This week I met with a student and former intern of mine for coffee. As we chatted, I asked her about whether she had found another church home since participating in the ministry at her internship last summer. Although she has looked into a few locations nothing seems to be a great fit yet. Some churches are too charismatic in their worship, others have liturgy but no life to them, hardly any have much in the way of diversity, and beyond it all is a need for community. We agreed there is no perfect church and yet as I read Miller’s Consuming Religion I couldn’t help but think she, and we as the church have been duped. From the buffet of church gatherings and the felt need for a therapeutic “fit,” we have reduced the church to a place of meeting our immediate and temporal needs.
“Consumer culture is a profound problem for contemporary religious belief and practice.” The opening line of the conclusion of Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion, he believes the structures and practices of the culture have so influenced religion that those seeking noble religious practice are co-opted by the consumerism of their culture without even fully realizing it. “Miller provides a richly detailed and precise examination of two central interactions between religion and consumerism: religion as consumer product and religious people as consumers of religious ideas, images, and everyday products.” Thus, the title of Miller’s work is a symbiotic enmeshed perspective of both consumers and religion.
In review of Miller’s work, Daryl McKee notes, “Miller attributes the consumer culture to several influences, including a capitalist-induced acquisitiveness, advertising, a self-centered therapeutic culture, alienation from work, and isolation of single-family housing. Aggregated supply requires corresponding aggregate demand. Sales and advertising that was initially developed to provide reliable demand and to reduce risk to capital has become institutionalized and accentuated, fostering a cultural trait of acquisitiveness.” Relating to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, these changes have all occurred after the Industrial Revolution and are made possible by the dawn of print media. The market economy has become a societal foundation, driving the supply and demand of both fictitious and real commodities.
Although recognizing the practical solutions offered by the text, one of Miller’s limitations as noted by Courtney Wilder is the lack of depth of engagement “for religious communities to make moral decisions about their consumption.” She goes on to site the popularity of fair trade coffee in churches as a source of ethical engagement, moral agency and connection to the needs of the poor. Beyond this, Wilder advocates further pragmatic suggestions for churches and Christian individuals would illuminate further his hope “for academic theology to engage ordinary religious practitioners.”
In Miller’s chapter on “Desire and the Kingdom of God,” he speaks of consumer desire as “a system of formation that structures desire in a manner similar enough to Christianity to sidetrack it in subtle but profound ways.” He then illustrates his meaning through the use of a railroad metaphor stating, “The conflict between Christianity and consumer culture lacks the definitiveness of a head-on collision; rather it was about as much drama as a train switching tracks and going in a slightly different direction.” Two aspects are striking in this quote. First is the idea of consumer desire as formation. Formation is a term used synonymously with discipleship in the church. Formation is the shaping of one’s beliefs and practice. The reality Miller speaks of is the influence of marketing to confuse between Christian desire and consumer desire.
The second remarkable point is the metaphor of the railroad and the drama-less yet epic transition that happens but is unnoticed until the train is so far down the track it is finally recognized on a divergent path. The subtleties and quietness with which consumer culture effect belief and practice in the church are such that an entire generation can slip away from previously held theology while the remaining church members have no understanding as to what happened or how.
As Miller later recognizes, the desire of Christianity is often initially good, including “the desire for holiness, the desire to share in the sufferings of Christ, and the desire to help souls.” He believes discipleship and desire are interlaced yet the challenge is the ever-present need to find immediate personal fulfillment, often to the detriment of any commitment to the disciplines needed over time to truly form the soul into a Christ follower over a self-driven consumer. Sadly, discipleship devolves into consumption, with commitment becoming “a momentary action of self-disposition, not a long-term process of self-transformation.”
I do not disagree with Miller. The loud and steady drum of consumer culture beats its patrons into submission while the church organ plays softly in the distant background, unnoticed and unenticing. It’s not that Christianity is not enticing, it is just not meeting immediate felt needs in a way that Amazon Prime, Postmates, and YouTube have. Christian consumers as well as non-Christian consumers have little felt need for the church. Yet, not one of these services provide lasting fulfillment over time. They are all merely coping mechanisms keeping consumers from facing the realities in their life. And, as much as they may satisfy in the short term, they leave people wanting. The desire for more can only be satiated by the One for which the soul longs. This is the constant tension between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit has the power to give life in ways consumerism can never touch. But the soul must bow to the Lordship of Christ and release self from the throne, even when one believes they have the right idea about religion, church service and personal fulfillment. It seems that the most effective (yet most challenging) way to keep Christian belief and practice on the railroad toward true transformation and fulfillment is to find Shalom with God in the midst of community.
 Miller, Vincent. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Continuum: New York. 2005, 255.
 Wilder, Courtney. “Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.” Journal of Religion (2005) 681-2.
 McKee, Daryl. “Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.” Journal of Marketing (2005) 264.
 Wilder, 682.
 Miller, 107-8.
 Ibid., 138.
 Ibid., 144.