Consumerist Spirituality – The Lie We Buy

The following is a brief essay I wrote on consumerism and spirituality. It is brief due to strict word count limits but may be of interest:

The question has been posed – “Is Consumerism the default spirituality of our age?”. In order to approach a question such as this, one must paint in broad strokes, and think in general terms about a culture which has attempted to define itself in variety. However, I believe there is value in taking a step back for a ‘big picture’ overview of the overarching (or underpinning?) themes which permeate the tapestry of beliefs and practices which we live among. For the purposes of this essay I will be thinking in general terms about Western culture in the Modern-Postmodern (latemodern?) era, particularly focusing on the middle-class culture of the UK and the US. My argument is this – There is a climate of spiritual consumerism in the west today and it is not a new phenomenon. Furthermore this is an outworking of the ‘consumerisation’ of individuals inherent in a society governed by large political/economic powers, a prime example being the polytheism and emperor worship in the Roman empire at the dawn of the early Church.

Firstly, we must consider semantics. The words ‘consumerist’ and ‘spirituality’ are both pregnant with meaning. The Oxford dictionary defines the term ‘spiritual’ as “Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things”. This can be helpful in grappling with culture. As W. Cavanaugh puts it, “Consumerism is an important subject for theology because it is a spiritual disposition, a way of looking at the world around us that is deeply formative”¹ . I agree with this to a point, but would maybe take it a step deeper. Spirituality is not passive in simply ‘looking at the world’ but is deeply rooted in our interaction with the world, precisely in the sense in which James K A Smith argues in his book ‘Desiring God’. Man does not simply consist of everything above the shoulders, as Smith puts it such a view is “a very disembodied, individualistic picture of the human person.”². Consumerism seems to be frequently confused with materialism – a preoccupation with things, but the edifice of consumerism is not built on material things, but rather the act of consumption itself. Again Cavanaugh contends that:

Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it’s not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism. Buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism. The restlessness – the moving on to shopping for something else, no matter what one has just purchased – sets the spiritual tone for consumerism¹

Again I would dare to take it a step further that the essence of consumerism is the sanctification of ‘choice’. This concept of ‘choice’ carries such weight that even monoliths such as the British NHS have adopted it³. But, as my original argument suggests, I believe that this sense of choice is a mirage. A false sense of empowerment which enslaves us to that great unholy trinity of the post-modern age: Big Government, Big Corporations, Big Media. The ‘bread and circuses’ of our era are served to us by an elite 1% whose wealth and power grows more and more disproportionate as the years go by⁴. As Brad Pitt so eloquently expressed it as the character ‘Tyler Durden’:

God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war…our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.⁵

Our compulsion to consume and exercise this mirage of choice has led us into invisible chains of economic slavery; the great conspiracy of the post-modern era is that it’s not the Emperor, but the people, who wear ‘new clothes’.

Looking at consumerism more specifically as a spirituality is challenging. To talk about any spirituality as ‘default’ in the post-modern age seems anathema to some, but this is of course is a spirituality and a worldview in itself. The book “Selling Spirituality” provides some interesting discourse on this, especially in challenging the pluralistic nature of much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today, which has an “essentially accommodationist orientation.”⁶ The book argues that “In a sense, the most troubling aspect of many modern spiritualities is precisely that they are not troubling enough”⁷. These spiritualities “promote accommodation to the social, economic and political mores of the day and provide little in terms of challenge to the status quo or to a lifestyle of self-interest and ubiquitous consumption”⁸. It is to this end which I wish not to focus on the aspects of ‘this or that’ reflection of the landscape of consumerist spirituality, but rather of the pillars of consumption, choice and plurality which underpin them. These great cornerstones of our consumerist spirituality are so pervasive that they are expressed even in the architecture of our landscape – “the growth of the materialist ethos has changed the metaphor for the shopping place from the bazaar to the temple”⁹. The grand sense of awe and transcendence one feels in the lavish high-ceilinged malls of today rivals even the gothic architecture of the cathedrals of yesteryear. In consumerist spirituality we find the soul-orientation behind the more obvious embodied practices in our lives – how we shop, what we eat, how we vote, where/whom we worship.

I would love to proclaim the visible Church as the last bulwark against this tide, but sadly even she has fallen foul to the lure of consumerist spirituality. As Douglas Wilson lambasts in his satirical book, ‘A Serrated Edge’, “our holy hardware stores make megabucks selling study bibles for “whatever ails ya.”…published for a people who would not know what study was if it poked them in the eye with a burnt stick”¹⁰. He goes on to joke that Zondervan, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, will probably release a ‘P3IV’ (Page Three International Version) to try and corner the teenage market. Joking aside it is somewhat disturbing how the brand mentality has infiltrated our faith: from the marketing used for discipleship campaigns or the latest theological fad to the chance to define our ‘christian brand’ with the latest trinkets from the Christian book store. British band Skunk Anansie express this emphatically with the music video for their 1995 song “Selling Jesus”, which depicts the cross carrying Christ chaperoned by well dressed bodyguards through crowds of adoring fans. Something about this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, or at least, it should.

In order to further understand this landscape we must ask the question, “How did we get here?”. If we are to produce a counter-cultural mission spirituality we must lay charges at the foundations of this golden temple. The modern era saw the rapid decline of the Church as a central and powerful institution in Western society, especially in Britain and the US (to varying degrees). In Britain, where the Church used to provide the education, welfare and healthcare, the march of the secular nation-state has piece by piece usurped the Church in these roles. This can be traced to the liberalising ideas of the Enlightenment period, which “challenged the traditional social, moral and philosophical authority of the Church.”¹¹ The gradual outworking of this produced a different “framework for society and politics”¹², which, in line with the ideals of philosophers such as John Locke, relegated the “religious to the private sphere of life”¹³. To assume this left a vacuum in our societal structure and religious/spiritual landscape is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. The house unoccupied soon plays host to seven spirits worse than that which left¹⁴. As the power of the Church has diminished, the state has taken it’s place as “the march of God in the world”¹⁵ as Hegel put it. This “actual God”¹⁶ has captured the imagination of modern man, and as Hegel dares to contend “that all the worth which the human being possesses—all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State….The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.”¹⁷. This awful reality led to a century where more people were killed in the advance of the secular state than by all the religious wars in history combined¹⁸. In my view, we must understand the spirituality of consumerism as undergirded by a far more sinister and hidden spirituality of secular statism. The mirage of choice and freedom produced by governments and more recently the unholy trinity of Big State, Big Corporations, Big Media. A mirage which captures the public imagination and salves the people into forgetting their lack of true freedom – the most extreme expression of religion as ‘opiate to the masses’. As Chomsky asserts, people are “marginalised by being directed to consumption as a major means of control”¹⁹.

The wise man understands that there is nothing truly new under the sun²⁰, and this is exemplified in our current spiritual climate. Through the ages empires have grown and faded, but none so captures the imagination as the great city of Rome. But as many modern thinkers assert, Rome as an ideal is not dead. JD Crossan offers insight to this challenging truth, exploring the idea of America as the new Rome in his book ‘God and Empire’. He draws on various literary sources which paint the picture of America as the “New Rome, the greatest colossus in history.”²¹

I agree with Crossan’s assertions, but would not draw the line at America, as America should be viewed as an archetype or rather the mother of consumerist culture and spirituality in the late-modern era. In my view the most significant comparison to draw between the Rome of then and now, when discussing the issue of spirituality, is the concept of Pantheon. There were numerous mystery cults and spiritualities celebrated in the Roman Empire, and on the whole people were free to pick and choose between them, with one exception. Ethelbert Stauffer insisted, that though the “Roman authorities were fundamentally tolerant in religious matters […] the worship of the emperor was obligatory on all” and was therefore “not fundamentally a matter of belief, but one of public order and discipline.”²² Some have argued that the deification of the Emperor was never taken seriously as a theological concept, but rather represented the worship of an anthropomorphisation of the unending ideals of the Pax Romana. For the average Roman, spirituality was to sample the rituals of whichever mystery cult(s) took their fancy, but the real ‘god’ of Rome, the “religion of Rome was Rome itself as the supreme political power.”²³

This attitude to spirituality seems fairly entrenched all around me. Christians and non label religious thinkers as fundamentalists who dare stray into deeper issues such as politics and economics which challenge the status quo. It has become sacrosanct to relegate spirituality and religion to the private sphere of life, much like the mystery cults of Rome, whereby we are all free to pursue whichever personal worship hobby suits us best so long as we pay homage to the ‘system’ as it stands, rending unto Caesar the firstfruits and more. In my own life I have been labelled as a legalist, judaizer and worse in challenging Church institutions to embrace the radical call to life as a people ‘set apart’. As Christian communities we must further grasp the Biblical model of Exodus from the Pharaohs of our time, and live a life of prophetic challenge to our culture.

So, in conclusion, we can think of consumerism as a default spirituality in our age, but it is better understood in terms of an undergirding religio-political ideal. As we can see from today and at least one example in history, ‘Consumerist Spirituality’ is inextricably linked to some form of emperor worship, it is the liturgy of choice in a religion of statism. In attempting to construct a mission-spirituality for our time, we must understand that great contest of kings – Christ and Caesar. We must cry with 2nd Century martyr Speratus, “I do not recognise any empire of this present age. I serve that God whom no person has seen, or can ever see with these eyes,”²⁴. To bind the strongman of our age, we must first know him.

“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

― Robert M. Pirsig

1 W Cavanaugh Being Consumed, Economics and Christian Desire (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 2008
)p35
2 James K A Smith Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009) p39
3 http://www.nhs.uk (last accessed 5th December 2014)
4 N Chomsky Occupy (London: Penguin 2012) p32-33
5 Fight Club, Dir. David Fincher (20th Century Fox 1999) Scene 39
6 J Carrette & R King Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover Of Religion (Oxford: Taylor & Francis 2004) p5
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Beth Gill, TEMPLES OF CONSUMPTION: SHOPPING MALLS AS SECULAR CATHEDRALS para. 2 Last accessed 5th December 2014 (For more on this see J Smith Desiring the Kingdom p. 19-23)
10 D Wilson A Serrated Edge – A Brief Defence of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking (Idaho: Canon Press 2003) p78
11 J Carrette & R King Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover Of Religion (Oxford: Taylor & Francis 2004)p2
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid
14 Matthew 12:45
15 S. W. Dyde, trans. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (London: George Bell and Sons 1896), p. 247
16 Ibid.
17 G. W. F. Hegel The Philosophy of History (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. [1899] 1956, trans. J. Sibree), p. 39
18 https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/MURDER.HTM (last accessed 5th December 2014)
19 Video interview “Chomsky Consumerism and Control” – http://youtu.be/rSKvUc4b2PY (last accessed 4th December 2014)
20 Ecclesiastes 1:9
21 J D Crossan God and Empire – Jesus against Rome, Then and Now (New York: Harper Collins 2007) p2-3
22 Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1955, trans. K. and R. Gregor Smith) p210
23 S C Perks ‘Christianity as a Cult’ in Common Law Wives and Concubines, Essays on Covenantal Christianity and Contemporary Western Culture (Taunton: The Kuyper Foundation, 2003) p10
24 ‘Acts of Martyrs, official court minutes from Carthage, July 17, 180’ in Eberhard Arnold ‘The Early Christians in their own words’ E Arnold (Robertsbridge: The Plough Publishing House, 1970) p84
25 R Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (London: Vintage 1999) p102

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