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).