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.