Christ and Consumer Culture
We are all consumers. As finite, dependent, embodied human beings, all of us need goods and services to survive, flourish, and enjoy the lives we each possess. For Americans, the vast majority of our consumption comes by means of the wages we receive from our employers, rather than home production as in agrarian societies. So the simple question arises, “How should Christian congregations and individuals faithfully engage with the modern market economy as consumers?”1
This four part series, I hope, will be an example of fulfilling Conciliar Post’s goal of “serious reflection upon matters of theological importance.”2 After all, what could be of more theological importance than consumption, an act which we perform many times a day, which reflects the desires of our guts and hearts? The angle of engagement I take in this series is not one of public policy concerns or capitalism vs. socialism debates, but of day-to-day practices such as eating, entertaining, and transporting. The series will follow a general pattern of presenting a problem for the consumer in the modern market economy, and how the resources of the Christian tradition call us into “concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space—the space marked by the body of Christ.”3
In the modern market economy, there is no monarch, dictator, or bureaucracy charged with the task of planning the production and distribution of goods and services. When we enter the shopping mall or grocery store, Barack Obama does not hand each of us a list of rations to pick off of the shelves. So, in a certain sense, the American economy is free. The whims of the consumer are not constrained by an outside force. Milton Friedman, in his book Capitalism and Freedom, argues that this freedom is of the utmost importance to protect and promote. He explains, “So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another with respect to most of his activities.”4 “Freedom of exchange,” then, allows each person to purchase according to their desires, free to purchase toward any perceived end the consumer deems favorable.5
I want to argue that the freedom of the market should be met with unease by Christians. This conception of the “free” market, assumes its virtue to be a mere freedom from coercion, outside of any conception of a freedom for an objective end. William Cavanaugh, following Augustine, argues that when “a free market has no telos, that is, no common end to which desire is directed,”6 the desires of consumers become enslaved to the spirit of the age, in our case the spirit of consumerism.7 If we believe, as the Westminster Confession states, that all of creation is called to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever,”8 then we must first recognize that the market is a creature9 and then second reject the spirit of the age, for it does not conform to the order toward which it was created. Freedom of consumption, to conclude, outside of an objective telos given to us by the creator God, is thus an idolatry of, and enslavement to, our own autonomy.
In the world of the Incarnation, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”10 Every square inch, every dollar and cent, every consumption of a good, is to be “conformed to the image of his Son.”11 If this is true, then for the Christian there is a telos for this world and thus for our interaction with the market. Furthermore, this purpose for consumption, glorifying and enjoying God, is not of our own making, but is one that we receive. In this reception, we are given eyes to see that “the church as a people of God who live in a [consumer culture] but are not of such a [culture] is called to inspire a distinctively ecclesial set of economic practices… that anticipate the future economy of the kingdom, while working as a leaven within the present market system.”12
So, given that the market has a telos, imbued by its divine creator, what does this mean for Christian congregations and individuals who long to faithfully consume within the modern market economy?
Catholic theologian and economist Mary Hirschfeld argues that faithful consumption requires recognizing that “material goods are valuable only insofar as they are ordered toward virtue.”13 This statement has many implications, though here I will focus on one. Hirschfeld argues that we must learn to see our consumption decisions as a sort of art, learning to ask whether our purchases conform to a harmonious vision for our families, homes, and lifestyle.14 She sets up a hypothetical situation involving two families wanting to purchase a dishwasher for the kitchen. The first family decides against the purchase, recognizing that though the dishwasher would save labor, the time would be valuable to connect the family in a common purpose each night. The second family loves to spend certain nights entertaining guests at their home, and thus purchases the dishwasher, seeing it as important in order to spend quality time with their friends.
In both cases, the families discerned what virtues their home was ordered towards, and directed their consumption patterns towards this harmonious vision. The two families were able to see their purchases not as autonomous decisions defined by their freedom, but as participation in the received telos of the glorification of God.
To conclude, this vision of faithful consumption, as participation in the divine telos for creation, is both restful and convicting. It is restful in that Christians are not tied to the desires of the spirit of the age, but are beckoned by a purpose that is not of their own making. However, we American Christians must see the call to faithful consumption as one that is not to be taken lightly, for the pulls of status, novelty, and individualism are so pervasive in our modern consumer culture. May the Holy Spirit give us both rest in the gospel and conviction in this broken world.
View Sources 1. I hope that I do not come across as pretentious in this series. One may rightly question how a privileged twenty-one year old, who has never held a 9-5 or lived in the real world, has any authority to be raising such questions. Hopefully, my writing will be one of exploration, rather than confirmation that I have it all figured out. I think Hirschfeld’s argument of faithful consumption as art, explained below, is a humbling one, recognizing that we can’t, as sinners within a sinful world and economy, perfectly consume. Photo taken from Damien du Toit at flickr.com
2.“About,” Conciliar Post, accessed August 16, 2014, conciliarpost.com/about
3. William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), viii
4. Milton Friedman. Capitalism and Freedom, (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1962), 14
5. Frank Stilwell. Political Economy: The Contest of Economic Ideas, (South Melbourne: Oxford, 2002), 158
The neoclassical economist would assume each consumer’s end to be “utility maximization.”
6. William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 5
7. Laura M. Hartman. The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World, (New York: Oxford UP, 2011), 6
I utilize Laura M. Hartman’s definition of consumerism in this series, “an ethos—a collection of attitudes, values, and cultural constructs—that places great value on shopping and consumption, such that consumption defines the parameters of the good life and the ultimate goals of the human, and a concomitant lack of attention to the moral dimension of consumption.”
8. Westminster Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 1, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Accessed August 16, 2014. http://www.opc.org/sc.html
9. D. Stephen Long, Nancy Ruth Fox, and Tripp York. Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics, and Economics, (Waco: Baylor UP, 2007), 7
10. Abraham Kuyper, Ed. James D. Bratt., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488
11. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved. ESV Text Edition: 2011. Romans 8:29
12. Helen Rhee. Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 209
13. Mary Hirschfeld. “From a Theological Frame to a Secular Frame: How Historical Context Shapes our Understanding of the Principles of Catholic Social Thought,” in The True Wealth of Nations: Catholic Social Thought and Economic Life, edited by Daniel K. Finn, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010), 183
14. Ibid. 189
1. I hope that I do not come across as pretentious in this series. One may rightly question how a privileged twenty-one year old, who has never held a 9-5 or lived in the real world, has any authority to be raising such questions. Hopefully, my writing will be one of exploration, rather than confirmation that I have it all figured out. I think Hirschfeld’s argument of faithful consumption as art, explained below, is a humbling one, recognizing that we can’t, as sinners within a sinful world and economy, perfectly consume.
Photo taken from Damien du Toit at flickr.com