There have been times in our reading when it has been difficult to determine “what” has resonated most strongly. Where do I begin? How do I even express what I am still digesting? (If you read that again it might just make you laugh, but hopefully not cringe!). The books that are impacting me the most are the hardest to write about, because I am processing what it means and how I will respond. What I most appreciate about the approach of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture is the look from the underside. When you look at a house you notice the architecture and surroundings. What we see informs our opinion. By deftly examining consumerism by examining the nature of its response, the counterculture, Heath and Potter help us to see what is hidden in the foundation. They do this most effectively when they investigate what is latent within the counter response. Sometimes this approach is snarky, as in the revelation that a woman’s embrace of the simple life was essentially available to her because of what she could afford to provide for herself or in the distinction that is ultimately revealed in where one chooses to live or in the food one can afford to buy. At other times it is a look at he unintended and unexpected consequences when the dynamics of societal rules are changed, as in the feminist movement in the 1960’s. This is sobering.
As I read this book I found each chapter provides a place of engagement and reflection. I confess, however, that I was most attentive to the implications of consumerism and the countercultural response through the lens of the church, the emerging church movement and the focus of my dissertation, a churchless faith (aka church leavers). Within the Church there has been an expressed desire to conform. In a good and right sense this has been expressed through the Creeds of the Church, through our denominational affiliation and in our identity through action, most singularly by accepting Christ as Lord and Savior. Our identity has been shaped by what we choose to do or not do and why, which brings us back to conformity. There is tension here.
Distinction and conformity go hand in hand. An inherit part of my personality is to be please others, thus conforming to expectations. I also desire to distinguish myself as an individual which means I am seeking to find expression apart from the conformity. “It is not the desire to conform that is driving the consumptions process, but rather the quest for distinction.” I had been part of one denomination for almost eighteen years. Over a period of time I was accustomed to the way our church expressed worship, I was influenced by our denomination’s affirmations (values), and worked as a lay leader within a congregationally lead structure, one that may differ from another church in the same denomination. (How’s that for both conformity and distinction?). When circumstanced dictated change I had choices: denominational or non-denominational? I recognize now that both paths involved conformity and distinction. My challenge is one that we often face amid change; in distinction there is both inclusion and exclusion.
It also means confronting the pervasive desire to be cool in our distinction. In that very desire and expression we can exclude both those that have been included and those that we hope to include. If cool is one of the major factors driving the economy, we have to consider what is our Church economy? To what degree does our desire to be attractive to others drive our choice of worship and our form of worship? A glance at any church website will reveal how we market ourselves. Churches reveal a great deal about who our intended audience is, which may reveal more about our true values than the pictures and words that are stated.
Perhaps a good question to keep in mind would help us discern between deviance and dissent: “What if everyone did that? – would it make the world a better place to live? If the answer is no, then we have grounds to be suspicious.” I came back to this when reading about voluntary simplicity. Adherents to this movement reject traditional religion. Are we trying to answer questions of spiritual need that are no longer being asked?
Even if we do not agree that our current needs are not spiritual in a traditional sense, but are therapeutic in nature as Heath and Potter assert. We do have to engage with the issues raised. The point made by the authors again and again is that the cardinal sin of the counterculture is to pass up a perfectly workable solution to the problem being addressed because it does not go deep enough, is not radical enough or does not provide a completely new solution to the problem. rather than say that priests and ministers (which for evangelical Christians that affirm the priesthood of all believers, means “us”) are unsuited to meet the spiritual demands of the modern world, perhaps the Church should be willing to see what kind of workable solution (aka possibility) may be presenting itself for those that have no religious affiliation and for those that do. This matters because those that leave the church are likely to be doing so to keep their faith, not because they have lost it.
I wonder if we like the counterculture because at some level or in some way we are reminded that we can be different, that we should be different than we are? Is there a place for Church counterculture to bring a prophetic voice? Is the danger that the countercultural voice will become part of the culture? If it does, then will it in turn drive church culture in the same consumerism it has sought to avoid? What are the possibilities then if the counterculture must continually reinvent itself? In one sense this brings the promise of the Reformation to the fore, the Church reformed and always reforming.
 I was surprised to discover in interviews conducted in November & December 2013 with eleven people that no longer attended church that they left not because of a lack of faith but that the questions they had about faith, their growth, as well as their exclusion prompted them to leave. The work of Alan Jamieson, A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys Beyond the Churches (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002) is an important resource if you are interested in learning more.