Thou Shall Not Commodify
In Vincent Miller’s 2008 book, “Consuming Religion” a critical distinction is made in the beginning of the introduction: “This is not a book about religion against consumer culture; it is a book about the fate of religion in consumer culture” (p. 1). There are plenty of books written about the former but this insightful work proves to offer a deep understanding of the relationship between faith and modern consumerism. It is not an easy read but it is a helpful one for Christians doing any type of ministry in today’s modern world. In order to successfully minister to our culture, we need to understand it.
Miller is primarily concerned with the nature of faith when it interacts with an advanced capitalistic society. It is more than just a critique of the West’s chasing after material success and fame; indeed, it takes this corrupting influence for granted. The book takes the next step to analyze what happens to faith when it is influenced by these cultural dynamics. Even when we try not to allow the negative cultural influences into our lives, it is inevitable to some degree for each of us. Miller describes consumerism as, “an ideology of selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations” (p. 15). It is “Me” centered and not “God centered.” The consequences of this are described in penetrating detail for the remainder of the book.
Fortunately, he is not unduly critical or pessimistic. That is easy to do and Miller resists the temptation to simply criticize. He has great hope for people of faith and he believes that people of faith can live their lives out with great conviction and maturity. But it does take deliberate effort, keeping a focus on beliefs and practice. We cannot approach our faith as it is a product to be consumed or a service that gives us what we want. This tendency he labels as ‘commodification’ and it is ubiquitous. This approach creates narcissistic individuals and genuine faith will push back against this human impulse.
Miller is careful to describe exactly what ‘popular culture’ is. That term can have several nuances and has come to be an umbrella term. The same is true with ‘popular religion.’ In this book Miller says, “In this context, the term ‘popular religion’ signifies the space ‘between official or learned Christianity and profane (or pagan) culture” (p.171). This opens up a wide demographic and from a Christian’s point of view, this is where the fields are ripe for harvest. There is great optimism to be had with this book. We bring or faith and courage to the people around us and God does the part that only he can do.
There is a connection to be made between Max Weber’s book, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Miller’s book. If we take the good traits we read about in Weber’s book and put them on steroids so they become out of proportion and for show, then we have the problems that Miller outlines in his book. Any good thing, if pushed out of balance has the potential of becoming a bad thing. Miller characterizes these negative influences and teaches those of us who are striving to live by faith how to recognize them so we can transcend them.
When we do transcend our cultures, then the stage is set for a hero to emerge, as described by Campbell in, The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Any individual, living in any generation has the ability to live by faith and exceed cultural norms. When an individual does so, they become a beacon to others, paving the way to a life that is directed by Christ. And that makes all the difference in the world. “We do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved” (Hebrews 10:39).
12 responses to “Thou Shall Not Commodify”
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Troy, I really enjoyed your positive take on Miller in this book. I, too, found him to be diagnosing the dangers of consumerism SO THAT we can be wise in our cultural setting. So often, in my opinion, people only criticize culture, but every expression of culture anywhere, any time brings it dangers. We humans also tend to glorify previous cultures but there has never been a time without challenge to faith. So, rather than just criticize, what are we going to do about it? How will we engage our faith in meaningful ways? (Those are rhetorical questions, btw). Here’s a question for you: What do you see as the biggest challenges of consumerism in your new role?
Thanks Roy: I now have executive pastor responsibilities and I have run into what your asking about in little ways. Employees wanting more pay, more hours, better benefits. All of this is pretty predictable but it still needs to be navigated with thoughtfulness and care.
Great post, Troy. Thanks for sharing.
I especially resonate with this statement: “Any good thing, if pushed out of balance has the potential of becoming a bad thing.”
You are spot on. Obviously, this is true for EVERY sector of our lives, not just the Church. As you think about this reality (and tension), do you see possible solutions to regain balance?
Perhaps transcending our consumer culture? Not letting materialism getting a tight hold on us? If we can manage that then people might see that there is something else that has come to have a grasp on our hearts.
Thank you for your post Troy,
I appreciate the connections you made with current spread of individual narcissism in Christianity. You mentioned, “This approach creates narcissistic individuals and genuine faith will push back against this human impulse.”
How will you further explain the connections between consumption and individual narcissism and what does it mean practically for a genuine Christian to push back against it?
Thanks Jonathan: It is a constant battle isn’t it? We have to continually lift up Christ and teach others to open up their heart more to his leading and his love. It’s a journey and an adventure to find out our true selves.
Brilliant connections here to the other readers. You are creating some bridges I had not considered.
Thanks Andy. Great books Dr. Clark has chosen for us to read this semester…
Thank you, Troy, for sharing your reading of Miller. I appreciate you noting the way in which he discusses popular culture and religion. One of the observations Miller makes is how commodification is impervious to critique as it simply absorbs the critique and turns into yet something else to sell. I’m curious to learn more of how you see Christian belief/theology engaging that imperviousness and what Christian practices you have experienced as being the most effective?
Troy I really appreciate your connections with a few of our other readings.
You write, “When we do transcend our cultures,” is this work Jesus calls us to? What are the blind spots if we attempt to transcend culture?
Thanks Nicole: It is a difficult thing to seek out our blind spots isn’t it? I think the Spirit helps in this area. Materialism used to have a tighter grip on me; now, not as much.
Troy, I appreciate how you integrated Campbell and Weber into your analysis of Miller. I am curious about how you have or might transcend your cultural context. What specific skills or techniques have you used or would like to try to break free from the negative influences of commodification?