December 9, 2004
We are a society that loves "solutions." The word combines America's can-do spirit of self-reliance and its capitalist impulse to sell things. And so "solutions" has become a marketing buzzword, a sudden synonym for "products."
The Solutions Catalog offers "products that make life easier." Better Homes and Gardens features a section called "Home Solutions." Micro Solutions calls itself "the pioneer and industry leader of mass storage parallel port products," whatever those are. Cross-Cultural Solutions is an international volunteer organization. Hyperion Solutions Corporation "delivers [computer software] solutions that enable companies to continually measure performance, anticipate results, and drive [up] profitability." National Public Radio commentator Geoff Nunberg quipped that he's surprised Smuckers has yet to bill itself as "your toast-coating solutions provider."
"Solution" used to be the opposite of "problem"; now it's the opposite of "need" (which, in a consumer culture, usually means "want"). A company called Integraph tips its lexical hand and offers this definition: "a solution implies a complete and well-matched response to a need." The word has come a long way from its original meaning; "solution" derives from the Latin word "solutio," meaning "a loosening or untying." Perhaps it adopted its meaning of "answer" because an answer, in a sense, unties a knotty problem. But another meaning of "solution" -- "substance in which another substance disintegrates when immersed," as in chemistry -- is even more telling when we look at "solutions" slogans today. Society's "solutions" frenzy is one big chase to make our worries go away.
Is it any surprise, then, that the "solutions" mentality has seeped into Western Christianity? In his new book Water From Stone: When 'Right Christian Living' Has Left You Spiritually Dry, M. Wayne Brown writes that Western Christians "are being swept along in a shallow current of safe and simple five-step answers to the Christian life ... Today's Christian often becomes addicted to seeking solutions rather than true transformation."
Brown condemns what he calls "the culture of Right Christian Living" for its easy answers and efficient methods to achieve a better life. This presents knowing God as the route to a stronger marriage, more charming children, a bigger congregation, and political influence. These may be well-intentioned, Brown writes, but the subtle implication is "that more and more control of my life will be delivered into my hands."
A quick surf of the Web brings up some examples of such solutions-oriented Christianity. The author of a book called Devotions for Debtors tells Beliefnet.com that "I felt God was with me in the effort to get out of debt, offering me solutions to things and reminding me that I didn't really need something." A men's magazine tells the story of a man who joined a support group that was formed "to help homosexuals find Christ-centered solutions." A women's magazine runs the testimony of a parent who struggled with her temper when disciplining her child, but soon found that God "led me to new solutions and steps to take with my child."
Brown is skeptical about this approach. "'Work the program, plug in the solution, reap the rewards' never works," he writes, because "it places the focus on the efficacy of our efforts instead of on trust in the sufficiency of God's wisdom." Besides, Brown asks, "Have we become so enamored with the idea of solving (and thereby eliminating) the challenges of faith and life that we have lost a vision for how we can be transformed through those challenges?"
Brown's vision of this transformation is regrettably limited and vaguely stated. He says nothing about how God transforms us to be stewards of the earth or citizens in the public square, only that God brings about "personal transformation," and starts "shifting the longing of our hearts." Still, his reminder that Christians must "become more interested in who God is in us than what his presence in our live will do for us" is urgent for believers living in a solutions-saturated society.
Maybe the word "solutions" should not be on our lips when we talk about faith, whether we think of the word in its current sense -- efficiently meeting a need -- or its chemical sense -- making our problems go away.
Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant at Books&Culture magazine. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.