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

Lent…A Journey of Consumption?

Written by: on March 9, 2014

This week marks the beginning of Lent. For many of us, we understand Lent as a time of sacrifice and deprivation. It is a time of “giving up” stuff, habits and patterns, eating chocolate, drinking coffee, soda, watching television, limiting our internet time, withdrawing from playing solitaire, doing less shopping at the mall, and the list goes on and on. And I’ve noticed that the more technologically advance we have become, the greater the selection of things we have to give up! Some even try to give up “unhealthy” relationships. Whatever it is, we begin our 40 day journey of “giving up” and sacrificing perhaps with good intentions.

Yet, every year I ask myself, “why do we continue to try to “give up” something or someone and then at the end of the 40 days…we take it back?” What’s the difference? What are we trying to prove? Is the practice of “giving up” for 40 days caused our “desire” for these things to increase? Is it possible that Lent has become a journey of “consumption” for some people?

In his book, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture” Vincent Miller suggests that the problem between consumer culture and Christianity is not from conflicting goals of desire, but from the focus and texture of desire.[1] He goes on to say that consumer desire is not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself.

For example, let’s take on the simple subject of chocolate. Obviously, we can give up chocolate for 40 days, many give it up every year with great success. However, their longing and craving for chocolate does not melt away. Easter baskets are filled with chocolate bunnies and eggs for those who have successfully abstained from eating it for 40 days. And for the more “religious/spiritual” there are chocolate crosses to enjoy after their 40 days of fasting. Sometimes I wonder if the chocolate industry has caught on to the fact that Lent is a time of the year when people cease to eat chocolate but then return to their daily consumption of it!

But there is a bigger issue than simply the desire for chocolate (or whatever else it is that we choose to give up). There is the critical issue of understanding the differences and similarities of the constructions of desire between consumer culture and Christianity. Miller states that it is not his intention to critique consumer culture but to explore how religious belief and practice are transformed by its structures and practices.[2]

According to Tim Edwards, author of “The Contradictions of Consumption” the consumer society is a desiring society.[3]  Most people have difficulty in differentiating between “real” needs and “false” desires. Miller offers several examples of this (i.e., family sizes have decreased and home sizes have increased; larger houses filled with more appliances; large wardrobes).[4] Yet when we have these things they leave us longing of more.  Perhaps we may not sing along with Mick Jagger, but we’re certainly living out the words to his song, “I can’t get no satisfaction,
I can’t get no satisfaction. ‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try. I can’t get no, I can’t get no.”

Miller suggests that modern marketing and advertising constructs consumer desire in two complementary ways: by seduction and misdirection.[5] Seduction is more about the continued desire of objects than about immediate gratification. It is the thrill of seeking, searching and reaching out for more that overwrites the disappointment and frustration of not obtaining it immediately. Misdirection, as Miller states, is about encouraging consumers to think of consumption as a way of enacting profound values and fulfilling serious desires. It is about the substitution of a practice, not the substitution of values.[6]

So what is the impact of consumer culture on our Christian faith and practice? I appreciated the way Miller began his introduction, “this is not a book about religion against consumer culture; it is a book about the fate of religion in consumer culture.”[7] The impact of consumer culture on our Christian faith is not necessarily what we believe, but how we put it into practice. The problem is the way in which the structures and practices of a consumer culture influence religious beliefs and practices. Miller states, that “when consumption becomes the dominant cultural practice, belief is systematically misdirected from traditional religious practices into consumption… When members of consumer cultures sincerely embrace religious traditions, they encounter them in a fragmented, commodified form. Beliefs, symbols, and even practices come abstracted from their connections to one another…Thus religious beliefs is always in danger of being reduced to a decorative veneer of meaning over the vacuousness of everyday life…” [8]

So, back to Lent, is it a journey or practice of consumption? Are we giving up something, only to take it back after 40 days? Jesus never took it back, but gave it all, not for His sake, but for all of humanity.

[1] Vincent J.Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture” (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 7.

[2] Ibid., 107

 [3] Ibid., 107

[4] Ibid., 108

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibid., 109

[7] Ibid., 1

[8] Ibid., 225

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

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