I've started research for an essay I'm writing on how the attitudes of Jesus and the early church toward possessions and money could prophetically challenge today's consumer culture, so I've started reading some very interesting books and collecting all kinds of bits on the Internet that relate to this issue.
While almost everyone would probably agree that "consumerism is bad," not many of those same people would have any clue of how to formulate a definition of consumerism. Typically it's other people's consumerism that is the problem. Most of us are blind to the ways we fall prey to the spirit of the age.
So here's a working definition of consumerism (I'm still at the definition part of the essay):
Consumerism describes a society where people derive their identities from the products they purchase/consume. We are what we buy, which is why shopping is so therapeutic for some. It's a society where we don't just buy a cell phone in order to speak with others, but in order to "make a personal statement" or "express our individuality." We are so used to thinking about shopping/buying in this way that's it's difficult to imagine a world where things were otherwise. But for most of history people's identities came from their family histories, the stories the culture told about the meaning of life and the significance of people. Now those stories are mostly dead (in the West, anyway) so we are left to attempt to construct our own identities out of what we find available, which happens to be consumer goods, which is fantastic news for the advertisers. Thus we no longer buy products, really. We buy lifestyles, we purchase versions of ourselves, we buy identity.
Consumerism has extended into every area of life, even those places it never used to be a factor. Like food. Oftentimes people have good reasons for being fussy about food (allergies, health, etc). But other times people are choosy with food in order to make some kind of statement about their identities. I read a recent article on how the "food sensitivities" that are so prevalent in American society are causing a disruption in the basic practice of Christian hospitality.
And the church is not exempt from this tendency. Christian bookstores today are filled with Christian kitsch, Jesus has been turned into a brand, and discipleship has been reduced to purchasing the right kinds of products (one site that hawks Christian t-shirts, that I will not link to, actually proclaims "Change Your Shirt, Change the World!" Not kidding). We construct our identities as Christians the same way the world does: buying stuff. It's a huge problem, in my opinion, because it inoculates us against the real thing.
As I get into the paper, I'll probably post a bit more on stuff (helps me process thoughts), especially as I get into the New Testament to see the specific ways it will challenge consumer culture.
Ben, I came across this tidbit last year in the midst of moving and packing… http://www.paulgraham.com/stuff.html — puts our stuff in interesting historical perspective. Look forward to reading your thoughts…
RC of strangecultureblog says
I’ve thought about this alot, and how we transition our consumer tendencies towards our relationships with Christ as well as our relationship with the body of believers.
Even think about the terminology associated with “SHOPPING for a church” or churches were pastors are trying to get the congregation “to BUY into a new vision.”
Benjamin Sternke says
Maria, that was an interesting article – we definitely struggle against the “stuff” problem. I agree with him that “once you’ve accumulated a certain amount of stuff, it starts to own you rather than the other way around.”
That’s part of the inherent idolatry of it all – we purchase “stuff” not to use it but to construct identity, which is as easy as changing your shirt. We are buying ourselves, or rather, an appearance of a self with (typically) nothing underneath.
RC, those are some of the insights that are uncomfortable to realize: we’ve commodified EVERYTHING to the point it is very difficult for us to conceive of something that is not for sale or exchange.
I think at the heart of the gospel is a different kind of economy. Not one of exchange but of gift. That’s perhaps where the paper will go.
steve martin says
The like the ides that the gospel is not a gospel of exchange but of gift.
Everything we do has a price attached to it (not always monetary), but the gospel comes to us freely given, no strings attached.
But churches all over the place don’t believe it. People don’t believe it. It is not how we operate. So, we place all the add-on’s to Jesus. There is always a catch.
Well, there is no catch, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
No matter what idols in the marketplace grab hold of us from time to time, that pure, sweet, free message of love and grace ought always be repeated…in season and out.