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Am I what I consume?-Consumer Culture, Identity and Religion

Written by: on February 16, 2017

In his book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Catholic Theologian and Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture, Dr. Vincent J. Miller argues that Consumer culture has given way to the how religion and religious practices have become commodities. The commodification of religion enables “people [to] pick and choose from the offerings of religion of traditions to produce their own syntheses…Under such circumstances, it is easier for religion to become an empty myth than to be the bearer of uncomfortable challenges.”[5] It has been apparent from reading authors like Anderson, Bebbington,Bevans,  Gardner, Polayni, and Weber, that religion has had a very interesting tango with culture. it is even more evident that we as human beings cannot compartmentalize our faith from our every day life. Nor it is possible to exist in this world without experiencing being and also having an influence on our dominant culture (which both Stephen Bevans and Stephen Gardner would assert that it is not one dominant culture per se but is given meaning as experienced through an individual contextual lens).

It can be stated that within consumer culture we show our affinity as consumers by the way in which we identify and relate to culture. As a result, at a basic level we become consumers that are more driven by what makes us comfortable in how we engage culture and less motivated by the challenges or conflicts it presents. When we think about the way in which we consume products and services we do not always, if at all, consider the full context that exist around the process by which a product is made and its impact on labor, environment, economy, etc. Instead we focus on the symbolism of the goods based on the value or “deeper fulfillment” we now desire to obtain influenced by what has been communicated to us through branding and marketing. In an interview discussing consumer culture and religion, Miller stated that “it’s not that we don’t care about those things, the system systematically hides them from us so I think in my quantification, it gives the new read of what’s going on in consumer culture. It’s not simply greed. It’s not simply excessive desire for things, although it certainly involves that, but it’s also not having access to the information to make profound decisions about our consumption.”[1]

I am reminded of Nike in the 1990’s and how their reputation was plagued with awful reports of outsourced manufacturing factories also known as “Sweatshops” and poor labor practices. In 1991-1993 Activist Jeff Ballinger published a series of reports and articles on the conditions of Nike’s factories in Indonesia.[2] Pressure continued to mount from protests of the company over the years after the reports thus resulting in a weakening of the reputation and global brand of the company . Phil Knight ,Co-founder and then CEO, knew that in order to save the company a significant change was needed. In a formal address in 1998 he said “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse…I truly believe the American consumer doesn’t want to buy products made under abusive conditions.”[3] From that point on Nike has made a dramatic shift and become more socially responsible both in practices and in disclosure with its patrons. Other companies like McDonalds, Starbucks, Walmart, etc. have faced similar issues. While it can be said that it takes some kind of  push back that impacts their reputation and brand to invoke socially responsible and sustainable action, it provides an example of what Vincent Miller was referring too in his interview. These companies had been in existence for decades. Consumers from all over the world have been consuming their products. Little attention was given to the process of production from labor to the marketplace. Once they were made aware of the issues their attention shifted and they were more informed to make a decision to patronize or not.  Prior to Jeff Ballinger’s 1991 report, I often wonder how many people wearing the Nike brand thought about the people slaving away in the factories in Indonesia under terrible conditions with low pay for Nike to make a killing selling the shoes for hundreds of dollars to eager consumers. Miller asserts that:

Seeing a commodity as presenting itself with a ready appearance that we can evaluate, desire and choose without any context in the situation of production… has gradually colonized the way we relate to culture as well. That way of seeing things makes us comfortable in engaging pieces of culture, picking out of the context without asking questions about what they meant in their original traditions, what they meant in terms of their origins, what they meant for the communities that practiced them.[4]

I find myself challenged in thinking do I choose the comfortable over the challenging in every aspect of my life. Am I choosing to disregard the origin or context to be more comfortable? What drives my consumerism? All, if not most of us, have had to ask ourselves some tough questions as we become more aware of our role or the lack there of in perpetuating consumer culture. I do not believe that  comparing the amount of impact is necessary.  At one point or another we  have bought into the symbols that have been advertised or marketed to us. Theyhave presented to us a “need” that longs for deeper fulfillment. Whether it was the choice in neighborhood, vehicle, school, church, career, etc. I like you must ask ourselves the questions “do the things we actually consume fulfill us?” “Are we what we consume?”

 

 

 

[1] Ken Myers and Vincent J. Miller, “A CONVERSATION WITH VINCENT MILLER,” The Other Journal An Intersection Of Theology & Culture, April 4, 2005, , accessed February 14, 2017, http://theotherjournal.com/2005/04/04/a-conversation-with-vincent-miller/.

[2] Max Nisen, “How Nike Solved Its Sweatshop Problem,” Business Insider, May 09, 2013, , accessed February 14, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-nike-solved-its-sweatshop-problem-2013-5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ken Myers and Vincent J. Miller, “A CONVERSATION WITH VINCENT MILLER,” The Other Journal An Intersection Of Theology & Culture, April 4, 2005, , accessed February 14, 2017, http://theotherjournal.com/2005/04/04/a-conversation-with-vincent-miller/.

[5] Courtney Wilder, “Vincent J Miller, . Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture . New York, Continuum: 2003. 208 pp. $24.95 (cloth).,” The Journal of Religion 85, no. 4 (October 2005): , doi:10.1086/499463.

 

 

About the Author

Christal Jenkins Tanks

11 responses to “Am I what I consume?-Consumer Culture, Identity and Religion”

  1. Christal, it is so ironic you mentioned Nike, because I wrote about it in my post but had to take it out because it was getting too long. I actually referenced it as a positive example of capitalism because of the book I read, Shoe Dog which is the autobiography of the Nike founder Phil Knight. It was a fascinating read and inspiring with how capitalism works to make a global brand and product. He mentioned how he was lambasted by the media and how their company actually made significant improvements to the factories and provided employment to impoverished countries. Who knows what the truth is but probably somewhere in the middle. What a powerful statement he made and rather contradictory to the book! Thank you for this other perspective.

    Your words from your last post continue to ring in my ears when defining a moral and ethical product: does it benefit people and the planet? Easy and simple guidelines to follow. What about using that for churches: How does this church benefit people and the planet?

  2. Geoff Lee says:

    So Christal, if you choose to stay at home and watch your church service on TV rather than attend in person and participate in the rituals and practices of your local church community and its traditions, are you guilty of enjoying the symbolic end product while distancing yourself from the reality of production and the people involved?!

    • Geoff depending on the context, I would have to say Yes. While technology continues to advance and be leveraged in many arenas including religious practices and gatherings, we must never see it as a substitute for real genuine connection. Unfortunately, social media gives us a false perception of connecting with someone on a personal level. Nothing can replace genuine and meaningful personal community engagement.

  3. Mary Walker says:

    “From that point on Nike has made a dramatic shift and become more socially responsible both in practices and in disclosure with its patrons.” Christal, like Jen I was fascinated with your example since the “official store” of Nike is just up the road from me. I was part of the boycotting.
    I agree that maybe one way for companies to stop those practices is for consumers to push back. My hope is that the media hype about Nike also got people to thinking about the issues. How many people knew about the sweat shops before it got into the papers?
    Well, it did bring up a question for the cynics around here. Was Nike suddenly getting “socially responsible” because they had no choice if they wanted to be profitable again?
    What do you think? I’m ready to be thankful if things just go in a better direction – because it’s PEOPLE we’re really talking about. If we can think about the people, as you say, will it help us change our consumer habits?

    • Mary I would say that some people’s awareness and activism can be just as dangerous as consumerism because it still has a self interest that may not always be about informing others but rather elevating their own personal platform. What I will say is that are all called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Neighbors is less about local geography but more about considering others needs, lack of privilege, social welfare, etc. over our own!

  4. Christal,
    Love your post and your perspective! This is an issue close to my heart – like it sleeps in bed with me most nights – as this is what Traci does. She has spend years of her career working with factories overseas ensuring compliance on labor practices, etc….. and, in fact will be at a certain sports giant you mentioned this week!
    One of the things that I thought of as I read your post was how quick people – spokespeople and ‘regular’ people alike – are to push back on companies now when the companies act in ways that they don’t agree with. Just in the last few weeks you can look at what has happened with Under Armour and Uber in connection with Trump… I think in some ways the social action piece has become ‘just’ another commodity . . . but that is another post all by itself!

  5. Enjoyed your post. Your question as to whether we are what we consume brings me to the statement “you are what you eat’. I remember growing up next to a community with less money than our family. We were driving a moderate vehicle,

  6. mm Katy Lines says:

    Lots to think about here, Christal– thanks! “When we think about the way in which we consume products and services we do not always, if at all, consider the full context that exist around the process by which a product is made and its impact on labor, environment, economy, etc.” That’s so true! Yet it also becomes exhausting and potentially paralyzing to figure out if every single item I want to buy is ethically sourced. (Have you seen the Portlandia episode when they order free-range chicken at a restaurant and end up visiting the farm where the chicken was raised before feeling comfortable ordering it for a meal? Hilarious).
    At some point, we must trust the producers/manufacturers. So now, Nike has placed themselves in a place where, when I buy shoes, I’ll think, “Hmm, I don’t know how Adidas produces shoes, but Nike has publicly announced they’re ethical, so I’ll buy their shoes.” And thus we develop brand loyalty, too.

  7. Really good post, Christal! I especially appreciate your inclusion of the Nike story. So, looking at that, how can we (the church) correct our own image by changing those things that drive people away? Are we too fractured for that? If so, is it a lost cause, or can individual churches and traditions course correct so that we are able to work alongside culture for good?

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