The cult of consumerism – desire, distract, possess…
G.K. Chesterton wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” This pithy observation can serve as a helpful starting point for examining how well contemporary Christianity fares in its engagement with various facets of American culture.
Chesterton, Richard John Neuhaus, Francis Schaeffer and Blaise Pascal, are as some of the cultural observers who inform S. Michael Craven as he provides a very useful overview of a pervasive feature of contemporary American culture, consumerism.
“Consumerism: Christians In and Of the World” begins by looking at consumerism from several different angles.
· Consumerism is an ideology of which materialism is merely a component; it is a way of thinking that has surreptitiously become the principle basis for how many Americans perceive life and view themselves. …
· An ambiguous social and economic phenomenon, consumerism derives from the “systematic creation and encouragement of … desire.” Richard John Neuhaus clarifies consumerism as “living in a manner that is measured by having rather than being.”
· [C]onsumerism shifts the object of human life from achieving personhood measured by the character of one’s being to achieving personhood measured by the nature of one’s possessions, appearance and social status. Ironically, the fatal flaw in communism was that it reduced persons to mere factors of production and in so doing undermined the human person’s creativity and ability to give to others. In much the same way, consumerism reduces persons to mere objects of consumption.
· [C]onsumerism holds that] one of the ways the “good life” can be achieved is through the endless improvement of one’s self-image. While there is nothing wrong with a healthy self-image there is something inherently destructive about an image of one’s self that is rooted solely in physical appearance, social status, or material success. In such a system, human persons are in essence reduced to objects whose value is again determined more by “having” than that of “being.”
· Consumerism could be further understood as, responding to the suggestive messages that those experiences which were once reserved for the privileged classes, the educated elite and the truly accomplished can all be yours without effort, on the purchase of the appropriate commodity to possess material goods and personal success in ever greater amounts.” The net result is the creation in our minds of an idealized “lifestyle” matching those suggestive messages. It is this idealized and artificial lifestyle that is then pursued as the principle means to achieving life satisfaction, happiness, and contentment or the so-called “good life.” For the consumerist, all of their creative and intellectual energy is redirected toward this goal: a goal which is, in essence, an illusion created largely by the commercial interests of corporate and the entertainment industry.
Material possessions are not, in and of themselves, wrong.
Christian theology clearly teaches that it is not the possession of material goods alone, or even the desire for a better life that is sinful. Rather it is possessing, including the desire to possess, without regard for the appropriate hierarchy of the material possessions and resources one has and the subordination of those goods to their proper place. Material goods and resources, according to Scripture, should remain subservient to man and available to support his service to the Kingdom and his neighbor. Also it would be a mistake to assume that consumerism is the exclusive sin of the rich. Consumerism crosses all socio-economic classes by promoting perpetual discontentment among the “haves” and envy among the “have nots.”
But the pervasive and insidious spirit of consumerism can steal into the Christian life unawares.
The consumerist is always telling himself that if he just works harder he will able to make time for family, leisure and himself later. The religious consumerist is convinced that by working harder now he will be able to “make time for God” later but fears that any “slacking off” of his manic pace is a failure to “use God’s gifts.” Again, God becomes one more item on his “to-do” list. In doing this, God, spiritual growth and discipleship remain collateral categories in the consumerist life and rarely rise to become what they should be: the all-encompassing focus of human life. In an essay on Christian asceticism, Timothy Vaverek, a Catholic priest writes that, “love of God has come to mean giving thanks for His gifts by maximizing productive ‘self-actualization’ while love of neighbor has come to mean providing them with consumer goods.” Contrary to the consumerist adage that says we need to “be all that we can be;” we simply need to be what God wants us to be. …
I hasten to add that I do not write this as one who is above and therefore immune to the pull of consumerism. Quite the contrary, as a former corporate CEO I confess that I too was once very much in the grip of consumerist thinking. I bought into this seduction even to the point of treating my relationship with Christ as a mere “component” of my life. I too, was diligent in my “Christian walk” however to be completely honest I have to confess that my expectation was, that Christ would “come alongside my life plans and my objectives and ‘bless’ them.” In other words, I was seeking divine blessing of my consumerist lifestyle. It was not until I realized, by His grace, that Jesus Christ did not come to be a mere “component” of my life but its all-encompassing purpose and Lord. Christ calls us to subordinate our lives, our goals, and our plans to His Lordship and be willing to accept His will no matter what may come. How often are our prayers related to our material needs versus our character needs? Certainly we are to ask the Lord for our “daily bread” but the priority should be our conformation to the image of Christ; “who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing…he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” Consumerism by its very nature opposes this same self-emptying humility to which all Christians are called. I believe the first step toward breaking free from the grip of consumerism begins with simple recognition that it is in fact a tangible philosophy that pervades our culture. Following this recognition we must begin to think critically in response to the many forms and messages of consumerism learning to filter these through the biblical understanding of life and its relationship to material goods. This recognition alone will serve to undermine the power and influence that the messages of consumerism put forth.
“I am not naïve regarding the enormous challenges associated with breaking out of the grip of consumerism; for me it has taken time along with numerous practical and sometimes difficult steps to simplify my life.” …
Michael Craven concludes by listing several of those “practical and sometimes difficult” steps he and his family have taken to resist the spirit and ideology of consumerism. The quotes above reflect only a few of the many aspects of consumerism discussed in “Consumerism: Christians In and Of the World”—an article worth reading and rereading.
S. Michael Craven is a cultural apologist, author, columnist, and speaker. He is the founder of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity.