“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but is often true.” Spock
In his book on Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Vincent Miller, who teaches theology at Georgetown University, explores how religious belief and practice are transformed by the structures and practices of the culture. Consumerism has so engulfed the culture that individuals approach religion as one more consumer product. Religion is just another “commodity” in the grocery store of life, among many others, and the individual picks one and personalizes it to suit herself.
Although the book is about the destructive consequences of consumption, it is not primarily a book about consumerism. Instead it is a book about how our habits of consumption transform our relationship to religious beliefs we profess. Other aspects to the thesis are:
- Consumer culture is a particular way of engaging religious beliefs that divorces them from practice.
- The book focuses on “commodification”.
- Cultural and religious Nostalgia “haunts this work” because it hovers behind our sense of frustrations and rootlessness and isolation. (Pages 11 -13)
Miller spends the first 6 chapters exploring the cultural and economic problem of consumerism. He explains how individuals should think about consumer culture (Ch.1), details the commodification of culture (Ch. 2) and includes chapters on religious belief and how believers make commitments along consumerist lines as well as explaining the origin and nature of consumer and religious desires (Chs.3,4). One extremely important point in this section is how advertising has helped to increase personal and social insecurities in order to fill those needs with the promises made by the makers of the commodities. Emotional desires are created. Products would no longer be advertised for their usefulness, but for how they make you feel better, more powerful, etc…
Interaction #1: At this point I thought of Edward Bernays, Father of Public Relations, and contributor to psychology, propaganda, and manipulating in marketing. Bernays convinced tobacco companies, for example, that they were not selling cigarettes; they were selling power, or glamour. Believing that people are a bunch of stupid sheep, Bernays said that they could be trained to “desire” things. There is more about Bernays, including many social injustices caused to poor countries, that can be seen in the video “Edward Bernays and the Art of Public Manipulation”.
Miller notes that the shift in marketing “fundamentally changed consumption by transforming commodities into symbolic markers for deeper fulfillment” (Pg. 87). Consumer desire works in the same way as Sappho’s glukupikron; the self enjoys the reaching out to fill consumer desires. (Page 119). As Spock said, the wanting is more pleasing than the having. Modern advertising creates the wants and then, how nice, they have the product just waiting to help us.
Miller points out the seriousness of conspicuous consumption in politics (Ch.5) and popular religion (Ch.6). Traditional church mores that used to anchor people have been lost or forgotten. Instead spirituality is marked by an individualism in combination with psychotherapy, consumer ideals, and the baby boomer as “seeker”. Commitment is to self, not to a community of believers.
Building on the work of Roof, Miller explained that elements of tradition are used in abstraction or disembedded from their traditional moorings. Shorn of creeds, doctrines, and symbols, “elements of religious traditions pose less of a challenge to the status quo: they can be more easily made to conform to the default assumptions and practices of the dominant culture.” (Page 91). Hence culture impacts religion.
Miller then gives his responses to the problems. First of all, he says that Christians tend to engage in conversations of meanings and belief, however responses should be at the level of practices and structures. We should be concerned with everyday living. For example, how can we work on our self identity to change our buying habits?
He believes that education will help. Let’s debunk the “it’s all about me” myth.
Interaction #2: Education doesn’t always work. The statistics are in for smoking. Cigarettes are horrible for your health, but people smoke anyway. Education might not overcome the strong desires created by peer pressure or advertisers. But we can learn from the wisdom of others. “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Elizabeth Ann Bayley (Mother) Seton
Miller says we can influence others by being a good example in our culture in our buying habits, buying what we need not what we want. And let’s be more thoughtful about it. For example, are we filling our need to feel like a good environmentalist by buying a wildlife calendar? Better to work personally through engaging in environmental or political activity to end the current problem of endangered species.
Miller also gives specific responses for religious people. He focuses on the Catholic Church but his advice could be used by Protestants as well. The leaders and the people can agree together to be more economically responsible. Churches should be opened up in several ways. Lay people should be encouraged to participate and the building which might otherwise sit uselessly empty could be used for community activities.
Interaction #3: As Christians we can take a full Gospel to people explaining that Jesus is the only One Who can fill our deepest desires and longings for love and acceptance. “Things” won’t do it for people like Jesus can. I would like to have seen the desire for Christ expressed as a help to replace the desire for ‘things’ expressed a little more explicitly in the book.
Miller says we can take advantage of the positive things about consumerism. The explosion of books and other print material, media including internet and radio can be used to take the message of responsible consumer practices to the masses.
Reflection #4: Certainly we as Christians we can try to make the most of our current situation taking advantage of print and computer as well. Let’s take a full-orbed Gospel – not just a ticket to Heaven but a more spiritual life here on earth.
The power of consumerism is considerable, but Miller has shown that there are practical things we can do, working within the culture to bring life and meaning back to many areas including our churches, spiritual lives, politics, and the economy.
Last Reflection: We are so addicted to our comforts and conveniences that many might ask – How can people actually change their desire from one of consumption to one of Loving God and loving your neighbor, thereby changing our consumer habits from selfish ones to giving, from ‘wants’ to ‘needs’?
Well, I can start by changing myself. Like Miller and so many others, I know that God desires justice. The Holy Spirit helps me to become a better person. With whatever influence God gives me as a leader concerned with global perspectives, I can encourage others to follow the gentle Savior.
Others through the ages have found this to be true:
Apostle Paul: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). And then we desire Christ above all things.
O that I might live religion – how striking the exhortation of the Apostle – present your bodies a living sacrifice, Lord enable me so to live that every day I may sacrifice my own will to thine. Angelina Grimke, December 25, 1828 (19th Century Abolitionist)
 Spoken by Spock in “Star Trek”, Season 2, Episode 1, “Amok Time,” 1968
 Spoken by Spock in “Star Trek”, Season 2, Episode 1, “Amok Time,” 1968