Collegehumor.com has a very funny and interesting video on “early adopters through time.” The video actually works on two levels. On the one hand, it makes fun of people who refuse to buy new technologies because they’re just going to come out with something new later. (I fall into this trap regularly.) But, you can also watch it as a critique of consumerism (hence why I’m posting this on Black Friday), with the constant appeal to buy the latest and greatest new toy.
I couldn’t embed it, so you’ll have to head over there to watch. Here are some of my favorite lines:
Early adopters in the stone ages: “What – this? Oh, it’s my bone. It makes hunting for food way easier. You should get one.”
The never-ending quest: “All I’m saying is that if you buy this thing, it will be the last thing you need to buy. Ever.”
And, a nod to Planet of the Apes: “Trust me, if I’m going to get a servant gorilla, it’s just going to gather dust.”
Since it’s Black Friday today (one of the busiest shopping days of the year in America), I thought it would be good to remember the real reason for this holiday season – rampant consumerism.
What else could possibly explain the long lines of people, sometimes camping out for hours at a time, waiting for stores to open so they can continue the unnecessary accumulation of “stuff”?
G. Jeffrey MacDonald posted a very thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend, “Congregations Gone Wild.” Responding to recent concerns that clergy are over-working themselves, MacDonald argues that much of the problem comes from the growing pressure for clergy to meet the constantly changing wishes and desires of congregants in a consumerized church.
The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.
MacDonald concludes that the inevitable result is burnout. “As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.”
In contrast, MacDonald reminds us that ministry is not about meeting felt needs, but about calling people to engage real needs.
At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.
Of course, we can’t ignore what people think they need. But at its best, that is merely a step along the way; at the worst it is a distraction and the road to burnout.
MacDonald concludes by calling on church members to realize the importance of being challenged beyond the ordinary and by envisioning what ministry can be:
When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.
Take some time to read the whole article. It is worth reflecting on.
The discussions surrounding ecology and economy at the Acton conference raised two sets of questions: (1) the relationship between creation and human flourishing; and (2) the relationship between free markets economics and the growing ecological crisis. I talked about the first of those questions yesterday, so today we’ll move on to the second question.
Unfortunately, the sessions that I attended did not really address this question directly. The best that I got from most seminars were various comments leading me to believe that most thought that market forces themselves would eventually address the ecological concerns. For example, one person argued that market forces would never allow us to exhaust completely a natural resource because it would eventually become too scarce, and consequently too expensive, to continue pursuing. Others seemed to think that the market would eventually come to see environmentalism as good business and develop adaptive technologies that would address ongoing environmental concerns. And, most seemed to think that the real solution was to develop more virtuous societies who would not pursue market economics in such abusive ways. Overall though, very few people offered a cohesive argument for how free market economics could be expanded globally, along with the corresponding rise in the consumption of natural resources, without have a correspondingly deleterious effect on creation. (Did you like my use of “deleterious”? I thought it made this paragraph sound much more intellectual.)
One exception to that was a seminar I attended on the last day arguing that consumption was not the problem at all. This lecture specifically criticized any “stewardship” model for creation ethics because such models are unable to provide specific direction for concrete action (precisely the problem we discussed in yesterday’s post). According to this lecturer, stewardship models can give us the environmental “why” (it’s God’s creation), and the environmental “what” (take care of it), but they are fundamental incapable of providing any concrete “how” (how exactly do you do this?). In its place, he offered the principle of “environmental sustainability.” Throughout the lecture, he argued that the ecological problem does not result from over-consumption, but from faulty design. The production and consumption of products harmful to the environment, he argued, is necessarily wrong-headed. And, it doesn’t help for us to do less of it (reduce consumption and/or recycle), because that just succeeds in destroying the environment more slowly. As he commented frequently, “Being less bad is not good.” (His biggest target here was the idea that we can save the world through recycling. He pointed to recent research suggesting that the recycling process itself is harmful to the environment and, thus, can’t be part of the solution).
Instead, he argued that we need to look more closely at how we are designing the products that we use. Rather than creating cradle-to-grave products that are designed to end up in a landfill some day (he pointed out that very few things are 100% recyclable), we should design cradle-to-cradle products that are fully recyclable and, thus, fully sustainable. And, he argued that the best way to find ideas for such products is to look at creation itself. He claimed that the natural world is replete with products that could be used for industrial purposes, but are not harmful to the natural world itself (e.g. the protein-based adhesives produced by mussels). (Interestingly, he did not consider the harmful consequences that could result if we began replicating such “natural” products on a scale never seen before in nature.)
Unfortunately, this approach also remained almost entirely theoretical. Very little of this is actually being done today and it seem highly questionable that such products and processes could be done on the scale necessary to sustain modern markets and industry. (Since he suggested throughout that cutting consumption was not necessary, he presumably believed that his proposals could at least sustain current levels of consumption.) To believe that we should just sustain current levels of consumption in the hope that someday we will have a solution to the problem, given the widespread destruction we’ve already caused and the potential for future destruction caused by growing majority world economies, is simply inadequate.
With the lecture on economics, I entered new territory, since like most theologians, I have very little background in economics. (I like money, though, so I think that helps.) So, rather than walking through the whole lecture, which I don’t think I could do meaningfully, let me highlight a few areas in which I have some questions.
1. Private Property
The lecturer argued that secure private property rights are necessary for effective economics. For example, unless I’m convinced that you rightfully own that car, I’m not going to give you any money for it, because I don’t want the real owner chasing me down later. So, for consistent and predictable economic exchange, you need to have secure property rights.
I have several questions here that maybe some of you who have reflected on economics more than I have can answer. First, and most importantly, how does this right to private property connect with the Christian anthropology articulated earlier. The lecturers here have posited several times that there is a necessary connection between these two, but I have not yet heard any meaningful explanation of what this connection might be. Does a truly Christian anthropology necessitate private property? Wouldn’t this entail the existence of private property in the eschaton? Are we willing to go that far? Indeed, the closest that I’ve heard to a biblical argument for private property so far are the various commandments not to steal. But, it seems like a more robust defense is necessary for such an apparently important concept.
Second, the lecturer made a distinction between private property, which includes the property of corporations, and governmentally owned property. But, with the rise of mega-corporations in the modern era, is it that easy to make such a distinction?
Finally, even if we agree that private property is divinely intended, how will we determine what constitutes legitimate rights of possession? Who gets to make the rules that govern right of possession? Or, do we need to argue that these particular rules are also somehow grounded in the creation order?
The lecturer made a point of arguing that the free market is a “consumer sovereignty system.” In other words, the whole point of a free market is to provide people what they want. If enough people want low-priced shoes, the market will produce them. And, that’s great as long as our wants are appropriate. But, if enough people want pornography, the market will produce that as well. So, she argued that a free market needs to be tempered by “Christian realism and Christian morality.” (Could we still call such a market “free”?) So, we utilize the power of the free market, but we make sure that it is guided by Christian convictions to produce those goods in accord with Christian morality.
Setting aside for a moment the seeming impossibility of such a task, doesn’t this simply capitulate to an understanding of economics that is inherently consumeristic? Even if we succeeded to developing such a Christian market, it would still be a “consumer sovereignty system” oriented around producing and consuming goods based on personal desires, perpetuating the idea that humans are defined primarily as producers/consumers. Wouldn’t we be better off focusing what it really means for human persons to flourish in the world and then consider how best to create economic realities that contribute to that kind of flourishing? Maybe that’s naïve in a broken world, but it seems like a good place to start.
As we discussed in the last post, Smith understands a “liturgy” as a particular kind of practice (ritual) that seeks to inculcate a certain vision of human flourishing that will trump competing visions. Unlike a worldview, these practices shape us in pre-cognitive, affective ways; they shape us into lovers before they form us into thinkers. So, he wants to explore the ways in which repeated actions (rituals) can fundamentally shape us when tied to a particular way of understanding what it means to be truly human. And, he doesn’t have in mind just the obviously formative rituals that we do on purpose for the sake of being formed in certain ways (e.g. spiritual disciplines). No, he thinks that many things that we do regularly without even thinking about them can be liturgies when linked to a certain vision of what it means to be human. Thus, “I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us….Through the repeated ritual, a daily microliturgy, our very loyalties are aimed and shaped.” (109) In chapter 3, Smith unpacks this understanding of “cultural liturgies” by applying it to three case studies.
In the first, Smith deals with the mall as a cultural liturgy. And, of the three, I found this to be the most interesting. By looking closely at how shopping at the mall shapes us, Smith concludes that shopping at the mall is not just something that we do to fill time. Here you have cultural liturgy that presents a model of human flourishing with the following aspects.
- It makes us into people who see themselves as broken (i.e. “I don’t look like that”).
- It fosters a kind of sociality/relationality, but one that is grounded in competition rather than community.
- It shapes us to be fundamentally “consumers” – we always need to purchase more solutions to our brokenness.
- It creates in us a need not to see the harmful consequences of our consumerism (individually and globally).
He then goes on to critique very briefly the inadequacies of the Christian response to this cultural liturgy. Basically, he thinks that we simply replace secular commodities with “Christian” commodities without realizing that we are actually perpetuating the “Gospel of consumerism” in the process. I think his critique of the Christian response could have been even sharper here by drawing on his critique of worldview-thinking. The primary Christian response to such consumerism is to teach a more authentic Christian worldview (e.g. selflessness, justice, moderation, etc.). But, as Smith points us, this kind of worldview response simply will not carry the day against the formative influence of such a prevalent cultural liturgy. That would be the equivalent of telling a rock not to be shaped by the river running constantly over it because God wants the rock to look different. I thought the Gospel of consumerism was the best example of a cultural liturgy that cannot be battled by ideas alone.
The second case study addresses the “military-entertainment complex.” In other word, the strong elements of nationalism and patriotism that pervade popular entertainment (think Armageddon or Independence Day). This liturgy presents a vision of human flourishing based on notions of materialism, ownership, competition, individualism, freedom, and even violence. And, it does so it a way that captures our imaginations before it captures our minds. That’s what makes the “worldview” approach to movies (i.e. “What message is this movie trying to convey?) so inadequate. It’s not so much a question of understanding the movie’s message is it is recognizing its formative power in its ability to shape our imagination and our vision of human flourishing.
Finally, he considers liturgies associated with the university. Probably the most interesting part of this section was his argument that what is most formative about attending a university is what happens outside the classroom. (I found this section to be the least engaging of the three, which is surprising given that he has more interesting discussions of this subject elsewhere in the book.)
Through all three of these, he presses us to consider the ways in which everyday rituals can be liturgies if they have a particular telos – a vision of human flourishing that seeks to trump competing visions. And, these liturgies cannot be counteracted merely by providing better teaching. A person can believe all the right things and still be shaped by a Gospel of consumerism into pursuing a vision of human flourishing that is antithetical to the Gospel.
- Faith and Theology has a fascinating post on the somewhat surprising connection between Barthian theology and Korean theology.
- The New York Times has a piece on historical Jesus studies that is worth reading if you want to see what the broader public is saying about this whole discussion.
- The latest edition of the Princeton Theological Review is now available online, with a focus in this issue on mission and ecumenics.
- I’m not entirely sure how to comment on this one, but there is a site out now called churchrater.com that presents itself as a Yelp-like church rating service. So far both NPR and the Chicago Tribune have done pieces on it. It looks like we’re taking church consumerism to an entirely new level.
- And, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, YouTube has announced that it now exceeds two billion views per day.