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I See, I Want, I Take – Materialism, Consumerism, God, and Discipleship

While this week’s Sabbath School lesson focuses on the what happens in terms of materialism and greed, particularly as it relates to a consumer view of God in the prosperity gospel, could it be that the I see, I want, I take attitude changes how we go about being a church community in even more subtle ways?

Jesus spoke often about the challenge of materialism.  Sure,there weren’t all the advertisements, brands, cosmetics and fashion magazines but he did explain in Luke 12 how things have a way of taking hold of our hearts and becoming our master.  He did talk about how we can so easily give our heart to the wrong grid, define ourselves by our ‘treasure’ and end up serving money.

Paul writes in Romans 12 that we get ‘conformed to the patterns of this world’ without even thinking.  Paul wasn’t writing about consumerism as such,but he was talking about how the dominant values of the empire have a way of moulding who we are.  Consumerism, as an advanced cultural expression of materialism, is just a modern institutionalised expression of the same selfishness that has always been the problem. As Christians we are called to live with a different hope and desire and remember that we are shaped for a greater purpose.

Materialism, Consumerism, and Desire

To simply equate consumerism to materialism can miss the fact that attributes commonly ascribed to consumerism, including selfishness, greed, lack of self-control and insatiability, are as old as humanity itself.  However, in consumerism materialism is socially ascribed the power to give meaning and construct identity and in this way, occupies a role in society that once belonged to religion

Consumer desire does not so much arise from a coherent anthropology that can be contrasted with Christianity but as a system of identity formation that structures desire in a manner similar enough that it diverts it in subtle ways.[1]  “Just as it can turn any culture into content to be marketed, it can yoke just about any desire to the task of furthering consumption.”[2]  The unfulfilled desires, that in the Christian tradition are located in the unrealised fullness of God, can be almost imperceptibly transferred into consumerism where there is a continual desiring for more and yet unfulfilment. In subverting desire, consumerism relocates the Christian’s eschatological temporality of hope.  In its place is the desire for a commodified life that is more seemingly quantifiable yet still beyond one’s grasp.  What changes is not the desire itself but rather the focus and texture of desire.  As people are being encouraged to find fulfilment in consumption, they are also, in effect, being trained to transfer the habits and dispositions of commodification to the more traditional sources of meaning, including religion.  In this context, religion becomes a commodity that serves to fill in the identity of the consumer.  Christianity still provides meaning however it is a meaning that is reinterpreted through the lens of commodification.

Abstraction, Reification, and the Christian Tradition

Perhaps the most profound challenge consumerism provides for Christianity, is its ability to commodify beliefs, symbols and values which, like most things in consumer culture, are in effect ascribed a marketable value and become objects of consumption. Miller outlines how “as commodification expands through culture, it focuses on those elements of culture that can most readily be made into discrete elements of exchange.”[3] When religion is commodified, it is broken into smaller, more marketable pieces.  Those aspects of religion that can be easily marketable, such as those that provide entertaining spectacle, are given more significance than may have been ascribed to them in their original setting. Traditions that lend themselves to visual intensity and symbolism are more easily and readily commodified.

When cultural and religious traditions are abstracted and reshaped as commodities, they lose much of their power to inform the concrete practice of life. If a particular part of the tradition is not deemed valuable by the consumer it is discarded or theoretically adopted but not seen as valuable enough to shape practise.  In this way beliefs, narratives, symbols and practices are disarmed in the culture of materialistic consumerism. 

Materialism and Discipleship:

Materialistic thinking challenges Christian discipleship as it fosters values antithetical to many Christian values.  Consumerism mitigates against the Christian virtues of patience, contentedness, self-denial, and generosity. Scripture champions contentment and self-control rather than endless pursuit of personal desire.

Jethani, in commenting on the connection between consumerism and discipleship, claims that in a consumer environment discipleship is not about being transformed by an intentional process of mentoring, modelling and spiritual renewal but rather it is very haphazard and shaped around personal feelings rather than an objective measure.

The new breed of Christian consumers customize discipleship the way iPod users customize a playlist.  They might find encouragement at a community support group, worship at a Third Day concert, listen to a podcast sermon, and read about the topic of the day at the Christian bookstore.  While the church as we’ve know it fades into memory like vinyl LPs.[4]

Discipleship is then not characterized by a process of intentional transformation but rather self-directed, felt needs based consumerism.

Craig Bartholomew argues in Consuming God’s Word: Biblical Interpretation and Consumerism[5] that this same felt needs consumer culture is even brought to using the Bible:

 We have argued that in the academy and in the church, there is a danger of the Bible being fitted into a consumer framework rather than it being allowed to critique consumerism.  In the light of this deteriorating situation it becomes urgent to ask: Is there a way in which we can read the Bible so as to inoculate ourselves against the idols of our times, and equip ourselves to love for God in the midst of our consumer-oriented culture?[6]

Bartholomew sees the answer in applying scripture to all of life and not simply suppling answers the reader is seeking. 

Christianity as a Brand

Materialism commodifies religion itself.  Christianity simply becomes another brand, among other options, to pick from if it suits one’s felt needs at that point.  As Miller explains: “To ‘seekers’ religions are merely repositories of insights and practices that they appropriate for their own personal synthesis”[7] In this environment the church worship service becomes what Brendt describes as “merely one perfunctory stop at another display case in the greater marketplace of life.”[8]

Miller outlines how church can, instead of being a transformational community, simply become a deliverer of consumer goods. As religion is commodified and spirituality becomes detached from creeds, ritual, and community, the religious traditions from which it ostensibly grew become more able to “conform to the default assumptions and practices of the dominant culture”[9]

In consumer culture, where everything is commodified, church is in competition with other providers of identity and meaning. As Jethani explains: “We must convince a sustainable segment of the religious marketplace that our church is ‘relevant’, ‘comfortable,’ or ‘exciting,’ And we must differentiate our church by providing more of the elements people want.  After all, in a consumer culture, the customer is king.”[10] Jethani claims that in consumer Christianity; “church leaders function as religious baristas, supplying spiritual goods for people to choose from based on their preferences.” [11]  In this environment, church leaders, become more concerned about whether a person is satisfied rather than if they are growing.

Consuming God

In a culture where everything is ascribed a marketable value, it is not surprising that God is also commodified. Jethani explains how: “In our society the only value something or someone has is the value I give it.  It should surprise no one that in our culture God also has no value apart from what he can do for me.”[12]

Jethani, in With, explores a variety of postures of how people relate to God.  A common posture in contemporary culture is what Jethani calls life “from” God.  In this posture, which Jethani claims is “fuelled by our consumer culture” God exists to supply what we need or desire.[13] While this concept of God has some merit in scripture, it makes receiving God’s gifts the entirety of religious life.  In its most extreme form it is expressed as the prosperity gospel where God’s role is to make the consumer an even more effective consumer.  Jethani explains:

The life from God posture is so appealing because it doesn’t ask us to change.  What we desire, what we seek, what we do, and how we live – all shaped by consumerism – are not disrupted.  Our values and way of life are simply projected onto God and incorporated into a religious system in which we receive divine assistance to meet our desires.  In this way Life From God is nothing more than consumerism with a Jesus sticker slapped on the bumper.[14]

In this posture God exists for the individual’s glory.

Mark Sayers outlines how consumerism has become the folk religion of many Christians with a resultant deist picture of a God who exists but is not connected to everyday life.[15]   He describes what he terms “The Post-Christian Trinity” that interacts with the hyper-consumer culture so that Christianity is not a viable life choice.  In the post-Christian trinity the individual is God, all authority rests with one’s self. The second part of the trinity is a distant god.  The distant god, in a deist manner, provides no direction or moral compass. The last part of the ‘trinity’ is consumerism as the folk religion. Folk religion, in Sayer’s construct, shapes everyday life decisions and as Sayers points out, consumerism tells us how to live and dream.[16] While people can still claim to believe in God, the role that god plays in their everyday life along with the view they have of that god has been shaped more by consumerism than scripture.

Finding Our Way Out?

So how do we find a way out?  Reality is we are going to consume.  We will buy shoes, clothes, food and more.  Consumerism is not so much the fact we buy but rather the meaning we place in the process.  The biblical story of Daniel highlights how we can live, and even thrive, in Babylon – an empire that symbolises false worship.  Daniel purposed in his heart that he belonged to a more significant empire.  He prayed with and sought support from friends with similar values. He re-calibrated around God’s purpose for him often (at least formally three times a day) and remembered that everything, including his intellect and ability to interpret dreams, was from God and only God was worthy of ultimate glory.

Hartman identifies the Adventist community as having a system of belief that is particularly attuned to informing consumerism.[17]  Hartman sees in Adventist eschatological belief the possibility of a vision that can correct distortions, inculcate wise habits, and enhance environmental sensibilities that manifest in considered, conscientious consumption. The Adventist doctrine of wholeness engenders, in Hartman’s explanation, connections between humans and the rest of creation that are then played out in a more wholistic picture of who one is in connection to God and creation and should then result in a less consumer driven identity.[18]

Healthy Pictures of God

For Himes a healthy picture of a relational, communal God must be the starting point of developing transformative community.  “Without a return to the centrality of God in resolving the puzzle of human desire, there is little hope that the dark side of consumerism can be avoided.”[19] Cavanaugh agrees when he explains how Christ as the “concrete universal” is the starting point for establishing a transformative community that addresses consumerism.[20]

Jethani establishes that only a posture that views life ‘with’ God, rather than under, over, from or for God, will effectively address the challenges of consumer culture.  The life with God posture is predicated on the view that relationship is at the core for the cosmos.[21]  In this posture the goal is not to use God, its goal is God.  God ceases to be a device to employ or a commodity to consume.  “But before we can really desire God, we must have a clear understanding of who he is and what he is like.”[22]

As Christians we are called to give our life to a different story.  Rather than conformed we are to be transformed (Romans 12:1-3).  We will consume but with different glasses on.  We will find our hope, desire and identity in Jesus and ironically find our life by giving it away – shifting from our agenda to serving God’s.  We will value people, take time to grow, serve, share and worship in ways that resist commodification.  We will live to God’s glory in a world that focuses on self.  This is the starting point of a significant life that matters for now and eternity.

Tips for Living Beyond Consumer Culture:

  • Think about what advertising is telling you and why you might be choosing a particular product.
  • Lift your focus on people.  Intentionally slow down to spend time with family, church community and neighbours.
  • Lift your capacity to serve in your home, church and world. 
  • Be generous with your time, talents and treasure.  Generosity breaks the hold of consumerism.  Tithing 10% of your income is a great way to guard against the greed of consumerism and be reminded that your bank account is actually for God’s glory.
  • Celebrate Sabbath.  The Sabbath stands as a mark against consumerism.  Sabbath reminds me time doesn’t equal money.  Sabbath reminds me I exist for a bigger purpose of growing, serving, connecting, sharing and worshipping. On Sabbath I take a break from the consumeristic messages of advertising and shopping and, instead, celebrate life at its best.
  • Spend time with older people who know the stories but are often looked over.
  • Spend time in nature.  People who spend time in nature are often less consumer driven and more likely to value creation.
  • Take some time to recalibrate around what really matters.  Make a plan to be transformed by the renewing of your mind rather than being conformed (Romans 12:6).   Put in place some heart building habits that connect you with God.

[1]Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practise in a Consumer Culture, (New York: Continuum, 2004), 107-144 provides a very detailed analysis of how consumer desire relates to desire in the Christian tradition.

[2]Miller, 78

[3]Ibid., 78.

[4]Skye Jethani, “All We Like Sheep: Is Our Insistence on Choices Leading Us

Astray?” Leadership, 27 (2006): 32.

[5]Craig Bartholomew Consuming God’s Word: Biblical Interpretation and Consumerism in Craig Bartholomew and Thorsten Moritz eds., Christ and Consumerism, (Carlisle, CA, Paternoster Press, 2000), 81-99.

[6]Ibid., 86.

[7]Miller, 90.

[8]Eric Brende, “Why Consumerism Still Consumes Us,” New Oxford Review, 5 (2011), 29.

[9]Miller, 9.

[10]Jethani, “All We Like Sheep”, 31

[11]Ibid.

[12]Jethani, “All We Like Sheep”, 32.

[13]Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining The Way Your Relate To God (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 65.

[14]Ibid.,65.

[15]Mark Sayers, The Trouble with Paris, Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 113.

[16]For an overview and diagram of the model see ibid., 107

[17]Laura Hartman, Laura M. The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World, (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 129.        

[18]Ibid., 151.

[19]Kenneth R. Himes, “Consumerism and Christian Ethics,” Theological Studies, 68 (2007): 132-153.

[20]William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2008), 76.

[21]Jethani, With, 101

[22]Ibid., 102

Photo by Andrea Turner from Pexels.

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