Christ and Consumerism: A Critical Analysis of the Spirit of the Age

June 1 st 2000

Christ and Consumerism: A Critical Analysis of the Spirit of the Age by Craig Bartholomew and Thorsten Moritz, eds. (London: Paternoster Press, 2000, 177 pp., $56.95)

The shopping cart now rivals God himself. So deeply entrenched and so thoroughly influential has consumerism become, no religious conviction can match its power to satisfy the self's longings. Or so it is analysed by the eight academics in this slim, informative volume. Like the proverbial frog in the gradually heated pot of water, we must not be unaware of what's happening to us or it may be too late.

Without a critical perspective on our culture, the ability of God's people "to live effectively" is jeopardized, according to the book's editor, Craig Bartholomew. In a mere 177 pages of readable and often energetic essays, the contributors alert us to the insidious corrosiveness of consumerism, a hidden destructive threat to all areas of our lives.

Here-and-now

In case a few Comment readers are happily immune to the attractions of materialism and its handmaiden, consumerism, a definition is in order. In popular parlance, materialism refers to a style of life that is focused on the here-and-now. It is commonly linked to hedonism because the materialist is seen to covet wealth and lots of stuff because, according to a once-popular beer commercial, "you only go around once in life."

Consuming is the means by which you live the hedonist dream: you consume stuff. But, by continuing habit, consuming becomes consumerism, a loose philosophy of sorts that roots itself in the psyche, eventually becoming the measure of who we are. "I consume; therefore I am."

This mentality infects most, if not all, of us—not just the few in our number who are ill-equipped to face life head-on and are reduced to buying comfort-goods. After all, who has not experienced the elation of spirit that comes with buying a new car? Or which bibliophile, feeling downcast, has not become light-hearted (for a time at least) at finding that always-wanted book?

But this is merely the start. A consumer ethic can root itself so thoroughly in us and affect us so deeply that we may be unaware of its poisonous influence. We look for that consumer-high when we shop around for churches, for instance.

It's evident, too, in our seeking spiritual experiences. Consumerism is utilitarian, with the focal point being the maximization of the consumer's satisfaction. Effectively, there is no end to it.

Perilous accommodation

With this understanding of the pervasiveness of consumerism, we can expect the range of topics that can be considered under its heading will be extensive. We are not disappointed.

For instance, Colin Green demonstrates how the faith, long resistant to all attempts to eradicate it, has almost succumbed to a "perilous accommodation" to modernity and the "obsessions of the market place."

Then Gordon McConville reminds us that the answer does not lie in a flight from the good things of creation. Rather, our consumption should reflect our core values which should stand "firmly against a culture in which profit is the decisive motive."

Alan Storkey blames, among other factors, the self-interested corporate agenda for emphasizing consumption maximization. He suggests we resist this pressure by embracing again the ends rather than the means for which our economies exist. They are meant not for consumption and a "thing-filled life" but for a just and moral order.

There is even a chapter by Nigel Scotland devoted to examining the influence of gospel-marketing, a recent phenomenon that he finds not all bad.

Not satisfied

Although this is an interesting and informative book, it does not entirely—to put it in consumerist terms—satisfy. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that, although directed to Christian readers, it lacks theological control. By this I mean we are not reminded upfront of the biblical story, who God is, who we are, and what God has done and is doing.

As a whole, the book does not operate sufficiently within that interpretive framework or refer all its analyses back to those truths. As a result, the analysis comes first and then the biblical texts are neatly lined up to support it. Such an approach lacks the overarching story that links the texts together and provides continuity and direction.

My sense of this book, although written by competent theologians, is that many of the biblical quotations and other references could have been dropped without their arguments suffering much at all. This would suggest there is no controlling theology under which the analysis we're given makes sense.

Second, because they have not articulated a controlling theology, the authors can't help but leave us with the impression that this world is not a very good place for Christians to be. Throughout, readers are encouraged to be counter-cultural. The danger is that our counter culturalism comes to define our Christianity.

To avoid this, we need guidance answering the root theological question "What is God's relationship to his creation?" The authors' assumed answer seems to be "He doesn't like it very much and, accordingly, keeps it at arm's-length. In response, we either fix it up so that God can come again or we clean ourselves of its influences till we're taken out of here."

Getting on board

A better answer requires that we take seriously the created order. We are creatures designed to be in this place. This is where we are supposed to live our lives in loving response to God. It can be done, or God would not have put us here. After all, this is also where Jesus lived perfectly obediently to God, despite the maelstrom of evil and ambiguous influences that swirled about him and that continue to assault us as well.

The creation has been redeemed, perfected in Christ. We, in him, put wheels on that redemption. Thankfully, we don't work alone, thinking up what to do. No, we follow God's lead. In effect, we are getting on board with what has already been accomplished and is being accomplished.

This being so, we can enjoy a guilt-free, healthy cultural engagement that Christ and Consumerism does not proffer but should have. Still, it's well worth reading, offering valuable insights into our times.

However helpful, it is not a hopeful document. It fails to remind us of the one who has in Christ reconciled all things to himself, not just those things that we've managed to identify and perhaps have carefully inoculated ourselves against.

It bears repeating: Everything has been reconciled. In our action-oriented culture with its prideful can-do attitude, we need to be reminded of Christ's profoundly hope-filled words from the cross: "It is finished."

 

W. J. Douglas Ball is the secretary of the national board of the Christian Labour Association of Canada.

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