This week we had the great opportunity to read two, count them, TWO, books. Monday night I went to my book shelf to pull out the two assigned books. But wait! One was missing. Apparently I failed to order it. It was not on the shelf. What to do, what to do? I promptly turned on my computer and started browsing the Powell’s City of Books web site. I could pick up a copy of the missing book the next day. But then another glimpse of brilliance hit me: I have a Kindle. Why not get the Kindle version? Two minutes and $2.99 later, the book had been “whispered” to my Kindle and I was ready to start reading.
I must admit, at moments like that I appreciate our consumer society. I want something and BAM! I have it. Immediate gratification. There is goodness in some things. But that instant gratification has come at a cost. Someone, somewhere, lost their job because paper publications are down. Small, independent booksellers have closed because Amazon has everything and will either deliver it to my door, or my Kindle, as quick as I need it. It’s more efficient. But is it good? Or is good determined by something else?
Over the past weeks we have read about the market economy, the impact of the Protestant work ethic, and the rise of consumerism. We have considered how the church can engage effectively in public dialogue, and develop theology that responds to the context (not shaped by, but communicated in a way that has meaning given the context). But what if the church becomes ineffective because it too has been caught up in the consumer driven, market economy? What if our symbols and cultural objects become objectified and lose their meaning because they have been commodified into decorative ornaments? Vincent Miller argues that this is exactly what has happened: our cultural/religious symbols of faith have been co-opted by the market economy.[i] Not only that, our churches function as the market does. We design our services to meet the needs of a niche market. People “shop” for the church that best suits their style preferences. We look for efficiencies in how we manage the church structure, and measure our success by numbers rather than relationship and transformation.
There are multiple features of the consumer economy that impact not only what we buy and how we buy, but our very identity. Miller walks the reader through a progression which he identifies as the commodification of culture. As we became industrialized and urbanized, we became alienated from our creative power: we stopped making our own things (food, shelter, clothing) and our sense of meaning was removed from our work. Labor came to be exchanged for wages.[ii] Our time was invested in paid labor and we began to buy the things that we needed. The move away from multi-generational living to single family homes led to “social isolation, narrowed political and social concern, and the fragmentation of culture.”[iii] Work, everyday life, became mundane, and we learned to buy things to create identity, fill our wants, and create demand for products. Which created more work.
Not only did people become more isolated and alienated, but the things that we buy became abstracted. We no longer know who grew our food, built our houses, or designed and sewed our clothes. To create efficiency in the market, the cheapest labor is from bought somewhere around the globe. Food production became dependent on what will grow quickly and be resistant to disease. I have long joked that I prefer my meat packaged because I don’t want to know the name of the cow or chicken that it came from. If I don’t know, I don’t have to feel bad that it died. But Miller argues that there is more to the story. The reality is I don’t know the name of the woman who worked 16 hours for 33 cents an hour in Honduras to sew my jeans. So I don’t feel bad. I don’t know the name of the boy who worked 14 hours for 54 cents an hour in China putting together my decorative frame. So I don’t feel bad. And that is part of Miller’s point. We don’t know. We are isolated. We are alienated. Our “stuff” is objectified and abstracted. It is removed from its cultural meaning and practices and it’s just stuff. We are alone and disconnected and we use stuff to create identity, belonging and meaning.
That’s a sad picture.
But I found hope in Cavanaugh’s writing. For the past three days since I read Being Consumed[iv] I have been processing his description of the Eucharist in a whole new light. Cavanaugh presents the idea that when we consume the Eucharist, we not only consume the body of Christ – Jesus – but the body of Christ – the church. We become one with the body, the church. When we become one with the body, we feel the pain and joy of each member. We become connected to one another in a new way. Cavanaugh suggests multiple results of this consumption. If when we consume the Eucharist we become one with the body of Christ, then we, like Jesus, are called to be consumed by the world.[v] In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the hungry, and the imprisoned. “The pain of the hungry person is the pain of Christ, and it is thus also the pain of anyone who is a member of the body of Christ.”[vi]
In Christ I have belonging, meaning, and identity. In the church I have both local and global community. I am identified with all those who call on His name. I am identified with all those whom Christ loves. This becomes a foundation for identity, for ministry, and for consumption. I am consumed.
Cavanaugh writes, “The ownership of property is not about power, and the wide distribution of property is not about a greater equilibrium of power. Rather, property has an end, which is to serve the common good.”[vii] Part of the challenge then is to re-connect with the origins of stuff. Who made it? How was it grown? Where did it come from? This gives a face to the product; a human connection. It also allows me to be intentional about what I buy. The other part of the challenge is to use the things that I have, my resources, for the benefit of not just myself, but for the community. There is a third challenge: to communicate this message to the body of Christ. If we are to change how the church has been commodified and co-opted, we have to provide both an understanding of what this means and how it happened, as well as alternatives to change the culture and our ministry.
These are not easy challenges. It’s not easy to find out where our stuff comes from. [viii]Educating the church simply from a socio-political point of view can be controversial. However, this idea of consuming and being consumed through identifying with Christ through the Eucharist is a start.
[i] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, (New York: Bloomsbury), 2003, rep. 2013.
[ii] Miller, p 34, 35.
[iii] Ibid, 48.
[iv] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 2008, Kindle Edition.
[v] Ibid, loc 882.
[vi] Ibid, loc. 611.
[vii] Ibid, loc 345.
[viii] I did happen upon a couple of tips today for your consideration with regard to where food comes from: this great video from the Rainforest Alliance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iIkOi3srLo ),and an interesting blog about Trader Joe’s product “transparency” (http://foodbabe.com/2013/08/07/what-is-trader-joes-hiding/ ).