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

Consumer Spirituality

Written by: on February 21, 2013

Catholic theologian Vincent J. Miller unpacks the intersection of religion and consumerism in Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.  The strong point to Miller’s sketch is the depth and breadth of how he draws late modern capitalism, globalization, postmodernism, and Western Christianity together to show how culture has become fully commoditized.  Here his thesis at its most essential is that: “Beyond the excesses of consumerism lie cultural dynamisms that incline people to engage religious beliefs as if they were consumer commodities (225).”  This statement is ripe with insight, meaning, and extrapolation, but it also needs unpacking.

Miller starts by showing the development of capitalistic-consumer society, and in agreement with Polanyi, dislocated production and work, making everything a commodity, and generally altering traditional stability of work, community, and trade.  Capitalist societies needed labor and consumers, and at a rapid pace, thus the rise of Fordism, and the removal of commodities (things to be bought) from its rootedness in actual production and tradition.  In this began the great abstraction of society, culture, symbols, products, etc.  The production to market to consumer chain became seamless and invisible… full abstraction.  At the same time, the need to sell within an abstraction and the rise of marketing meant that businesses became managers of consumption or quite literally “captains of consciousness (44).”  As production ramped up, consumption also had to ramp up, whether there was need or not.  Design, style, narrative, and ambiance were used to sell products (over and above utility).  One can feel the coolness of Don Draper in full effect here, the calm charm of the American boom generation in perfect nostalgic advertising, with all the dysfunction and greed simmering just below the surface. 

Desire becomes the clay in the hands of the potters of the consumer society.  Desire however is corrupted and perverted into desire, not just for things, but for the need to feel desire for things.  As the West moved into the postmodern epoch, the commodification of culture took on an ever increasing intensification with the rise of the information age (content becomes commodity), globalization (otherness becomes commodity), and the simulacrum, or over intensification of signs and spectacle (experience becomes commodity) fully abstracted from traditional meaning or use leads to three societal issues.  Firstly, we are at “near constant consumption” in the Western world, so that to live, to be human is to consume.  Secondly, the full fragmentation of all desire into many different sources, played upon the consumerist ploys of seduction and misdirection.  Desire is decoupled from God and now found only in the experience.  Thirdly, the rise through marketing, postmodernism, and hyper individualism of our fragmenting, abstracted culture of the therapeutic self, as the be and end all of human existence.  That is people have now been trained to fulfill their desires of community, identity, happiness and meaning, in the consumptive world of marketing. 

For Christianity, these shifts have been particularly jarring.  The rise of a consumerist society which commodifies culture has meant that now religion is consumed and commoditized as well.  This even is helped along by the celebrity status of religious figures and their own use of marketing.  Moreover, in the postmodern, globalized world, “elements of tradition are interpreted, engaged, and used in abstraction of disembedded from ‘their’ traditional moorings- from historic creeds and doctrines, from broad symbolic universe, from religious community (91).”  This of course is the height of postmodernism.  The bricolage approach to life where the past and present are picked over, and people are allowed to create their own realities and identities from scratch.  Here religion becomes de-regulated and de-institutionalized, faith becomes hyper-individualized and traditional church structures become unstable and insecure.  (At the same time the de-regulation of the church may also be a blessing opening the experience of authentic faith to many more).  One wonders if perhaps Ross Douthat missed a large part of his thesis in not identifying another element of bad religion as the consumer society base of the West.   In this society, being a Christian is no longer about taking up one’s cross, but is about finding satisfaction in consumption.  It is no longer a desire for God, but a desire of accumulating.  It is no longer identity rooted in community and tradition, but identity rooted in self.  Miller shines a bright light on the religion of consumption that we are all so wrapped up in.

U2 also prophetically saw this cultural shift of the confusion and entanglement of faith and consumption in their song, “The Playboy Mansion:”

If coke is a mystery
Michael Jackson, history
If beauty is truth
And surgery the fountain of youth…

What am I to do?
Have I got the gifts to get me through
The gates of that mansion?

If O.J. is more than a drink
And a Big Mac bigger than you think
And perfume is an obsession
And talk shows– confession

What have we got to lose?
Another push and we’ll be through
The gates of that mansion.

I never bought a lotto ticket
I never parked in anyone’s space.
The banks they’re like cathedrals
I guess casinos took their place.

Love, come on down
Don’t wake her she’ll come around.

Chance is a kind of religion
Where you’re damned for plain hard luck.
I never did see that movie
I never did read that book.
Love, come on down
Let my numbers come around.

Don’t know if I can hold on
Don’t know if I’m that strong.
Don’t know if I can wait that long
Till the colours come flashing
And the lights go on.

Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
Though I can’t say why
I know I’ve got to believe.

We’ll go driving in that pool
It’s who you know that gets you through
The gates of the playboy mansion.

Then will there be no time for sorrow
Then will there be no time for shame
Then will there be no time for pain

But, Miller is not pessimistic.  He sees consumer society as an opportunity, and he sees cracks in the system.  Miller argues that the system is not closed and that agency can make a difference.  People can rise up within the system and build communities that turn the system on its head to make a positive change through communal and cultural agency.

I want to leave this post with an example of how the commodification of culture can be used to actually create cultural agency for good.  The band quoted above has sold millions of albums, and been at the apex of the intersection of consumption, art, style, and cool.  Yet, they have also used their celebrity and cultural cache to challenge politicians and fans alike to take up the cause of poverty, the widow and the orphan, and those suffering with AIDS.  Through their music and influence they were able to create a grassroots movement that turned marketing and globalization into an ongoing campaign to change the world.  I personally know people in Africa who would be dead, if it were not for U2’s belief that only when we disentangle faith from consumption will there truly be an eschatological time of no pain.

I leave you with a cry from U2 to cultural agency, from their song “Standup Comedy:”

Out from under your beds
C’mon ye people 
Stand up for your love

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