in-the-box is our every-day moral choices. We want to have the ability to do whatever it is that we feel like doing. The only restriction we have put on our moral decision making is the same singular restriction John Stuart Mill advocated for in On Liberty: that we not restrict anyone else.  In other words, the only restriction we are willing to put on ourselves is that we not restrict anyone else. Live and let live.

It is no surprise then that we tend to twist our faces in quizzical looks when we read James’ description of the law: the law that gives freedom (1:25; 2:12).

The reality is the world without restrictions is a myth. We all live with restrictions. We cannot flap our arms and fly. We are (most of us) limited as to what we can buy. We cannot have affairs and maintain a healthy home life. We cannot travel to Cabo San Lucas and Switzerland at the same time. We cannot have the meaning, purpose and income from a job and do whatever we please with our time. The list goes on.

We have to make decisions. And when we do we inherently limit our other options. Like Jean Paul Sartre said, we cannot choose both to go out on the town and stay in for a quiet evening. We must choose. If you don’t choose, you choose to stay in. We must make decisions, and decisions inherently limit our options.

The thing is God knew this all along. That is why the freedom we are offered in Christ is not ‘the ability to do whatever I want’ but the vision of true human flourishing in right relationship with God and other human beings. God’s law gives freedom. It shows us the way to human flourishing. It shows us the way to a right relationship with God. We have not kept to this path, but Christ did for us. We tend to stray from this path, but God promises us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live out this vision of law-abiding flourishing.

The paradox of choice, says Barry Schwartz, is that given fewer options people make decisions more quickly and are more satisfied with the result of their choices.  In giving us his law, God not only gives us fewer moral choices, but the right ones. I suspect when we look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continue in it–not forgetting what we have heard, but doing it–we will be blessed in what we do (James 1:25).

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4 Responses to Christian Walmart and the Paradox of Choice

  1. Jennifer says:

    Good thoughts! I need to remember limits bring freedom and maybe I won’t be so paralyzed with trying to make right choices and instead I will have faith and trust God with the limits!

  2. This is a fantastic post. Right on the button. Too often, we think freedom is all about feeding our egos by making us feel like the kings of our lives. We all too often forget that Jesus is King and true freedom is found in following Him.

    I, personally, don’t mind churches having lots of activities so long as they still preach the true gospel of following Christ, not our own desires. After all, the same God who gave us Jesus as the only way to the Father also showed His love of diversity at Pentecost. The point is not the presence or absence of choice but the heart behind the choice. Do we want choice so that we can choose more wisely and explore the unending newness of God’s mercies and the gospel or is it all about feeding our egos?

    God is a God of diversity but also His freedom is freedom to follow Him free from sin. It really is a lovely paradox and a very thought-provoking article.

  3. Thanks for the shout out Kyle. I love your blogs.

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