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Topic: PHILOSOPHY AND OTHER ISMS

Consumerism: Christians In and Of the World

October 27, 2005
S. Michael Craven
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While there may be some who do not conform entirely to the pressures of modernity and postmodernism there are few in who escape the influence and subsequent captivity of consumerism. Consumerism is a ubiquitous and persistent force working in American culture that is undermining individuals, disintegrating families and communities, and sapping the Church of its influence and witness.

Consumerism is so much more than mere materialism. 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 the desire[1] Richard John Neuhaus clarifies consumerism as “living in a manner that is measured by having rather than being.”[2] In other words, consumerism 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.

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.”[3] 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.

According to the devotees of consumerism, 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.” The explosive growth of cosmetic surgery in this country could be largely attributed to the influence of consumerism with its inherent emphasis on perfecting the external image in order to meet the idealized lifestyle represented by Madison Avenue and , the two biggest expositors of consumerist ideology.

The late John Paul II regarded consumerism as “a threat to the freedom of the human person to live according to the higher demands of love rather than to the lower pull of material desires.”[4] How true. Don’t we, especially in America, often find ourselves driven more by the pursuit of our own material desires; a sort of “dog eat dog” mentality, instead of driven by concern for the well-being of our fellow man?

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.”

Consumerism also posits that this “good life” can be achieved through increased financial security. The consumerist believes that financial security is the only real foundation that produces freedom to enjoy life, contentment, and life stability. I would add that the consumerist tends to define “financial security” in very different terms. To the consumerist, financial security is achieved when they posses the financial resources to acquire all of the commodities necessary to the idealized lifestyle. This contradicts the virtues of thrift and prudence which achieve financial security from having something to fall back on during economic hardship. Quite often, the preeminence of security through material acquisition leads to a validation of every decision that places career choices above everything else. For example, we do not hesitate to relocate our families for the “right opportunity” often leaving extended family behind depriving our children of the important multi-generational influence. We are the most transient society on earth. We are consumerist nomads in continual search of greener pastures and this nomadic condition works to dis-integrate families and communities by severing familial and community roots. Children raised in isolation from their extended families tend to lose an important sense of connection to their past as well as to a family heritage that is larger than one’s self. Grandparents, for example, serve as active participants in the family’s social construction of its history, which connects us to past generations thus promoting a sense of belonging or even this “connectedness” that I spoke of in the previous chapter. The sense of belonging to something larger than just ourselves also promotes consideration of other people; it conditions us for community. The absence of these ongoing familial influences contributes to the radical individualism characteristic of American culture and serves to isolate us from our families and neighbors. We seem to be a people who are always on our way to somewhere else, never content with where we are. This is evidenced by the fact that the average length of home ownership in is approximately six years, by far the shortest duration in the world.

Another area affected by the pursuit of financial security as life’s panacea is that the barrier which once insulated family time from employment demands is eliminated. We no longer hesitate to travel on Sundays, for example, in order to make that Monday morning meeting or work weekends and evenings. American workers are working more hours than ever before and the growing expectation among employers is: “If you want to get ahead you’ll do what needs to be done otherwise you lack commitment and your career here is over.” According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, “the average hours worked by all family members is up 11 percent since 1975”[5] and according the Bureau of Labor, “32.8 percent of all full-time employees worked on weekends and holidays.”[6][7]

Americans talk of family values but evidently we no longer value family especially if the priority of commitment to family requires financial sacrifice and career concessions. The shield which once existed between the demands of the marketplace and the obligations of family has been obliterated and the marketplace now reigns supreme. Therefore if family and marketplace come into conflict the family must give way and the consumerist father rationalizes that it is ultimately for the good of the family because the highest possible contribution, he believes, of paternal parenting is economic improvement and financial stability.

The American Journal of Sociology states that “since 1969 the time American parents spend with their children has declined by 22 hours per week”!

Americans suffer spiritually and emotionally as well. Given the extraordinary time and schedule pressures enlisted by families today, as well as misplaced priorities, there is less time for involvement in the community of believers. Weekly church attendance has reached an all time low in In addition, many people who find themselves slaves to consumerism have come to realize that despite achieving the consumerist-created lifestyle it has failed to produce the promised benefits. These discontent consumerists will then often go to "religion" in search of meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, many are only looking to give their “lifestyle” meaning and purpose and they think that by integrating “a little Jesus” into their lives they will then balance and perfect the lifestyle. Tragically they do not realize; it is not their lifestyle that is in need of salvation it is their eternal souls.

In the case of religious consumerists, they tend to respond to the forces of consumerism through increased efforts to integrate the spiritual disciplines; scheduled prayer or “quiet time,” regular Bible study, etc. In other words, they approach God in the same that they approach work, as a task to be fulfilled with measurable goals to be achieved. Spiritual discipline is essential to the life of every believer however in the case of the consumerist; spiritual activity can become one more “thing” on their to-do list. The emphasis on spirituality as another discipline can also become a form of spiritual works in which one seeks to satisfy their obligations to God through religious activity.  Rather than adding religious activities to our lives as one among many priorities; we need to learn to discipline our appetites and desires and learn to be content with what we have and where we are in life. Jesus Christ is not to be treated as one good among many; Jesus Christ is the supreme Good and the source and summit of all life!

With the increased priority given to the marketplace, there follows a decreased commitment to neighbors, community and connections to extended family, children are displaced in pursuit of “opportunities,” and familial priorities become subverted to company demands. What is perhaps most disturbing is that too many Christians are compliant in this subversion of family to work by either their unquestioning participation as employees or the imposition of these same values as employers.

Reflecting upon the post-Christian landscape of the late 20th century, Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer speculated that after the “death of God” and the resulting loss of absolute truth and moral values, modern society would be left with only the two terrible values of “personal peace and personal prosperity.” Schaeffer went on to say that once these values became accepted; Americans would sacrifice everything to protect their personal peace and affluence including their children and their grandchildren.[9] When this artificial “lifestyle” becomes the object and aim of life the consumerist, quite naturally, seeks to preserve it all costs because in their minds; it is life.

Furthermore, consumerism shifts the objective of human life away from cultivating virtue and character, knowing truth and being content to this artificially constructed and idealized “lifestyle” that is continually reinforced through media, entertainment, and advertising. Again, “things” take priority over persons and “having” supersedes being and in so doing we become a superficial culture filled with distractions that inhibit introspective thought and meaningful relationships.

In commenting on the lack of introspection of men that inhibits meaningful reflection of life’s most important questions, Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and Christian apologist, speaking as such a man, wrote: “As I know not whence I come, neither do I know whither I am bound; all I know is that when I quit this world, I shall fall forever either into nothingness or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing which of these two states is to be for ever my lot. …I must after all pass my whole life without a thought of enquiring into the issue.”[10] Pascal adds that, “nothing is so unbearable to man as to be at a standstill, without passion, business, amusement, occupation. ‘Tis then he feels his nothingness, his foolishness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his dependence.”[11]  Pascal rightly observes that the only good thing for such men, therefore, is to be so diverted by business, sport, and amusement that they stop thinking about their circumstances. This is why we so readily embrace the distractions of consumerism. Consumerism presents us with a pleasant illusion that conceals the cosmic truth of man’s rebellion [sin] and subsequent alienation from God; the effects of which have infected every aspect of life and reality.

Indeed, we live in a world full of distractions especially when one considers that the typical American is bombarded with an average of 3,000 product ads per day. Almost all of which present this idealized lifestyle in its varied forms with the key to its easy acquisition being; buy this commodity! However, it not necessary to buy or even want what is offered; it is the constant barrage of images depicting the perfect life that if viewed uncritically can inculcate the consumerist vision. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at argues that, “American life is flooded with too many choices. …The result is a society of stressed out and unsatisfied customers.”[12] Of course this dissatisfaction is rooted in the misguided pursuit of consumer goods, which by virtue of “planned obsolescence” are designed to no longer satisfy at some point in the future.  Dr. David G. Myers reported in American Psychologist that “Compared with their grandparents, today's young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology. …“Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being.”[13]

One writer points out that, “consumerism creates and nourishes human desire for temporal goods and for the sense of well-being that the acquisition and possession of those goods can provide.”[14] Consumerism conditions us never to be satisfied with sufficiency but to “be all that we can be through the endless development of talent and productivity.”[15] Thus, we remain perpetually discontent, unable to rest in that which is “good” but always wanting more. Perhaps the strongest expression of this among Christians is the idea that to be content with sufficiency is to somehow “settle for less” which we condemn as lazy, defeatist, and even irresponsible. Some will vigorously defend their devotion to success in this sense as “doing all things to the glory of God” or in the name of God-honoring excellence. However, they are likely more often driven more by the consumerist imposed belief that if you just work hard enough then all will be yours and they must not stop until they have it all!

There is no question that Christianity teaches strong personal responsibility and the idea of doing our very best in everything that we do, however, this does not exclude our responsibilities as husbands, wives and parents either. Nor does this preclude our responsibilities as “prophets, priests and kings” in the world. Interestingly, those who argue this line of thinking seem to always limit their efforts for excellence to the marketplace where consumer goods, social status and image improvement remains the focus. The religious consumerist does not generally apply this same energy and vigor in self-sacrificing service of God or their fellow man.

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.”[16] 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.

One result of consumerism is nation of people overwhelmed by the tyranny of the urgent, watching in disbelief as one week goes into the next then one month, then two, then three until years have passed and that promised lifestyle still eludes them. In the end they are left with the realization that their life amounts to nothing more than work; they have drifted apart in their relationships; their children are grown and gone, and they have waited for that elusive goal of  "everything accomplished" so they could start “enjoying life” only to realize that life has already passed them by. In living this way we are living less than we were designed to and our focus remains in all the wrong areas. For the Christian consumerist their lives are little different from the world and this lack of “counter-cultural” living validates the unbelieving world’s rejection of the Gospel. Unbelievers observe that, “Christians don’t live any different than I do so how can this Jesus be real if He doesn’t make any difference in their lives?” As Christians we are to resist worldliness and completely reorient our goals, priorities, and thinking. In essence, our lives should look different. Christians should serve to humanize society by demonstrating love and bringing hope to a fallen world. They should not be participating in the dehumanization that results from reducing people to objects of consumption that is fostered by consumerist thinking and living.

It is possibly this uniquely American phenomenon that may be contributing to so much resentment around the world. I say uniquely American phenomenon because consumerism is a much greater problem here than anywhere else in the West. That is not to say that Europeans are disaffected by consumerism, they aren’t, however, they tend to have some natural defenses that mitigate against its effects. The fact that the European counties are much more homogenous contributes to their sense of national identity and fosters a greater sense of community. This, in turn, preserves their commitment to familial connections and their sense of family heritage. Europeans, in general, tend to be very family centric and more balanced in their approach to work and play. While Europeans have numerous problems resulting from radical secularization; family dissolution, increased work hours, and manic lifestyles are not among them to the same extent as here in .

America used to export missionaries in unparalleled number and fortunately still do to a large extent but more and more we are exporting consumerist ideology; an ideology that is ultimately at odds with Christianity. My missionary friends tell me that this paradox of American ideological export only adds to their challenges. In the wake of  “globalization,” American corporations now see the world only in terms of potential markets and consumers. More and more we are telling impoverished peoples in third world countries that they too can have a better life through the acquisition of the right soft drinks, clothing and sneakers. This is powerfully reinforced through the export of Hollywood films which, according to Michael Medved, now receive more than 70 percent of their revenue from countries outside the U.S.[17] The message of consumerism coupled with the sexualized messages all too common to Hollywood doesn’t make for the best representation of American ideals.

We have already demonstrated our willingness to separate trade policy from human rights policy in order to gain potential market opportunities as in the case of . This might be one reason why more and more nations consider us so hypocritical – we think we’re “good” and everyone should have what we have however, when we turn a blind eye to human suffering and oppression because we are more concerned about economic opportunities; we surrender the moral high ground. Again, "things" rise above people and compassion is subverted by profit. If American Christians want the world to take seriously the claims of Christ then we must work to advance policies, both foreign and domestic, that prioritize people and moral good over economic desires. This applies to both governmental policies as well as the individual and corporate practices of the Church. Specifically regarding the Church, Evangelicals remain the most generous in terms of charitable giving in however those numbers have nonetheless been declining.[18] Furthermore, only eight percent of professing Christians indicate that they give ten percent of their income in the form of a tithe to their church.[19][20] Blessed are the poor indeed!

What is perhaps most revealing related to the priorities given to money within the Body of Christ in was the fact that those making the least amount of money gave more to the church as a percentage than those with higher incomes. The disparity is significant. Among those making less than $20,000 annually, eight percent tithed a full ten percent of their income while only one percent of those making $75,000 - $99,999 gave the ten percent tithe.

The point I am making is not an argument for tithing but rather that our tithing patterns demonstrate the priority that we have given to our money which is often allocated to our lifestyle in the form of consumer debt before it is consecrated to God much less to helping others. The fact is our lifestyles are often such that we have borrowed what we have not earned to buy what we cannot afford and thus we live enslaved to our creditors. Because we have prioritized the consumerist vision as the aim and object of our lives we simply don’t have anything left over to give to God and others.  

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!”[21]  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. We need to discover that our satisfaction and being are to be found entirely in Christ. Practically, for me and my family, this involved downsizing homes and cars, generally reducing all of our expenses, eliminating all consumer debt, credit cards, ridding my home of cable television (a major distraction from meaningful things), and carefully guarding mine and my family’s time.

The bottom line is that we must be willing to embrace a form of Christian asceticism or simplicity in life. Before you panic, I am not speaking in the same degree as a 12th century monk but rather the pursuit of simplicity in as much of our lives as possible. This includes how and on what we spend our money, our time, and our energy. We must seek to orient our priorities toward growing in the knowledge of and devotion to God; being content with financial sufficiency and no longer always yearning for more and borrowing to buy what we have not earned. We should prioritize devotion to our spouses; the nurture and training of our children in the admonition of the Lord. Finally we must abandon the construction of self that is rooted in the thoughts of others and instead find establish our “self” in the imitation of Christ and His character.

The Christian life compels us to respond to God’s love by imitating the self-emptying love of Christ daily. Timothy Vaverek prescribes a three-fold Christian response to the lure of consumerism which summarizes a sound biblical approach: “Through self-denial the Christian turns away from the inessential desires of his will and his flesh, being content with God’s will for his life. Through prayer he seeks deeper communion with God and the grace to persevere in the narrow path of self-sacrificial love. Through works of mercy and charity the Christian not only shares material goods with others, he pours himself out on their behalf.”[22] It is only when we, Christians, abandon the lure of the world so often presented by the consumerist message with its empty promises and unreservedly commit ourselves to the higher call of Christ that the world will see the glory of God in and through his church.

G.K. Chesterton once observed, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[23] In the case of consumerism the Christian ideal is indeed difficult especially when the whole current of our age combines to press us in the never-ending quest to desire, acquire, and accomplish. In the consumerist culture it is difficult to “be still and know that He is God.”

© S. Michael Craven, 2006

[1] Timothy V. Vaverek, Catholic Worker, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 2001

[2] Richard John Neuhaus, Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (New York: Doubleday 1992).

[3] This definition was derived from Lasch’s description of consumerism. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, (: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1979), p. 152

[4] Raymond J. de Souza, John Paul II and the Problem of Consumerism, Acton Institute,  www.acton.org/publicat/randl/article.php?id=321, (accessed February 17, 2006)

[5] Economic Snapshots, Economic Policy Institute, Snapshot for July 7, 2004, www.epinet.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_snapshots_07072004, (accessed February 20, 2006)

[6] Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Table 2., Average hours per day spent in primary activities (1) for the total population and for persons reporting the activity on the diary day by activity category and weekdays and weekends, 2004 annual averages, www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.t02.htm, (accessed February 20, 2006)

[7] Council of Economic Advisors Report, 1999, Note: The estimate of a 22 hour decline between 1969 and 1999 in parental time in caring for children was arrived by subtracting increased employment hours of parents from total waking hours. This approach has been questioned by some sociologists but for the purposes of demonstrating that increased time at work obviously results in reduced time with family I believe it makes the point., quoted from: www.ccpr.ucla.edu/docs/Bianchi%20article.pdf, (accessed February 20, 2006)

[8] Analysis: Religion, Family, and the General Social Survey, October 19, 2005, Episode no. 908, available online at: www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week908/analysis1.html (accessed February 22, 2006)

[9] This statement is adapted from the How Shall We Live?  video series by Francis Schaeffer.

[10] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), p. 107

[11] Ibid., p. 57

[12] Barry Schwartz, Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (: Harper Perennial, January 1, 2005)

[13] David G. Myers, PhD, American Psychologist Magazine (Vol. 55, No. 1)

[14] Vaverek, Catholic Worker

[15] Ibid.

[16] Vaverek, Catholic Worker

[17] Michael Medved, taken from a lecture delivered on March 9, 2005, on the Hillsdale College campus and printed in the May 2005 Imprimis newsletter.

[18] George Barna, Evangelicals Are the Most Generous Givers, but Fewer than 10% of Born Again Christians Give 10% to Their Church, April 5, 2000, www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=52   (accessed February 22, 2006) Barna reports that the median amount of money given to non-profits and churches by the typical adult last year was $300. That is a 14% decline from 1998 levels ($350 median per person). Even more telling was the decline in the mean total gift amount. The average for 1999 was $1045 per adult. That represents a 24% decline from 1998, when the average cumulative giving was $1377.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Holy Bible, Philippians 2:6-8, New International Version

[22] Vaverek, Catholic Worker

[23] G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, April 1, 1994) p. 37

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Responses
Response from : Andrew Talbot  

May 27, 2014 2:41 PM
 

I was so overjoyed when I discovered your article Michael. Without having the label of ‘consumerism’, I have been wrestling with this topic for my entire Christian life, and this article finally validates everything that I have known deep down is wrong with my life.
I have been researching what God’s antidote for ‘consumerism’ is for quite some time now, and this is what I have currently discovered:

To do God’s will (Matthew 7:21, 1 John 2:17, Revelation 2:26):
Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30);
loving everyone (including your enemies) as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 7:12, 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 6:27-36, 10:25-37);
denying yourself (Matthew 16:24-27, Mark 8:34-36, Luke 9:23-25);
giving up everything (Matthew 19:28-29; Luke 9:59-62, 14:16-21, 14:26-27, 14:33; John 12:25);
selling your possessions and giving to the poor (Luke 12:33-34);
meeting the needs of others (Matthew 25:34-36; John 13:34-35; Acts 2:44-47, 4:32-35; 1 John 3:16-17);
looking after the helpless, the marginalized and oppressed (Luke 4:18-19, 14:12-14; Matthew 25:35-36; James 1:27);
being merciful (Matthew 5:7; Luke 6:36, 10:37);
having the goal of equality (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)

http://https://www.facebook.com/TalbyWalby

 

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