DLGP

Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Back to God

Written by: on March 31, 2022

This week’s study focuses on two important works: Vincent Miller’s 2008 book, Consuming Religion: Religious Belief and Practice in a Consumer Culture, and Jason Clark’s 2018 thesis, Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogenesis in the Relationship. I was unable to access Consuming Religion as it is only available in print; and, unfortunately, my local postal system is not yet efficient with time-sensitive delivery of international parcels. That said, a professor at Fuller Seminary describes Consuming Religion as “one of the best” critiques of contemporary culture[1]. This is not surprising as Miller is a university professor and widely published author of several books, articles and book chapters focusing on catholic theology and other related subjects.

The sixth chapter of Clark’s doctoral thesis, Rival Ascetics of Desire: Beyond the Eucharist is a map of the overlap between Christianity and capitalism. It makes several important observations, some of which will be discussed below. After an in-depth discussion of commodification and consumerism, Clark remarks that “we [followers of Jesus] will only know who we really are by re-ordering” our lives to conform to the “life, death and resurrection of Jesus[2].” In other words, our identity can become so compromised by consumerism that we lose consciousness of our essence, responsibilities, position, privileges and authority. The parable of the prodigal son highlights this situation with the younger son claiming his inheritance prematurely, disconnecting from family, living recklessly and reflecting no resemblance of people from the stable and respectable family he came from. Fortunately, one day he “came to his senses” and decided to re-order his life[3]. Similarly, followers of Jesus trapped in today’s consumer culture could find themselves out of touch with their Christian identity, and in need of a radical decision to reject being “conformed to this world[4]” by adopting a mindset that aligns with the character of Jesus. In The Two Cities Augustine describes conformation to Christ as citizenship of a heavenly city and suggests that it is propelled by love for God[5].  Therefore, love for God, as illustrated by the examples of the older son and the transformed younger son in the parable discussed earlier, fosters intimacy with God in addition to strengthening our identity. In The Great Transformation Polanyi shows how the effect of consumerism does not merely stop at compromising human identity but may also precipitate wars, economic crisis, and underdevelopment [6]. Perhaps this is why a thread of caution exists throughout scripture about the subject: from rejecting the forbidden fruit, to not coveting one’s neighbor’s goods, to living with contentment. As a generation, our focus has shifted from love for God to a consumer culture.

Clark also observes that in view of the above, both developing nations and capitalistic western nations suffer as a result of consumerism. Developing nations suffer from more obvious challenges such as inadequate food, shelter, and other physiological needs (as indicated in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[7]). On the other hand, western capitalist nations struggle with the “bondage” of crafting an identity within a culture of consumerism[8]. In other words, generally speaking, for affluent nations, western or otherwise, their identity in Christ becomes marred by a new identity in materialism. Accordingly, Clark cautions us not to “decry current western economic pressures as insignificant, compared to the developing world[9]. One contemporary consequence of consumerism among the affluent on both sides of the divide is addiction to technology and social media. In some cases, this addiction has impacted negatively on the health of marriages, families, organizations, and even churches.

Within my context, religious commodification comes in various forms including, but not limited to, the merchandising of holy water, anointing oil, and even prayer. Desperate individuals seeking employment, marriage, promotion, children, visas, business contracts, protection and other blessings are often prepared to pay spiritual leaders, within and outside the church, for services they believe will deliver these goods. It has brought a new twist on the maxim that desperate people take desperate measures. Needless to say, it is heart-breaking to watch how people are taken advantage of in these circumstances and gives me a little appreciation of why Jesus went into the temple and radically overthrew the tables of the money changers[10]. It is my hope that a new crop of spiritual leaders will arise in this generation with the wisdom, courage and grace to address the mindless commodification of religion and align society back to God.

[1] Taylor, David O. Review of Vincent Miller’s Consuming Region. 2010.  http://artspastor.blogspot.com/2010/03/review-of-vincent-millers-consuming.html

[2] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018) Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary, 236.

[3] Luke 15:11-32

[4] Romans 12:1-2

[5]Ryan, Allan. On Augustine: The Two Cities. (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), 138.

[6] Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 99, 20, 15.

[7] Westman, Lyn. Understanding People, Mental Health and Trauma. (Unpublished manuscript, 2019), 8.

[8] Clark, 236

[9]Clark, 236

[10] Mark 11:15-18

About the Author

mm

Henry Gwani

Disciple, husband, father, community development practitioner and student of leadership working among marginalized communities in South Africa

7 responses to “Back to God”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Henry, thanks for another insightful post! I really appreciated this observation: “Clark also observes that in view of the above, both developing nations and capitalistic western nations suffer as a result of consumerism.” Culture brings challenge no matter the setting. As someone who lives in a Western nation and the issue of identity looms, what advice would you give to a pastor to help people develop an identity centered and growing in Christ versus consumeristic faith?

    • mm Henry Gwani says:

      Roy, you’re always so gracious. About pastoring in a context where identity looms, my counsel would be that you intentionally model and promote (through teaching, preaching, counselling, policies, etc) being first and foremost a follower of Jesus and secondly an American, medical practitioner, etc. Another suggestion would be to facilitate a discussion/interactive Bible study on being a follower of Jesus within a consumer culture. The ideas that emerge could be a launching pad for developing a healthy identity in these challenging times

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Henry, great syntopical post!! I really appreciate your stringing together these different considerations.

    The way in which you see commodification in your context is so interesting, and sad, as it really has been commodified! Are there other ways that you see Miller’s arguments have impacted the work of the church or nonprofit?

  3. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Much much thanks Eric. It is sad indeed. Another way I have heard of the gospel being commodified is in how high profile preachers request how much their honorariums would be before they come to preach. I think the way it works is that small churches invite this high profile individual whose reputation is supposed to attract large crowds. The guest then discusses a figure he expects to be given, I think in some cases in advance. Very sad!! I imagine this does not happen anymore, especially with key leaders speaking against this; Covid; etc. It was also not the case everywhere. May God help us to always walk on the straight and narrow path.

  4. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Henry thank for your connections to Augustine and Polyani. As you consider your context, ” Desperate individuals seeking employment, marriage, promotion, children, visas, business contracts, protection and other blessings are often prepared to pay spiritual leaders, within and outside the church, for services they believe will deliver these goods”, how would John 10:1-10 be understood? Does it help or hinder when you consider the identity struggle?

  5. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Henry: I also picked up on Clark’s point that developing nations also have struggles with consumerism like Capitalistic, Western countries do. The problem is linked to the human heart not the economic development of any particular country. The approach to combat this tendency in fallen human nature and to turn people into disciples of Jesus will vary from culture to culture but the goal is the same. To build the Kingdom of God.

  6. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Henry,
    Thank you for another well documented and written post. I am particularly drawn to your impressions on the topic of identity. You mentioned the impacted of commodification on the identity of the people you serve. I am interested to learn ways you have or are looking to implement to create an environment of redemptive identity.

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