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

Desire, Commodification, and Religious Practice

Written by: on March 31, 2022

As I read Vincent J. Miller’s “Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture,” I couldn’t help but think of Spider-Man 3 and the identity struggle that ensues when Peter Parker’s Spider Man bonds with the Symbiote.[1] Perhaps this connection was also encouraged as I read Jason Clark’s engagement with Miller’s central thesis.[2] Clark writes:

“As Lyotard predicted, modernity has fragmented into ever new modernisms, until we are left with a war of all against all, and I suggest, arrive at a war of self against self. The sheer energy required for creating a self and life within the consumerism of late capitalism leave little left for creating Christian identity. Moreover, commodification is more likely to result in the resources of Christian faith being consumed as raw materials for creating this consumer identity.”

This paints a pretty bleak picture of the impact commodification has on how self-identified Christians living in the milieu of consumerism practice their faith. Miller contends that his book “…focuses on…how the habits of consumption transform our relationship to the religious beliefs we profess.”[3] He focuses on commodification as being a key “cultural dynamism” since the late eighteenth century, even as he acknowledges its intersection with many other critical dynamisms at work in the world today.[4] Miller believes commodification is worthy of his focused attention because it is so resistant to any form of ideological or theological critique. Instead, it simply turns critique into the next marketing hook to sell more stuff to religious (and not so religious) people feed up with consumerism. He uses the magazine “Real Simple” as an example of the insidious nature of commodification and its resistance to critique.[5]

Do you feel the Symbiote taking over yet? Miller does, and this is why he writes this book. His hope is to “…provide guidance for living a more authentically Christian life in a culture that is neither entirely Christian in its logic nor entirely alien.”[6] Or, perhaps, in line with Agarwal’s “Sway,”[7] guidance that allows us to become more conscious of the ways in which commodification influences so much in our lives.

Miller uses an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, thorough notes, and a detailed index to walk the reader through the methodology of examining the relationship between religion and culture, the ways in which social institutions like the single-family home support commodification, the impact of commodification on religious symbols and the resultant diminishing influence of religious traditions in the public square and in the lives of individuals, the nature of desire, the political value of consumer desire as it is worked out through the practice of bricolage (“the piecing together of meaning through the consumption of religious symbols”[8]), and finally, practical suggestions for how religious traditions can help people navigate the extremes of consumer culture in a more conscious, deliberate, and critical manner. His book is classified under the broad religion, psychology, and philosophy umbrella of the Library of Congress and is specifically housed under Christianity with a focus on special topics.

His chapter on desire[9] especially caught my attention. Scripture references desire in one way or another at least 153 times. Miller writes in his introduction, “The problem arises not from conflicting goals of desire, for example, the love of God versus the love of things, but rather from the focus and texture of desire. Consumer desire is, surprisingly, not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself. It is the joy of endless seeking and pursuit.”[10] His words brought me right back to Lieberman and Long’s “Molecule of More.”[11] To what degree is commodification and consumerism driven by the addictive nature of brain chemistry and dopamine gone wild?

I found the most hope in his concluding chapter—practical steps that can be taken to navigate the extremes of consumerism and commodification. For example, paying attention to the sources of the things we buy and the impact their production has on the local communities where they are made. This draws us to attend to justice issues and to monitor our consumption. At a leadership level, I especially appreciated his call for those of us working in the world of theology to develop the skills and methods necessary to truly pay attention to the “implicit logics” of our communities’ practices “…and the texture of their daily lives.”[12] This challenges me to pay even more attention to the hermeneutical work of understanding deeply the community of Christ-followers I am called to serve among, the wider community/society of which they are a part, and the biblical text revealing the heart and ways of the Triune God.


[1] Miller, Vincent Jude. 2013. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Religion. Repr. New York: Continuum.

[2] Clark, Jason Paul, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018). Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary. 132. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132

[3] Miller, 11.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Agarwal, Pragya. 2021. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias. London: Bloomsbury Sigma.

[8] Muldoon, Timothy. P. Book Review. Downloaded from https://www.cambridge.org/core. George Fox University Library, on 30 Mar 2022 at 00:48:16, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, available at https://www.cambridge.org/core/terms. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0360966900001870, p. 462.

[9] Miller, 107ff.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Lieberman, Daniel Z, and Michael E Long. 2019. The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity-and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.

[12] Miller, 227.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

9 responses to “Desire, Commodification, and Religious Practice”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, such a rich post! This statement made me think long and hard: “To what degree is commodification and consumerism driven by the addictive nature of brain chemistry and dopamine gone wild?” Do you have any thoughts about the degree to which that is true? Also, knowing that you have lived and served in two very distinct cultures, what similarities and differences do you see between Lebanon and the US as it pertains identity and consumerism? I viewed Lebanon as a country in between rich and poor (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong after my brief visit there). It seems here we struggle with identity in Christ versus consumer identity. Is it similar or dissimilar in your experience abroad?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Roy. Thank you for your thoughtful questions.

      I don’t know to what degree commodification/consumerism is tied to dopamine/brain chemistry. But I have to wonder. Lieberman and Long write about the stimulation of dopamine in our system (specifically in this case stimulation brought about by either illicit drugs or prescription medications: “Most people who take these drugs do just fine, but about one in six patients gets into trouble with high-risk, pleasure-seeking behavior. Pathological gambling, hyper-sexuality, and compulsive shopping are the most common ways the excessive dopamine stimulation is seen. (p. 48)” All of these sectors of human experience/desire are also commodified by advertisers. If we don’t have real adventures to pursue, God-sized adventures towards which to direct our God-given dopamine hits (apart from drug use), then it seems a reasonable hypothesis to investigate to what degree consumerism fills that void. Your thoughts? What do you notice about this in some of the recovery work of which you are a part?

      To your second set of questions: Lebanon has been a middle income country for decades, up until the catastrophic economic collapse of the past two years. Consumerism/commodification is just as much a part of life there, as in the USA…it’s just that now the majority of people don’t have money to spend on life’s basics, let alone extras. We’ll see what impact this has on the culture over time. One distinction I have experienced is that for most people in Lebanon, their perspective on work is different from most people in the USA. In Lebanon, people tend to work in order to enjoy life with their family and friends. Their identity is broader than their work role. The first question in Lebanon is NOT “what do you do?” It is “who is your family?” In the USA, in most communities I have spent time in, the first question after introductions tends to be “what do you do?” We seem to place a different emphasis on work. Maybe that is more tied to what we’ve read about the Protestant work ethic? Of course, as we’ve seen, that too is wrapped up in what has become the out-sized role of capitalism, commodification, and consumerism in our lives.

      So much of this feels like a maze to me….a challenge to navigate and discern which path is dead-end and which leads to a life-giving way forward. To use a different metaphor, the different threads of influence wrap around each other in ways where it becomes difficult to distinguish them from one another.

  2. mm Eric Basye says:


    Excellent post. I have two thoughts. One, I also appreciate the consideration of “desire” and “pleasure.” Have you ever read “Desiring God” by John Piper? It has been many years since I read it, but it was very helpful in giving me a framework that God is a God of pleasure. Ps. 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of LIFE, in your presence there is fullness of JOY, and at your right hand are PLEASURES forevermore.” I Love that!

    My second thought, or observation rather, is the hope I heard in your post. I too have have and believe as leaders it is paramount we not give into to discouragement.

    Press on!

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Eric. Thank you for your comments and observations. I also thought about Piper’s book as I read Miller. I also read it several decades ago now, and it has left a long-term imprint on me regarding how I understand the nature of God and my relationship with God. There’s so much more to explore about desire–both in terms of how God has created us for desire and how that capacity gets co-opted by our commodification culture. What have you found helpful over the years for nourishing desire as God intended it–especially as you lead others and help them navigate the influences of commodification?

      I’m glad you heard a note of hope in my post. I have to admit I felt pretty discouraged between reading Jason’s dissertation and Miller. It feels daunting to keep pressing up against this amorphous blob of consumerism that shape-shifts so easily and quickly. But, I did really appreciate his emphasis on the need to do good grass-roots practical work with local communities. That feels like a helpful and tangible starting point or foundation…more effective that abstract critique of consumerism. What have you found effective for engaging this challenge?

  3. mm Andy Hale says:

    I’m digging the lay section of your post. That’s why I’ve constantly challenged the concept of a Christian company, whether it be Hobby Lobby or Chick-Fil-A. Slapping the label of Christian on something should come with the highest standards of production and wages from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the more you dig into some of these companies, the more you find the label has been used to raise profit margins and pad the wallets of the shareholders.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Agreed, Andy, as Christians we indeed ought to pursue the highest justice standards in our circles of influence, whether business, church, non-profit, government, military, etc. I’m reading more on stakeholder capitalism these days. Have you spent much time on this topic? If you have, what are your thoughts on how it takes up the issue of ‘standards’ that you raise here (and challenges the territory currently claimed by commodification/consumerism even of human bodies)?

  4. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie I so appreciate your deep reflection of this book with the work you are engaged in. There were a couple of things I wonder about. 1) You mentioned your appreciation for Miller’s suggestion… “For example, paying attention to the sources of the things we buy and the impact their production has on the local communities where they are made.” I too appreciate this in concept, however for most people do you think this kind of knowledge really has much impact? What kind of mental processing would the average Christian American need to do to be impacted on a deep enough level to make different choices? Especially since many of us do not have an interest to grow our own food.
    2.) You share this quote from Miller, “Miller writes in his introduction, “The problem arises not from conflicting goals of desire, for example, the love of God versus the love of things, but rather from the focus and texture of desire. Consumer desire is, surprisingly, not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself. It is the joy of endless seeking and pursuit.” What comparisons and contrasts do you see in Jason’s dissertation pages 215-218 and how might those inform your hermeneutical work?

  5. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie: Miller’s chapter on desire also caught my attention. How many desires run through my brain on any given day? Hundreds, no doubt. Miller talks about how our natural human desires can take us off the path of being a follower of Jesus. But many desires are good and even God-given. So it becomes an opportunity to demonstrate faith and wisdom. I hadn’t thought about the connections with “The Molecule and More” however; nice bridge between the two books.

  6. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Elmarie, as always, an excellent review. Thanks for commenting on our desires as followers of Jesus. One population group I work with is formerly incarcerated people. What might be your advise on the best ways to help this precious group to better understand and redeem their desires for the glory of God?

Leave a Reply