During the Zoo TV U2 international tour in the early 90s, Bono would often appear on stage for a few songs as MacPhisto. Wearing gaudy, glittering golden clothes and red devil horns, Bono would ape the devil while money fell from the sky and pop-culture images flashed in the background. For many Christians (including me) used to the earnestness of U2 and their sincere songs about faith and justice, the appearance of MacPhisto was jarring and confusing. Unfortunately, Christians often fail to notice art, nuance, and irony. Later Bono revealed that the inspiration for MacPhisto was C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, and the point of his satanic parody was to show the world what the devil was using to fool and enslave the world: consumerism.
This week our D.Min cohort was tasked with reflecting on Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction by Anthony Elliott. Elliott surveys the dominant forms and movements of modern social theory, which as Elliott defines, is the “attempt to engage with major social problems.” In a sense, it is the interpretation of the how, why and what of societies and human interactions. For this reason, social theory often connects and overlaps with philosophy and for that matter theology. One thing, that really struck a personal chord, was how so much social theory leads to developing a clear discernment for what is wrong in human societies and a yearning for how these wrongs can be righted. Whether intended or consequential, much of social theory seems to busy itself with seeking solutions to problems. It not only explains, but it like theology also offers solutions.
One particular school of thought which is of particular importance to our day and age is the Frankfurt School. It is in the locus of Frankfurt School, Bono and C.S. Lewis that I believe we can come to some significant theological observations and questions about our current global state. Developed initially through the thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School essentially tries to understand the role of the individual within the Western system. They propose that man’s faith in reason (and rejection of myth and tradition) have essentially locked man in a closed and repressive system of reason’s own making, or “administered society.” This system strips down true humanity through a “standardized, monotonous mass culture.” Marcuse developed this idea further as a critique of capitalism, which forces humanity into an efficient conveyor belt of producer/buyer and exploiter/exploited. Man is therefore only free in more natural states of individualism bounded by creativity and intimacy. Humanity must be free of an oppressive (but un-felt) crushing system that strips away true humanity, while finding freedom in individuality (often tied to sexuality) and true community.
The Frankfurt School, while being overly influenced and biased by Marxism, still makes some startling clear truth claims about the nature of our modern society and humanity, which correspond strongly to a Christian perspective. Moreover, the movement was amazingly prophetic in its ability to predict the runaway consumerism that plagues our world, and its rapid rise through global capitalism. Jesus also spoke against finding our truth in the worship of false idols, namely money. Our Western culture has often thrown its hope in capitalism and “the markets.” Identity and meaning are now found in what we buy and wear. People are still as focused on making and generating as much money as possible. Are the secular prophets of the Frankfurt School correct in their appraisal of capitalism as that which crushes true humanity? Is the prophetic rock star true in his critique that Satan is using mass consumerism to enslave and distract?
As Christian leaders we need to be able to look critically and prophetically at our societies and call people to leave their idols and addictions, to break from the system into following the true King. Jesus did often speak of freedom and a lifestyle that was separate, by the way. Are we willing to even slay the sacred cows of capitalism and consumerism within our own cultures and lives? Is the Western evangelical church too connected to the system to critique it?
Still, I am left asking some questions. Is capitalism truly the problem? Surely on its worst day it has brought us fast food, growing inequality, and the exploitation of humanity? But, on its best day it has brought innovation and the ability to construct avenues of personal and societal improvement? Would I have the creativity and freedom available to me through a personal computer without it? Does not capitalism also grant immense opportunities for personal freedom and creativity? Is the problem really new, and developing from capitalism? Or have humans always been capable of greed, idolizing money, and exploitation? Is the problem then more spiritual than economic and systemic? Do we need to see capitalism and consumerism through spiritual lenses? Are we trapped in a world system controlled by Satan? Have we so accepted reason, that Lewis’ warning about the real dangers of personal spiritual evil in Satan fall on deaf ears? Do we need to teach our churches to better discern, and to Christianize capitalism? Can we relate Christian ethics to consumerism and capitalism? Is that even possible? Does the consumerism and capitalism that Bono mocks, not also make it possible for him to convey his message to millions? Is there an order in all of this disorder?
Quite possibly, Anthony Giddens offers a more balanced understanding of capitalism, and the equilibrium between individuals and systemic society. Perhaps with a more nuanced understanding of our modern world, we can properly understand and address the issues of global capitalism from a Christian viewpoint.
Ultimately, we must remember our sacred calling to call human kind from worship of false idols into true humanity in relationship with God and others. The study of social theory can certainly help us here.