Buyer beware

Consumerism contains toxic substances harmful to faith

This feature kicks off a series of columns at the Herald that will address the issues of consumerism and individualism. Now, more than ever, our leaders have asked for resources to counteract the morally corrosive aspects of capitalism in North America. What does it mean for everyday Christian life? Since capitalism influences our habits, and habits are most likely changed by mindfulness, this series aims to provide a practical corrective by first articulating where we are, what we think, and what we’ve come to expect as “normal” in a secular society. Only then will we be able to distinguish the cultural practices of the world from biblically informed and consciously chosen alternatives.—Andrew Siebert

We live in an age of unprecedented choice. Less than fifty years ago, much of life was chosen for us, and we simply had to “make do” with life the way it came. Not so today.

Today we can style our lives. We can choose where we live – Niverville or New York. We can choose our jobs – farmer or filmmaker. We can choose whom we marry – a Korean from Flin Flon or an opera singer from China. We even have choices regarding children. We can have them naturally, we can adopt from almost anywhere in the world, or we can avail ourselves of artificial reproductive technologies.

Books, cell phones, clothing, computers, food, housing, movies, music, politics, sexual expression, TV, travel – our world bombards us with a stunning array of more and more ever-changing choices. We are urged to have it all, to “visit Paris in the fall, watch the Yankees play ball,”1 to consume, consume, consume.

The fact that even Christians grumble about being too busy, too tired, too overworked, too disconnected from family, that we have too much stuff and need to have regular garage sales, demonstrates that we have “bought into” our consumer society; our patterns of consumption define how we think and act.

But before we condemn consumerism, let’s do two things.

First, let’s acknowledge there is nothing inherently wrong with consumption. Obviously, we must consume water, food, shelter, and air to survive. Genesis tells us that God made us to be consumers of a specific kind. The world contains good things that we are to tend and use gratefully and responsibly.

Secondly, let’s define our terms clearly. Other “isms” – materialism (he who dies with the most toys wins) and individualism (I am numero uno in the universe, free to do what suits me) – are related to, but not the same as, consumerism. There is plenty of crossover between these “isms,” but they represent distinct approaches to life. If we are to take from them what is good and reject what is corrosive and unbiblical, we need to carefully dissect these mindsets.

Consumerism denotes a “lens” through which we look at the world, the idea that individual preference and choice are the defining and most important factors in all areas of life. The decisions I make, the lifestyle I create, are based on what I want. Indeed, many of us think we can decide what we want and how we want it, and when we don’t get it, we feel frustrated and shortchanged. No doubt we’ve recently heard someone say:

“You have no right to tell me what to do/say/wear/think.”

“Be true to yourself.”

“You can become whatever you want.”

“That music doesn’t speak to me.”

“We’re looking for a church that meets our needs.”

The outlook of consumerism rests on several assumptions. It declares that the customer is always right and that “the market” decides what is good. Individuals, each making their own purchases, shape that market. Sure enough, it’s often the most popular, cheapest, and easiest to get items that are deemed the best. From these two assumptions emerge two ways of thinking: 1) anything and everything can be bought; and 2) the value of something is determined by its price. Together, these assumptions yield a portrait of human life where autonomous individuals collectively decide what is important or valuable in life – it’s the “sovereignty of the squalling infant.”2

Consumerists assume comfort and convenience are the highest goals; anything unpleasant – sacrifice, suffering – are resisted. Consumerists assume the values they have are perfectly fine – they don’t need to be corrected, just satisfied. This means that consumerists are mostly interested in getting what they want, as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply as possible. This attitude is closed to new adventure, confrontation, or humility. New ideas that do not “suit or benefit me” simply are not tolerated.

Remember: consumerism is not the same as being a consumer. We should be responsible consumers when buying groceries or a car. But consumerism is problematic because what started out good went wrong. In modern-day Canada, it conditions how we understand all of life. To a man with a hammer, it is said, everything looks like a nail. To 21st-century consumers – you and me – all of life looks like a shopping mall.

The challenge to faith

Not surprisingly, elements of consumerism are corrosive to authentic faith. In a consumerist society, religion becomes a commodity – something we add to our lives to “make me feel good,” or “make me a better person.” We begin to pick and choose from this or that religion, selecting “whatever works for me” in the ongoing quest for personal fulfillment and self-discovery. Indeed, the basic question a consumerist asks is, “do I want it or not?”

Protestant Christianity itself, perhaps unwittingly, has contributed and continues to contribute to consumerism. Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and early Anabaptists emphasized the right and obligation of each person to read the Bible for themselves. This ability to choose – to set one’s own interpretation of Scripture against church tradition and authority – dramatically altered the shape of Western history.

The explosion of Protestant denominations since the Reformation has produced a smorgasbord of choice for any North American interested in church. If someone doesn’t like what one church teaches, there’s another one down the street that’s probably more to their taste. Combined with a political climate of religious tolerance, churches today, like any other institution, must “compete” for market-share.3

In other words, the church presents choices now that were nonexistent to our ancestors. Those of us who attend church are forced to be consumers simply because of our historical and cultural location. Surrounded by choices everywhere, when deciding which church to attend, we apply roughly the same criteria we use when picking a movie at Blockbuster: What do I want? Will it meet my need for excitement, entertainment, escape?4

Taking the next step

So where does that leave Christians? We are confronted with a dramatically different picture presented in the Bible. Scripture insists that human desires are affected by sin; that religion is not just a private, personal matter, but should lead us to care for the poor, protect the weak, and “give ‘til it hurts;” that virtue and mature holiness are often hard fought victories. Not surprisingly, a gospel centred on the cross is less likely to get a hearing in a consumer-oriented culture.5

What can we do to counteract the negative effects of consumerism? First, let’s analyze how “the system” forces us to be consumeristic.

For example, particular uses of media and technology are generation-specific. People in their 20s are more likely to use text messaging and Facebook to communicate with others. They are less likely to use the tools, like letter writing, that older generations continue to use. Consequently, younger generations are communicating less and less with those who are older, and vice versa.

Technology works in combination with other factors, like free market economies and democratic political systems, to segregate communities and elevate individual rights above all else. So while Mennonites are properly committed to building Christian communities, our cultural system(s) undermine them. Understanding societal trends is an important step towards learning how we might better embody kingdom values.6

Second, we need to think about how we (unintentionally?) perpetuate the system. What do we communicate, for example, when PowerPoint announcements are displayed during the offering? Isn’t it strikingly similar to TV commercials? More importantly, does it divert our attention from an important act of worship? As we pass the offering plate, is there a hidden message that we’re just “depositing” our money?

We need to become aware of how the medium shapes the message. By using the grammar of advertising – the “language” of consumerism – to communicate the gospel and order our life together, we are, in subtle yet profound ways, treating faith like a commodity.

Churches have also perpetuated a consumer mindset by offering multiple styles of services: liturgical, contemporary, family-friendly, seeker-centred. By catering to audience tastes or demographics (note the consumerist language: “offer,” “service”), do we imply that discipleship is about my needs being met on my terms? To be sure, making people feel comfortable and welcome is good, and there are many people who have met Jesus as a result. But once people are comfortable, how do we call them to sacrificial discipleship without looking like we’re using “bait-and-switch” tactics?

Toward further discussion

Finally, Christians can resist consumerism by recovering aspects of theology that have been lost, obscured, or ignored. North American evangelicals in general and Mennonite Brethren in particular, have adopted methods and technologies that, to some degree, are self-defeating partly because important features of Christian theology have been pushed to the side. The following are a few broad themes to stimulate further reflection:

  • Theology of mission/calling/work. God’s first commandment is in Genesis: as his stewards we are to make shalom, to improve the world. Do we work to accumulate “stuff,” or might our work play a part in kingdom-building?
  • Theology of creation. What is non-human creation (trees, water, air, animals) “for”?
  • Theology of personhood. Might part of our ongoing redemption as whole people mean understanding and embracing the obligations, responsibilities, and privileges that come with our unique role as God’s stewards on earth? Treating the world less as a resource to be mined, and more as a gift to preserve and cultivate?
  • Theology of hope. God will ultimately redeem all of creation. How should our vision of the future condition our behaviour – and our attitude towards consumption – in the present?
  • Theology of patience. Does our consumerism betray an unwillingness to wait for God’s good future? Is consumerism a form of idolatry that doubts God’s promises to be sufficient for our needs? Does our “hoarding” in the present indicate a lack of confidence in God’s future?

It’s not enough to throw up our arms and declare consumerism an unmitigated evil and a disaster for Christian faith. Consumerism likely won’t disappear, and there are elements of consumption that are entirely appropriate. The real concern is how we can most effectively navigate the environment in which we, 21st century Canadian Mennonite Brethren Christians, find ourselves. At the very least, we must recognize the nature of this challenge. It will demand a willingness to wisely evaluate cultural trends, embracing some and rejecting others, with the intention of more faithfully embodying the kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ.

  1. Terri Clark, “I Wanna Do It All,” Greatest Hits 1994–2004 (Mercury Nashville, 2004).
  2. See John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) for a more detailed discussion about consumerism.
  3. For a more extensive discussion, see Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live as If God Doesn’t Exist (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
  4. Peter Berger has called this the “heretical imperative” (the Greek word for heresy is haeresis – “choice”). Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Garden City: Anchor Press/Double Day, 1979).
  5. Rodney Clapp, ed., The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998); Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
  6. Quentin J. Schultze, et. al., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991).

Baptize your wallet

Martin Luther said Christians need three conversions – heart, mind and purse.

Mennonite history contains at least one example of taking this literally. It occurred in Russia, where many Mennonites had become stupendously rich, some with estates of 100,000 acres.

One estate owner who was reputed to be covetous and unwilling to share with the poor was called to account by church leaders. As related by the late J.B. Toews in Pilgrimage of Faith, a prayer circle was organized to pray for the man’s repentance.

After some months the prayers were answered. The man publicly confessed his greed and asked God and the church for forgiveness. He asked to be rebaptized.

“My father, John A. Toews of Alexanderthal, was selected to baptize the brother for the second time,” Toews recalls. “In the public prayer preceding the baptism the brother prayed for victory over the sin of covetousness. Before entering the water (for immersion baptism) he placed his wallet into his shirt pocket, for this too needed to be rebaptized. This was to symbolize the surrender of all his riches to the Lord and his service.”

From that point on, Toews writes, “many blessings went out from the estate of this man, one of the wealthiest Mennonites in Russia.”

—Wally Kroeker

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