Is Solomon Responsible for Consumerism?
Us versus Them
Vincent Miller’s work in Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture is not an ‘Us’ (Christianity) versus ‘Them’ (Consumerism) read. Instead, Miller has taken a unique approach that provides the reader with a description of ‘Them,’ i.e., consumerism and all its tentacles in culture, and insights into how the Church has been outsmarted and weakened.
Burger King Mentality
One of Miller’s main arguments, and rightfully so, is that consumerism has weakened our faith. He makes his case that consumerism has caused Christianity to disconnect from traditions and other symbols of faith. As a result, the separation has plunged religion into the land of abstraction and disassociation. Miller, a Roman Catholic, takes issue with the devaluing of religious symbols and traditions to demonstrate the pervasiveness of consumer culture within religion versus a condemnation of consumer culture per se or the lack of a response from the Church. The disconnect and abstraction from traditions and symbols have created significant problems for the Church. The first is that believers have the false impression that they can live out their faith with a Burger King mentality of having it their way. One example of the Burger King mentality is the co-opting from other religious traditions and symbols such as Buddhism (chanting) or the statue of Buddha (a must-have home fashion statement) and incorporating it into the daily practice of Christian faith. The second issue is cultural appropriation in general, particularly by Disney. Cultural appropriation of religious traditions and symbols has created a vacuum for understanding the community of origin and the cultural significance of the practices and symbols, particularly as they relate to applying faith to our daily lives.
Perhaps one of the deadliest affronts to Christianity is that commodification has turned every pain point the Church has suffered at the whim of consumerism into a merchandising extravaganza. Even more diabolical is that the Church has become a willing participant in weakening its faith traditions, symbols, and cultural appropriation. Some examples that come to mind are the merchandising sold by Churches: Christian T-Shirts with religious symbols, pastors merchandising their products/themselves, and the ticket fees charged to attend a Christian event. But the most telling personal example was the prophetic movement that has come to the forefront in the past 10 – 15 years that teaches that everyone can prophesy without having the prerequisite theological background. This movement has sold millions of dollars on prophetic books and DVDs – a bricolage of prophetic teachings.
In summary, one of the repercussions of commodification has been removing the most vital Person from the Trinity, the Holy Spirit or God’s presence, which set Christianity apart in how we practice our faith.
Miller outlines two primary tactics to overcome commodification: reinforce interconnections among doctrines, symbols, and practices…The aim is to stabilize both their meaning and connect them to the everyday practices of daily life. The second is to attempt to bring the popular agency or culturally literate practitioners into the ongoing conversation of Christian traditions. These literate Christian practitioners have exploded due to information technology. They have developed their theology based on the abstraction and disconnectedness discussed earlier. They, at times, need to have the requisite theological or spiritual grounding before teaching others. Miller writes that this creativity is sometimes dismissed because it requires a well-formed synthesis of religious traditions.
Dr. Clark supports and expands on Miller’s recommendation to reinforce the interconnections to religious symbols; specifically, one of the symbols he focuses on is the Eucharist. Symbolically, it represents what sets Christians apart from all other religions. And so, he makes the case that “the body of Christ is displaced by commodification, and those processes obtain their impetus from competing desires within capitalist imaginations…There is a dislocation of the understanding of the sign and symbol of the Eucharist that was also the undoing of the “Augustinian understanding of the relationship of the sign and symbol.” Clark correlates this to Miller’s assertion that commodification disconnects the actual meaning of the symbol and associates its significance to consumer consumption instead, thereby weakening the underpinnings of authentic faith. Lastly, Dr. Clark ties the Church to the idea of an “alternative community of desire,” formed around desire that can be mapped through the doctrine of participation – which is understood through the doctrine of the Spirit and theological anthropology…This is how one can partner with the world and resist the negative sides of capitalism.
A Final Thought: Is King Solomon to Bear Responsibility?
The concept of alternative community resonated with me while reading Miller and Dr. Clark this week. The alternative community is one that Walter Brueggemann explores in his book Prophetic Imagination. To summarize and connect Brueggemann, three insights from his research on King Solomon’s reign warrant mention.
- The first insight focuses on what he achieved through establishing an affluent empire. His empire removed any severe criticism (knowingly or unknowingly) by providing an abundance of consumer goods to the people so that they were no longer anxious about survival. When people are satiated, it is challenging to keep a revolution going.
- Because of the affluence and other things Solomon implemented, the people exchanged their covenants for consumerism. As a result, they became more concerned with self-satisfaction versus caring for one another.
- Solomon established a static religion subordinated to the empire’s purpose. He expanded his royal landscape to include God and the Temple.
You may disagree with Brueggemann’s findings and conclusions on King Solomon. His book has equal treatment of the positives derived from Solomon’s kingdom. But it is insightful how a thriving empire or capitalist culture co-opts our belief to the point that we do not believe there can be any new discoveries or solutions. And Brueggemann states that this has happened to all of us. So, what is a possible solution to the commodification of our Church, according to Brueggemann? The prophetic community must envision a new reality or alternative. Not one based on moving the puzzle pieces around – but a new reality based on the passion of caring, suffering, covenanting with others, and dying. A passionate, prophetic alternative community is one that the Church needs to mobilize to combat the commodification of our beliefs, traditions, and symbols.
 Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), 1.
 Ibid., 1-2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 210.
 Ibid., 9.
 Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (dissertation, George Fox University, 2018), 206-207.https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/198-236.
 Ibid., 207.
 Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination 40th Anniversary Ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018), 14-28.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 36.
12 responses to “Is Solomon Responsible for Consumerism?”
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Wow! Amazing post Audrey, absolutely amazing.
BIGGGG Quote here…. Sorry!!!!
“The prophetic community must envision a new reality or alternative. Not one based on moving the puzzle pieces around – but a new reality based on the passion of caring, suffering, covenanting with others, and dying. A passionate, prophetic alternative community is one that the Church needs to mobilize to combat the commodification of our beliefs, traditions, and symbols.”
My question to you is that when it comes to preventing the consumerism of religion, what part does the prophetic community play? What does that look like to you?
Alana, good question. Absolutely the prophetic community has a role in combating consumerism within the Church.
According to Daniel Hay, in his textbook, The Message of the Prophets: A Survey of The Prophetic And Apocalyptic Books of The Old Testament, the role of the prophetic was to 1) call attention to idolatry, 2) speak out about the lack of social justice, and 3) warn the people about their reliance on religious ritual rather than true relationship.
I think we can agree that consumerism in Christianity is a form of idolatry.
Today, the role of the prophetic has not changed. However, the method of delivery has changed because in-your face O.T. confrontational style no longer works. It must be more nuanced, and cunning in terms of outsmarting the status quo (think of how Miller writes that consumerism capitalizes on the Church’s pain points), and it must inhabit the imagination of God versus the imagination of Mammon.
What does it look like for me? My understanding of the prophetic role is that it will make the status quo uncomfortable. When there’s an overabundance of affluence, according to Brueggemann, it usually means someone is not at the table eating. Also, it typically translates to a lack of social justice. My lane is to call out the inequities and inequalities brought on by systemic and institutional racism – which has prospered as a result of the commodification of Christianity and a culture of consumerism.
I enjoyed your post!
1) I would love to hear your response to Alana’s question.
2) I liked your reflections on Solomon and the empire he was able to establish and how this impacted the faith community.
3) I liked this quote you provide from Dr. Clarks work-
Lastly, Dr. Clark ties the Church to the idea of an “alternative community of desire,” formed around desire that can be mapped through the doctrine of participation – which is understood through the doctrine of the Spirit and theological anthropology…This is how one can partner with the world and resist the negative sides of capitalism.
Can you expand on this thought of participation in the world and how this will help resist negative effects of capitalism?
Thx for thought provoking post
Kristy, thanks for reading and for the question.
For one, I believe we do have to engage with culture rather than simply practice our faith within the safety of church buildings. What does this look like? Visiting the prisoners, orphans, sick and oppressed – all the things Jesus encouraged us to do.
Secondly, to study to show ourselves approved so that when we do engage with culture – we have the Spirit of the gospel and a sound theological underpinning. Based on our readings this week – we should be sure to close any gaps caused by disconnected or abstracted commodification of our doctrine and practices.
Lastly, we are encouraged to prosper – but not so much for personal consumption. Our affluence is to share and help those less fortunate. We are good at building and investing in buildings and 401Ks but not so good at building and investing in people.
I’ll leave you with this:
“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Aboriginal Activists Group
It expresses a mindset that will help us resist the negative effects of capitalism.
Great work Audrey! This is brilliantly written. Alana beat me to the question I had. And your answer was compelling: “1) call attention to idolatry, 2) speak out about the lack of social justice, and 3) warn the people about their reliance on religious ritual rather than true relationship.”
This causes me to wonder if this is an overlooked aspect of my job and what it means to be a pastor – namely, to be a prophetic witness. But then again, this is what we are all called to as followers of Jesus. Not just pastors. Anyways, you’ve got me thinking. Thanks Audrey!
“I beat David” is a phrase that will never ever happen again in my doctoral career!
Thanks so much. Your insights are invaluable.
Audrey – Thank you so much for your post! I’m curious about this quote, “Some examples that come to mind are the merchandising sold by Churches: Christian T-Shirts with religious symbols, pastors merchandising their products/themselves, and the ticket fees charged to attend a Christian event.” I’d love to hear more about the problem with these examples. For instance, I am planning a Christian Women’s event right now, where we have to charge in order to cover the speaker’s fee, travel arrangements, etc. I’m wondering what the alternative would be?
Laura, thanks for the question.
Two examples come to mind. First, many Christians are also entrepreneurs and have businesses. And some, offer their services primarily to Christian audiences. In my opinion this is not co-opting religion – even if the business is teaching Christian principles. If I have a heart condition, I go to a specialist. (Hope that analogy makes sense.)
The second example is when a major pastor (millionaire several times over) comes through a town and has a Christian event that is basically a sermon and tickets are sold – that’s problematic for me.
I would contrast that extreme with a local church that holds an event and tickets must be sold to cover costs. Alternatives? Are there people who would like to come or the church is trying to reach with the gospel message but they can’t afford the tickets or have the transportation? If so, is the local church attempting to reach out in any way?
One question I would ask is what are we trying to accomplish with the ministry events? If we leave out the lost, the poor and marginalized – would Jesus come to the event?
I would love to discuss more.
Audrey, as everyone else has already stated, what a great post. I am not sure I have any questions to add to what others have already asked, but thank you for sharing.