I try to be conscious of what I buy and what I eat, and to take an interest in where things are made, by who, for how much, and so on. And yet, no matter how well I manage to do this, I remain a consumer. I might purchase fair trade coffee and chocolate, but I’m still addicted to coffee and chocolate. My wife tries to shop only for clothes made in the U.S., but she still really likes to shop. So I started wondering how much of this is just human, and how much of it is culturally constructed.
Despite the fact that many Christians themselves get caught up in this pattern of behavior, there seems to at least be some level of awareness in the church about the problem. This is a good thing. Less understood though is the extent to which society is able to increasingly produce in us an insatiable desire for consumption in the first place. You also hear the word materialism, but this could be a misnomer. Material-ism implies the absolutization of the material, when in fact the lie we are fed is that the material offers something else: happiness, fulfillment… a certain image or experience.In their genuine intent to encourage counter-culturalism, we might hear pastors talk about the innate human drive to always want more. But how much of this is rooted in a universal anthropology vs. just a modern Western phenomenon now gone viral? I mean, people aren’t just born with preferences for television sets. Our preferences typically emerge from a context of social relations.
Of course there is a difference between our basic needs and deepest desires. Theological anthropology has said that human beings live with a kind of openness directed toward possibility in the world, always becoming and searching. Some people say there is a “God-shaped hole” in each us – a void. This too can be a good a thing. But this desire can be distorted. It can be harnessed by market forces in such a way as to induce complacency in our individualism and trivialize any concern about our unsustainable standard of living.
Even more troubling, this desire is very difficult to control. Theologian Joerg Rieger argues that in today’s world the drive to consume is frequently propelled by economic mechanisms and reinforced by the advertising industry. The deceit of this system is increasingly taken for granted. Obviously recognizing this, one of my former seminary professors Roger Olson recently wrote a blog post asking whether Christians should even work in marketing at all! Rieger further contends that economic and religious desires often parallel each other. This is illustrated by the way we tend to project our desires and ideals from the physical world onto the divine and thus replace the transcendent God with an idol. If desire is shaped by the production of wealth in a given society, this process can have a subconscious effect on people’s deepest convictions and ultimate values. This means that the way culture teaches us to view wealth has a tremendous impact on the kind of people we become – not to even mention the potential social costs that can be incurred on society’s most vulnerable citizens as a result.
As communities that are supposed to be convicting, healing and nurturing us on the path to holiness, churches have a vital part to play in resisting co-optation by the marketplace. Sadly it’s not uncommon, however, for Christian congregations to become complicit in the cycle of consuming and selling as well, even if only in very subtle ways. To a degree this might be unavoidable, but it’s imperative for us to be sensitized and attentive to how we succumb to various addictive, superimposed desires. I’m interested in how the church can be a place that enables Christians to subvert the status quo in this regard. I know there are many tangible ways to do this, but I’m curious as to what others have seen and discovered about how our local practice can transcend systems that resist and suppress change.
Speaking of which, I really liked what David Fitch had to say recently in a post he made about branding as the ultimate anti-missional act. Seems very related to this struggle.