7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess (Book Review)

Unless book reports count, or the random assignment in college, I don’t think I have ever written a “book review.”  Frankly, the idea intimidates me, as I tend to have a passionate relationship with books.  I view them more as conversations, and I am constantly mentally interacting with the author.  The result is that when I’m done reading the book, I often have a hard time figuring out where the author’s thoughts end and mine begin, and I spend a lot of time wondering, “Did he/she say that, or did I just think that?”  One result of this confusion is that I can sum up a book in three sentences, or talk about it for two hours over coffee, but I have trouble finding the in-between.

My weird book issues, however, actually helped me when I was reading Jen Hatmaker’s new book, 7:  An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.  I have enjoyed reading Hatmaker’s blog for a few months, so I had a good idea of where she was coming from even before I picked up her book.  I knew, for example, that Hatmaker had recently adopted two children from Ethiopia to join her three other children and her husband; I knew that she was passionate about fair trade issues and ethical consumerism; I knew that she had already written several Bible studies; and I knew that she was very funny.  Thus, I thought I was fairly prepared to read her book on the need to cut out materialistic excess from our Christian lives.

The first two things that struck me about the book were initially liabilities in my mind.  First, she structures the book around a series of fairly radical fasts.  In an order to reorient her family’s spending habits, Hatmaker fasts from seven “excesses,” one per month.  Furthermore, she generally fasts by limiting herself to seven elements from that area of excess.  For example, the first month is food, and so the author eats only seven foods for that month.  The second month is clothes, and so she only wears seven articles of clothing for the whole month.  Honestly, this initially struck me as too much of a stunt.  I came to this book wanting practical applications and logical conclusions, and these fasts did not seem either practical or logical to implement in my own life.  Thankfully, my initial misgivings proved unfounded, however, as Hatmaker gave me lots of inspiration and practical tips throughout this book.  More on that in a minute.

The second thing I noticed was how casual the writing style was.  I even coined a word for it:  “blogular.”  I had expected Hatmaker’s book to be a cleaned up version of her blogs, but instead, it reads like a series of blogs put in book form.  It is even structured as a running journal, written in “real time,” as she goes through her fasts.  Each entry is about blog-sized.  Plus, when you thumb through the book, there is an alarming variety of fonts, not to mention italics, all caps, parentheses, and bullet lists.  Again, this initially disappointed me.  Like I said, I am a big fan of Hatmaker’s blog, but I was expecting this book to be a bit more…polished.  I guess I was wanting a manifesto of sorts, something I could hand to my skeptical friends and say, “Here.  This is what I believe about materialism and excess.”  Needless to say, a book formed around bloggy journals detailing crazy fasts does not really lend itself to tight coherency. It wasn’t something I could pass along to my not-quite-on-the-bandwagon friends without some explanation and caveats.

In retrospect, though, I think I was putting unnecessary and even unattainable expectations on the book.  When I put aside my preconceptions and just read the book for what it was, I really, really enjoyed it.  For one thing, Jen Hatmaker is hilarious, and her stories will have you laughing out loud.  For another thing, despite all the craziness of the book’s structure, when the author gets going, she can really be profound.  As I read, I posted some of her zingers on Facebook.  My favorite quote was this one:

“The average human gets around twenty-five thousand days on this earth, and most of us in the United States of America will get a few more. That’s it. This life is a breath. Heaven is coming fast, and we live in that thin space where faith and obedience have relevance. We have this one life to offer; there is no second chance, no plan B for the good news. We get one shot at living to expand the kingdom, fighting for justice. We’ll stand before Jesus once, and none of our luxuries will accompany us. We’ll have one moment to say, ‘This is how I lived.'”

It’s funny–when you read that quote out of context, it sounds so serious and profound.  You wouldn’t think that it came from a book with so many silly stories, a book that includes random emails from the author’s friends and status updates on Facebook.  I think that’s one thing I really liked about the book:  it can swivel from hilarious to convicting within a paragraph or two.  The humor definitely helps the “medicine” to go down.

Another element that makes the book powerful is Hatmaker’s tendency toward self-deprecation.  It is obvious that she is passionate about her beliefs, and with beliefs that are as “radical” as hers (though, should they be radical in the church??), it is easy to put other Christians on the defensive.  Nobody likes to feel preached at, and Hatmaker does a great job of staying off her high horse.  In fact, she is quick to poke fun at herself.  For example, she writes this about a speaking engagement she had during her “food” fast, where the pastor mentioned her “weird food requests”:

I knew it.

I won’t be remembered as the funny author or the fascinating Bible teacher but as the high maintenance girl who sent a list of culinary demands like I was Beyonce.  So I babbled uncontrollably trying to explain 7 (which I haven’t done yet in under eight minutes), hoping to resurrect my reputation as low maintenance.  I came across as a bizarre hippie who was a below average communicator.

There are many such self-deprecating moments in the book, and they serve to remind the reader that no one is trying to put them on a guilt trip.  In fact, even though Hatmaker calls into question many of our most basic practices as “wealthy people,” she affirms at the end, “I don’t think God wants you at war with yourself.”  The purpose of this book is not to make people feel guilty, but to motivate them, to excite them, to open their hearts and minds to the incredible reality of God’s kingdom.

At least, that’s what it did for me.  I said earlier that I got lots of practical motivation from 7.  For one thing, I retooled my grocery and eating out budgets to include more “real food” cooked at home and less eating out.  I finally tried several new “natural” recipes that I had been putting off.  Greg and I also rethought some financial decisions that we had been planning on making.  I am more generally mindful of all my purchases, thinking about my God-given responsibility as a steward of the resources He has given me.  I have even been setting the alarm on my phone to remind me to stop and pray throughout the day, like Hatmaker does in chapter seven.  The added prayer time, especially, has given my days more focus and kept me more “on mission,” as Hatmaker puts it.

Lastly, the book reminded me of the importance of community.  Throughout her fasts, Hatmaker relied heavily on a group of friends whom she dubbed, “The Council.”  The Council helped to guide her, to encourage her, to help her make decisions on her journey.  To me, they served as a stark reminder that we need each other to live this Kingdom life the right way.  Hatmaker (really, it’s been hard not to call her Jen this whole time) needed her Council just like I need my completely amazing friends to motivate, inspire, and guide me.  And to be honest, I need Jen Hatmaker.  And Francis Chan.  And David Platt.  And Shane Claiborne.  I need them to add their thoughts to the greater church conversation, and I need people with whom to discuss their thoughts.  Reading books about God and the church always reminds me that the body of Christ is called such for a reason.  We need each other to function, to even figure out where we are supposed to be going and what we are supposed to be doing.  I have enjoyed figuring that out with my friends, both here in Nashville and back in Summerville, and I look forward to many more conversations and “Council” meetings.

In that sense, Jen Hatmaker’s book was just another (great) addition to a conversation that has been going on in the church for a few years now.  Many Christians have begun to reexamine the most important tenets of Christianity in light of Jesus’ words on the kingdom of God.  They have begun to question their Christian identity and ask themselves what it really means to call oneself a follower of Christ.  If you have been asking such questions (and even if you haven’t), I think that you will find 7 to be a wonderful encouragement and motivation.  It’s just another example of the church trying to figure out these answers together.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on May 7, 2012 at 10:58 am

    You quote Hatmaker as writing “We’ll have one moment to say, ‘This is how I lived.’” I think I know what she’s trying to say, but I wonder about the truth of that proposition. The Bible says we’ll have all eternity to talk about how we lived. We’ll be talking about what Christ did through us and not what we did. That truth keeps me from getting too wigged out about how I am spending each moment.

    And speaking of how I spend my time, your relationship with books is awesomely famliar to me: “I can sum up a book in three sentences, or talk about it for two hours over coffee, but I have trouble finding the in-between.” If my wife points to a book on my bedstand and asks something like “What about that book?”, my natural tendencey is to go into a lengthy description of the story (if fiction) or point of the book (if non-fiction), and how it has affected me. After listening patiently for a while, she’ll find a slight pause as I (finally) stop for a breath and tell me, “I was just wondering if you’re ready for me to take it back to the library.”

    Oh.

    Tim

    Reply

    • Ha! I also tend to overshare about books. It can be a problem:). Nowadays, I just hand my favorite to the person I want to discuss it with, make them read it themselves, and THEN sit down to talk:).

      As for the “one moment” statement, I think Hatmaker is referring to the idea of judgment, in light of Jesus’ many statements and stories depicting that scene. I agree with you that we aren’t saved by our own power, but by Christ’s sacrifice. I think if we sat down and talked about it, though, you and I might have a Paul-James thing going on, where you emphasize faith, and I’m all, “But works matter, too!” Really, though, what I took from her statement was a reminder that I only have one shot at this life, and I want to live as fully as possible in God’s kingdom. And not because I fear that theoretical “one moment” on Judgment day–no, I rest in Christ’s love for that part. Instead, I want to seize (not get wigged out about, but seize) each moment because I am EXCITED about how I’m going to spend eternity, and I want to get some early practice in:). After all, if I plan on worshiping and serving my God in the afterlife, shouldn’t I seek to do it just as wholeheartedly in this life?

      I’m not sure if that made sense…it kind of came to me as I was writing it, and I reserve the right to revise it later:).

      Reply

  2. loved her book. loved that she was very willing to laugh at herself (that helped me to feel like the 7 months were possibly doable for even me). loved that some chapters i thought, “oh, i’d have this one, easy!” and others made me think, “is she FOR REAL?!”. loved that on my kindle it was all in one size and one font (because that kind of writing style can be hard for me to read, too, kim).

    my biggest thoughts as i finished the book were…

    * i have attempted some variations of these seven before. now i realize i could do even more…and that at the same time i don’t have to. it’s not a program, there’s not a formula…as teachers say, it’s about the process, not necessarily the product. it’s about changing my way of thinking from day-to-day, not suddenly shutting down all the tvs in my house and having my whole family hate me. it’s about living and not just existing. it’s about making a conscious decision and not just letting things happen.

    * i can make some of these changes, but making them all at once would be foolish for me, because i would fail miserably (i.e., diet gone bad). i need to change things as they make sense, one thing at a time, and not go crazy and rearrange my whole life which would….

    * ….create more stress and chaos! that is one thing i kept thinking as i read, was “is she actually creating MORE stress for herself and her family because she is trying so hard to follow the plan for the month?” i know that for us, i need to be careful that i am doing what i do for a reason and not just because it sounds like the “next” thing that everyone is blogging about.

    i am interested now in reading some of her other books. ( i did read barefoot church by her husband, brandon, which reminded me of the tangible kingdom by hugh halter.) i am also inspired to start taking some of her ideas and implementing them within my family. i am finding myself embracing minimalist living because of the peace and quiet it brings mentally/ physically and because of what i frees me to do for His kingdom, and her book was definitely practical in that arena.

    Reply

    • I agree, Ann. In terms of practical application, I wasn’t interested in replicating her formula (nor was that her point, I think) b/c, like you, I wanted to avoid the “diet” mentality and go for maintainable lifestyle changes. Also like you, I was already on her thought path before I started reading, so this book gave me more inspiration on how to continue and improve things our family is already doing. It was a good shot in the arm, an encouragement to keep working to serve God better with our resources.

      Reply

  3. Posted by bekster081305 on May 7, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Apparently I’m getting a kindle for my birthday (yay!), so I’ll have to add this one to the list of books I want to read. Sounds interesting.

    Reply

  4. Well, you dont need ot hear this here since you have been hearing it non-stop in our own “Council” meetings but …I love this book. For all the reasons you mentioned, I love that this book is challenging without imposing guilt. I love that it reflects a real gal who is just trying to be a little more like her Christ and is willing to wear moldy jeans to prove it. I think that there were a lot of things I would do different were I to (and I were ..will) do a form of the seven fasts, simply because my struggles in those areas are different.

    I, for instance, would restructure the ‘clothing’ fast more around the excessive spending/time/energy spent on beauty – partly because buying clothes excessively is not a big issues of mine, and while I could certainly get rid of stuff you aint gonna find any tags in my closet or any other name brand besides “Old Navy” …clothing itsel fis not a big struggle, but the whole focus on appearance is, and so I would focus my fast on that instead.

    I loved the challenged thinking in terms of how we spend, how we eat, how we shop and what we do tot ake care of the earth.

    I am still reading it, so one thing I will say is I am still waiting for the “how this changed things for later” part – I think limiting foods, clothing and spending for a month is great, but how much better to keep that thinking going (while not as extreme, certainly). I am kinna wanting her to sum it all up and say “Here is the long-term variation and change I have made”

    If we eat limited, for instance but then just go right back to how we ate before what we gained? Or if we dont spend anything for a month, but then then overspend the next have we gotten any benefit in the long term aside from knowng that we can?

    If she does that in the last two chapters or not, I will still be passing this on and collecting my own Council so I can hope gain at least as much from her willingness to limit things. This is my first JH book – but I will be looking for others, as well as a few of the ones she mentioned throughout the book.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Kenneth on May 8, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Haven’t read the book but I will say that given our family’s recent struggles with food sensitivities: consult your physician or nutritionist before embarking on any diet that restricts you to 7 foods in a month. Humans need a lot more variety in our diet, not less. Maybe find a way to limit the quantity to 7, or 7 spices or something? Over exposure to certain foods can trigger allergic reactions in the body, which can be especially harmful for the little ones.

    Reply

    • Ken,

      Yeah, it never once occurred to me while reading to actually do her fast…and she never suggested that we do it with our children, or even on a long-term basis for ourselves. Like you said, my struggle is making sure my kids get enough variety in their diets.

      On a sidenote, have you or Victoria read Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food? I am only in the first chapter, but I am enjoying it so far. It seems like something you guys would like…

      Reply

    • The 7 diet is certainly not one that would be healthy long term situation, just like shopping at only 7 set establishments would not be something that could be maintained in the long term. I think thought that in the short term the simple act of limiting anything is a good way to get our minds and hearts focused on something other the effort it takes to acquire those things.

      Reply

      • Definitely, Court. It is definitely a fast, not a lifestyle choice, as the book makes clear. Fasting long term isn’t healthy, of course, (if it was a traditional fast, we would starve!), but in the short term, it serves to focus our minds and souls on God.

        Reply

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