What has happened to the word “consumerism” lately? There’s been a bit of debate lately about Willowcreek’s REVEAL report on the blogosphere. Several bloggers have charged (including me) that Willow has caved in to its own consumerist assumptions. Others have pushed back saying “No they are not.” Some have said that everyone must buy and sell in order to live, even to eat, so what is wrong with being a consumer? As a result of all this, the thought has crossed my mind: Has this word “consumerist” become just the latest “easy-mark insult” following in the lineage of “fundamentalist,” “liberal” or maybe “heretic.” Has “consumerist” become just another word we use that often has no underlying substance. Instead it is a word used primarily to polarize, having the effect of shutting down conversation. Is that what “consumerist” degenerated into?
This concerns me. I am worried that people might get the impression that my arguments against consumerism are trite, that I am one of those people who will just argue against anything Willowcreek does. The Great Giveaway was a serious attempt to engage the mega church (among other churches) with serious theological ecclesiological questions. The line of sociological thought now labeled “consumerism” was a part of The Great Giveway. I think the “consumerism” critique is important and should not be dismissed abruptly or misused. To this end, I offer a few basic thoughts on consumerism and a plea: Could we please, mega churches and the rest of us, have a serious conversation on the ills of consumerism and what this means for the call to be the faithful people of God for our time?
WHAT IS CONSUMERISM?
Consumerism is a label given to a specific line of thought developed within postmodern sociologies (Marxism?), post foundationalist theologies. It says that capitalism follows an immanent logic which absorbs all activities into its orbit. As Zygmunt Bauman argues in chap. 2 of Liquid Modernity, the benign “producer capitalism” of the WW2 era has morphed into a “consumer capitalism.” The producer capitalism produced basic goods often reusable and durable for everyday needs (producer capitalism) Consumer capitalism produces desire for desire’s sake which can never be satiated. Consumer capitalism separates all into individual’s and subverts all of life to the mode of satiation of desire, the pursuit of produced happiness. In modernity, religion and belief are relegated to the private, to the individual. The only legitimate organizing forces in society are now the State and of course the market. Left to these socializing forces, we are all shaped into consumers.
CONSUMERISM IS A SOCIALIZING FORCE THAT CHANGES THE VERY NATURE OF THE GOSPEL (commoditization)
Every church must make a decision as to how it shall engage culture. Shall she seek God in all of culture, flat out reject and separate from culture or seriously engage culture for what is of God, and what is so contrary to the gospel that it must be rejected. Here is where some of us argue that the consumer culture is simply irredeemable and must be resisted. For we see that the gospel becomes commoditized when translated into these modes. You cannot make the salvation of God into a sellable commodity to be recieved for its benefits. It cannot be received as a transaction (there are those of us who see the Bridge Illustration as the seeds for a transaction oriented gospel). Salvation rather is the invitation into “dying, picking up your cross and following Christ.” It is the invitation into a way of life. It is metanoia, repentance, and a stunning commitment and participation in the life of God in His Mission. I have argued in The Great Giveaway, that the evangelical church (in several specific ways) has succombed to commoditizing the gospel (of salvation, of preaching the Word, of even justice) and thereby given away being the church/Mission in America.
IN CONSUMER CAPITALISM, THERE IS A SPIRITUAL FORMATION AT WORK THAT IS DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED TO THE WAY OF CHRISTIAN DISCPLESHIP
One of the big problems with consumerism is the buyer is in control (or thinks (s)he is). Consumerism shapes one into satiating desire. Consumerism shapes one into a form of narcissism that makes the relationship “all about me.” Consumerism makes the individual defenseless against every appeal towards another better life. “To please the customer,” tp satisfy the need, is a logic which shapes the way we engage the world and makes it “all about me.” In short, consumerism trains and shapes the human soul in every way imaginable AGAINST WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A DISCIPLE OF CHRIST – A PARTICIPANT IN THE MISSION OF GOD.
THERE IS A SERIOUS THEOLOGICAL ISSUE HERE WHICH DESERVES SERIOUS REFLECTION
Too often my evangelical sistern/brethren slough off the marketing practices that pollute our churches. They say we have to sell. We have to eat. This is our society. Yet this is too often an excuse for not seriously discerning when to appropriate and when to resist these practices. The subtle logic of the marketplace takes over and transforms the gospel into a product. This is why the “consumerism” debate is worth engaging.
I am interested in seeing this whole discussion move further. I am interested in getting the mega churches involved in serious discussion. I am interested in avoiding the degrading of this discussion into cheap insults and trite jabs at each other.
As Steve Long stated in a paper a while back.
We must free ourselves from the rationality of the (omnivorous) market and recover a theological rationality grounded in the life and practice of the church. If we are not so converted, the church will simply continue to be incorporated ikn to the transnational corporation until the church can no longer give an account of itself in theological terms, or even feel the need to do so. D Stephen Long, “A Global Market – A Catholic Church” Theology Today (Oct 1995).
WHERE TO BEGIN STUDYING
Start with these
Zygmunt Baumann, Liquid Modernity
Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society
The System of Objects: For a Critique of Political Economy of the Sign
Michael Budde & Robert Brimlow, Christianity Incorporated
Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion:Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture
Rodney Clapp (ed.) The Consuming Passion
Phil Kenneson & James Street, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing
There are numerous other great books. What are your favorite studies on the subject?