The brand new is the new old

Post by Chris Roberts

Black Friday is coming up at the end of this month. It’s become the time of year when retailers do all they can to convince us to part with our cash for something new. It’s all very tempting because ordinary life can often feel like it needs freshening up. We crave an interruption to the same-old. So if you can afford it, unboxing a brand new TV or toaster or whatever, is up there with the greatest experiences the world celebrates. The problem though is that the idea of finding the new in the brand new is itself getting old. 

I came across a video online recently which cleverly edits all of the keynote speeches the Apple Corporation have delivered at the launch of their latest iPhones over the last 10 years or so. At each presentation they claim the same things: that what they are selling is totally unlike anything ever seen before. If you watch it until the end, you begin to get the sense that the regular release of a new iPhone is becoming just as repetitive as the lives they’re designed to invigorate. I’m not having a dig at mobile phones – it could be any product by any company – although, if I had £1 for every time Apple said that they were making a really new product, I might even be able to afford one. So the newness of things is inherently out-dated and fleeting. 

Honestly though, I love nice and new things and I don’t think they’re wrong. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes shows that enjoying material things is not sinful in itself. This is something that some Christians might assume is the case. But possessions and the enjoyment of them is a gift from God:

‘Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil – this is the gift of God’ (Ecclesiastes 5:19)

We are allowed to have things, and are even encouraged to enjoy them. Proper enjoyment however requires God’s help. The preacher tells us that we also need God to give us power to enjoy things. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? If you cook me steak and chips or give me a brand new iPhone or a load of cash, I don’t instinctively think of praying, “Oh Lord please give me the power I need to enjoy these things”. Some things just feel naturally enjoyable. But this verse comes in the context of the whole book of Ecclesiastes, which presents us with the reality that enjoying things in this life is often fraught with difficulty and disappointment. True enjoyment of things is not as simple as we think it is. Things in themselves don’t come packaged with real enjoyment as standard. On his unlimited quest to enjoy things, the preacher concludes: 

‘…there was nothing to be gained under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

This power to enjoy new things, I think, comes with living in line with the truths that God supplies in the Gospel: that this world is not the be all and end all and only Jesus Christ can bring the true newness we crave. He brings it about both in His people (2 Cor 5:17) and in the place they live in with Him (Rev 21:1). We are on a quest for the truly new, which we feel validates the reason we are here. But I cannot ultimately find that validation in the fleeting pleasure of unboxing something on Black Friday. 

The preacher begins Ecclesiastes by making the point that the person who says something is truly new in this world, is himself being very old: 

‘Is there is a thing of which is said, “See, this is new”? It has been done already in the ages before us.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:10)

His point isn’t that there have never been any good inventions. He’s not saying that life in 21st Century London won’t look very different from life in the Ancient Near East and even that life won’t get better in some respects. Neither is he saying that the new is bad. But he is questioning the power that new things have to bring us real gain. 

We often feel like our lives our boring and predictable, and we take the pleasure of unboxing as a sign that things in themselves constitute real gain in life. But when brand new things are constantly being superseded and this year’s models will inevitably be outdated by next year’s, is that assumption true? But in a consumerist society like the UK, the story of material newness must be told again and again. If you’re a producer for the masses, its uneconomical to ever manufacture something that never needs to be improved upon. (The story goes that early light bulb makers realised the bulbs they were producing were lasting too long. Like, forever! So to keep sales up, they had to agree to build in defects which would shorten the bulbs’ lifetime and keep sales going. There needed to be a need for a new light bulb!) 

So, this power to enjoy, comes when we realise, with Ecclesiastes, the limits of things in this world as it is. It comes when we see the bigger picture behind the stories that we’re told by retailers and we hear the story of Gospel newness that Jesus Christ is working in a new heavens and new earth. In a sense, Christians should be better than anyone else at enjoying and sharing material things, because they are not our gods. We can only truly enjoy having things as servants when they don’t have us as masters. They don’t provide the newness and change we crave. So the person who has very little can still exhibit this power to enjoy the little they have, because they enjoy life primarily as a gift from God. Whereas we know, there are plenty of materially rich and miserable people around. 

There are many folk who would love to be in a position to even consider Black Friday as a temptation. Deprivation of material things is real for a lot people we know, though the preacher of Ecclesiastes shows us deprivation of another kind that is rife around us. Some people are so poor that all they have in this life is many things. We ought not to be fooled. The brand new is the new old, and true enjoyment of things requires power from God who gives life to all. We can only truly enjoy having things, when they don’t have us. 

PS. The ideas in this short article are like things in this world we live in – there’s nothing truly new here! So if you’d like to think more about the book of Ecclesiastes I’d recommend the book, Destiny by David Gibson who is an IPC minister in Aberdeen. It’s helped me a lot.