Christ and Consumer Culture: Stuff and Salvation
One of the standard narratives of today’s age is that Americans are obsessed with stuff. We are said to be hedonistic materialistic monsters that will stop at nothing to possess the next new thing. In this critique of the current day and age, we are all the rich young ruler of Matthew 19, rejecting Christ due to our attachment with our many possessions. In our consumer culture, as Bill McKibben argues, we are compelled to believe the reason for human existence is “the constant accumulation of stuff.”1 The affluence and consumer culture of America leads to the purchase of more and more things, having us to find pleasure in created things instead of the Creator.
In this article, I want to argue that this narrative is insufficient. The primary problem with consumerism, rather than being the obsession with stuff, is the restlessness that accompanies the never ending pursuit of more stuff. Detachment from things, not attachment to them, is what characterizes the age in which we live. The gospel of Jesus Christ, by contrast, offers rest in what we already have.
William Cavanaugh, in his book Being Consumed, explains the plight of the consumer in the current market economy. Capitalistic entrepreneurship continually brings newer, more exciting, “better” products to the shelves, and at the same time mass marketing provides thousands of advertising images to our eyes each day. We live in a sea of lack, continually being told we “need” the new product or service that will reconnect the family, bring to our side beautiful women, and give us notoriety amongst our peers. Cavanaugh explains how this ubiquity of lack affects the desires of the consumer, producing in us a restlessness in the pursuit for “endless superficial novelty,”2 for “consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is at the heart of consumerism.” 3 The pursuit, rather than the product itself, becomes that which is to be desired. Shoes quickly move from “fresh” to “dirty,” clothes move from “fashionable” to “ten years ago,” technology moves from “high tech” to “low tech,” and on and on we desire what we don’t have.
Mary Hirschfeld provides another angle to this restlessness, explaining the problem of America’s spending habits in the midst of rising standards of living.4 She explains,
“Twenty years ago we didn’t need personal computers or cell phones. Now we do. Twenty years from now we will possess things out of necessity that we haven’t the faintest idea of desiring today. The rising tide of “need” keeps pace with our rising income, and there is never much distance between the two. As a result there is not much “abundance” available to be shared with those in real material need.”5
As our incomes increase, so do our expenses, and so do our feelings of what we “need.” In the modern market economy, the human being acts as if her desires are insatiable, never able to be content in what she owns. Saint Ambrose’s exhortation in the fourth century becomes incredibly pertinent in light of American spending habits, “A possession ought to belong to the possessor, not the possessor to the possession.”6
In contrast to the restlessness associated with modern consumer culture, the good news of Jesus Christ calls us to pursue what we already possess. Instead of prompting us into detachment, a ubiquity of lack, and a rising sense of “need,” the gospel prompts us to attachment to the grace received in both our creation and our salvation. In our union with Christ, Paul says “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”7 Within this state of possession of being declared righteous, of being justified, we are then called to pursue righteousness. The letter to the Hebrews explains this paradox, “For we who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3), while also saying “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11).8 The paradox lies in the pursuit of what we already possess, as we are given the righteousness of Christ, while also being called to imitate Christ who is righteous.
Ok, so what? Consumer culture prompts us into detachment from our possessions within a growing sense of need, while the gospel prompts us into attachment to the grace we possess by faith, calling us to desire all the more what we already have. Aside from being a neat theological contrast, what does this practically mean for Christians who long to be faithful consumers?
First, financial literacy and stewardship have to be seen as a critical part of discipleship. William Cavanaugh summarizes the first part of my argument well, “most people are not overly attached to things, and most are not obsessed with hoarding riches. Indeed, the United States has one of the lowest savings rates of any wealthy country, and we are the most indebted society in history.”9 It is imperative that Christians, as St. Ambrose exhorts, be in control of what they possess. Budgeting, long-term saving and investing, and giving a significant portion of our income is a critical means for the American Christian to combat the spirit of the age. Let that sink in for a moment. The giving away of our money to the poor displays that we are in control of it, for we are not enslaved to the spirit of the age. Thus, the stewardship of our finances trains us to see them as “graced,” a gift from God that is then to be put towards the work (rest!) of the Lord.
Second, in our fast-paced culture we must learn to have gratitude. As we eat each meal, literally consuming graced creation, we must learn to savor and give thanks for what God has given us. As ecotheologian Matthew Fox sees it, “If we savored more, we would buy less. We would be less compulsive, less unsatisfied…If we savored more, we would communicate more deeply, relate more fully, compete less regularly, and celebrate more authentically.”10 In this light, we begin to have gratitude for what we already have, learning to appreciate what God has given us. This will mean both appreciating the goods we already possess (and sometimes giving them away!) and also learning to purchase well, a topic covered in part four of this series.
Third, for Christian business leaders and entrepreneurs, the products we produce and the companies we become involved with should not be additions to the rising sense of need, but as significant additions to the lives of human beings. Certainly this necessitates discernment, having wisdom to know which products and services contribute to the restlessness of consumer culture, and which reflect the pursuit of the goodness of God.
To conclude, the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us into an attachment to the grace received in creation and salvation. Attachment to this grace will mean pursuing that which we already possess, setting up budgets that reflect restful ways of putting money to use, having gratitude in the products we own and the food we consume, and taking part in companies and products that truly contribute to the common good.