In “Consuming Religion,” Vincent J. Miller argues that the problem with a consumer culture and structure isn’t with belief but in its praxis. Nobody would argue that child exploitation for cheap products is good. A majority of folks active within Christianity can tell you what correct belief is, but that belief hasn’t trickled down to action. This disconnect happens because Christians have undergone decades of inculcation into a consumerist society at the expense of being deeply inculcated into a religious tradition. Consumerism is the lens through which they view everything, including their religious beliefs. Everything is a commodity. This allows Christians to pick and choose, which religious traditions they want to incorporate into their lives. Feeling gloomy? Just read a little Joel Osteen. Want to rail against corporate excess and the marginalization of workers? Wear your Mother Theresa meme shirt. Everything has lost its context and is defined and commoditized by its consumer.
I like Miller’s solution to this, a renewed formation and expression of one’s theology and communal tradition. Instead of selectively piecing together what we like, a little Catholic here, a little Baptist here, a little Buddhist Zen here, we need to rediscover our traditions to the fullest extent possible. For Catholics and some other denominations, there is a much larger metanarrative and tradition that can help form and shape people. There’s much to be gleaned from them.
What symbols/narratives/saintly examples of my tradition, which is Baptist, can we reclaim to ‘free’ people from a consumerist mindset and give them a telos from which to understand and view their relationship with products within a consumer society? Unfortunately, Baptist often want to focus on the parts of traditional practice that are least helpful in inculcating someone and giving them the framework and skills to resist a consumer mentality. For example, we’ve been known to split over whether we should use guitars or drums in worship. We’ve been great at majoring on things that don’t matter. Furthermore we don’t have an exhaustive theological framework (like Catholics) that governs virtually every aspect of belief. We subscribe to traditional orthodox teachings (Trinity, Jesus, etc.), but we are fiercely and sometimes too independent. With that said, there are traditional Baptist tenets that can help our actions and beliefs match up.
The first is soul competency. It’s the belief that we have to choose our faith. It’s not something that’s done for us, but it is something we must own. Each person is responsible for his or her own response to God’s offering of salvation. Unfortunately, we often act as if nothing matters once that decision to follow Jesus has been made. We forget that our choices and actions after we profess Christ still matter! Christ didn’t just come so that we could go to heaven but to put the world back together. When we remember the cosmic scope of the salvation we committed ourselves to, it exhorts us to live differently in every aspect. Nothing is outside the scope of salvation, not even economics.
Second, Missions has always been an important focus for Baptists. Many have decided to follow God’s call to another country to witness to the resurrection of Christ. One of the most famous Baptist Missionaries is Lottie Moon. Lottie was born into an affluent family but decided to give up her worldly wealth to become a missionary to China. Today, she’s used as a rallying cry to raise money. Many don’t really know her story and how her actions made a difference, not only in China, but also among Baptist beliefs and action in the United States. Retelling her story (and the story of others) gives followers of Jesus concrete examples of rejecting the status quo and choosing to live differently in a way that seeks to bless the world and not just consume it.
What elements of your tradition can help reframe the consumerism conversation?