Today I was stunned. The first “stun” may seem small and stunned may be on overstatement. It was about choosing lights for a remodel in our church. We had to chose lights for a new foyer area. I was hoping to have very distinct lights, the design and color of which I first thought would fit our funky 1950s almost Frank Lloyd Wright building. The lights chosen were nice but standard and traditional/modern in style. I first questioned those who chose the lights, but then realized that if such lighting existed, as I desired, we would not be able to afford them. We instead spent a great deal of money on something middle of the road.
Some may be saying “how trivial”. A church remodel is so small from a global perspective. Agreed. Here is the stunning thing. I had no idea where the lights were manufactured, who made them, nor what the origin of the style. There were instrumental for our purposes. Then it hit me. We are so commodified in everything we purchase. I am reading Consuming Religion by Vincent J. Miller. He says we have a huge disconnect between production and consumption. We buy so many things based on image, but have lost the culture from which it is produced. Things become commodities without and history of who created it, the conditions it was made in and what culture the style had come from. They just fit the purpose that we use it for. This has tragic effects when it comes to the spiritual formation of people. An example MIller points out is the music album Chant produced by Benedictine monks a few years ago. It enjoyed widespread appeal. But, people did not purchase it to necessarily worship. It just was extracted from its culture to use for popular consumption. The music was liked for its therapeutic effects but people had no connection to the tradition of the people who produced it. (p.74) What people did not know was the “back story”. So, I also did not know is the “back story” behind our lighting. It was disconnected to any culture. So can be the issue in a spiritual consumption of religious goods and experiences.
That brings me to the second “stun” of my week. We have a young adults gathering every Sunday night of about 10 people. Last Sunday we did something different. A friend of mine did a mini interactive seminar on the Bible. He first exposed myths people have about scripture and then went on to present the Bible as one grand story. Here is when I was caught off guard. We have been praying for one young lady to understand what it means to trust Christ with her life. But she had a couple of obstacles.
She heard people may times talk about how the Bible “just spoke” to them. They would talk about feeling something as they read it. But she never did. Her second obstacle was she went to a service a few times where the preaching was compelling and the music contemporary. She went forward to pray. The pastor told everyone they would feel God. All they had to do is raise their hands and receive him. This is very common in my tradition, except to tell people what they would feel. She again was disappointed, because no overwhelming emotion swept over her.
When we talked about Bible misconceptions, she identified that she had a magical view of the Bible since she was young. Somehow she had an expectation that as she read this holy book something magical and emotional would happen. These recent experiences tapped into these misconceptions. When she realized that, she suddenly had a great sense of peace. It was like a release. She said she felt something and began to cry softly. This stunned my daughter and I as we have been praying for her. We both sensed that God had done something within her.
Now here is the connection to consumption. This is what can so easily happen in our Christianity. We can turn religious experiences into a commodity and expect others to experience it this way as well. I realize how easy it is to be blinded to my own religious commodification. Our young lady was “sold” that God was to be experienced in certain ways. Vincent states that people “bring interpretive habits” that are consumer driven to religious traditions. (p.203) Our interpretive lens can also blind us to how God is really working. He needs to “stun” us so we see things in a more clear light. Not only did this happen for this young lady, I was stunned for I did not think that this seminar would be so transformative. What made this young lady open to God, in my observation, was two things. She was relationally connected in our church. People were walking alongside her, which was different than the attractional church she had attended. Secondly, she saw a bigger picture of the Bible and in a wider tradition than the misconceptions she previously had.
Vincent comments that making a connection between our experiences and Christian tradition can keep us from turning our practices into mere commodities. We need the “back story” of our faith to make sense of it. He calls us to connect our experiences to an ongoing Christian tradition. (196-197). Embedding our faith with a body of believers who share a common tradition, rather than just a common experience can help ground them. It can counter the way we commodity faith.
My question now is: How do we continue to disciple people who use the interpretive lens of a fragmented piecemeal and consumer-driven religious orientation? More work to be done. More stunning or slightly eye opening experiences are needed.
Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice In A Consumer Culture. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.