This week’s book, Consuming Religion, Vincent J. Miller, affords a well detailed and careful examination of two unavoidable interactions between religion and consumerism: religion as a consumer product and religious people as consumers of religious beliefs, images, and everyday products.
Coming from an historic liturgical tradition, I see this disconnect between objects, symbols and even the scriptures themselves from their original meaning and intention. Each of these tangible objects is given constantly changing meaning to quench what Miler discerns as the unquenchable desire of the religious consumer. In chapter four, Miller suggests it is desire that damages any concept of the other, and ultimately draws us away from attending to suffering or facing our own mortality. Fortunately, by chapters five and six, he offers some hope that even in consumption people can still achieve important political and social outcomes.
Miller describes the historical development and the various manifestations of religion as commodity. He opens by considering the commodification of culture itself, expressly cultural objects that have been plucked from their original contexts and that now serve strictly as consumables, negligent of their intended significance; something that we saw in the thinking of Karl Polanyi and Max Weber. Although, more specifically, Miller argues that consumers are inspired to see the objects they pursue as constitutive of their identity.
Miller posits that religion and religious objects have become items that function in the marketplace as mechanisms that help form personal identity. The increasing social isolation of western religious people and religious organisations’ use of mainstream media isolate people even further only enhancing the problem. As a consequence, the effects are ‘superficial religious practices’ and beliefs that operate as products and not as parts of long traditions. The end result? Consumers of religion are in jeopardy of being cut-off completely from any deeper meaning and broader tradition. As Miller puts it, “People pick and choose from the offerings of religious traditions to produce their own syntheses”.
Confusing matters further is the degree to which our choices about what we consume have ethical and religious entanglements. Miller’s description of a characteristic middle-class home, replete with an overflow of children’s stuffed toys, which have small monetary or even sentimental significance, makes the point well. In the following paragraph he migrates to describing the working conditions of the Chinese factory workers who manufacture the playthings, often working unreasonably long hours with scant opportunities to eat or rest. One worker, whose plight made headlines, died of exhaustion after an especially gruelling two months of sixteen-hour days. Miller notes : “She was worked to death making things that we try not to call shit”. Ordinary consumption, like the habit of giving children stuffed bunnies to celebrate Easter, takes on a chilling undercurrent in light of this critique.
Miller argues that the central issue is not solely self-indulgence or unnecessary consumption, “the real problem with consumer culture lies in the structures and practices that systematically confuse and misdirect well-intentioned people seeking to do good things such as show solidarity with others, find spiritual transformation, and practice their sincerely held beliefs.
Moving from Diagnosis to prescription, Miller advances a solution to plug the gap between academic theology and popular religion. Rather than rejecting the consumer practice of ‘bricolage’, where bits and pieces of many traditions are collected and used to build something new. He makes the observation that the bits and pieces need to be made more substantial. In essence he is saying we need to make the depth of our religious experience accessible to as many as possible, even if that means accepting initial fragmentation and commodification. And this is something our churches have been working with in recent years. Leadership is having to engage with a horse that has already bolted. Rather than become upset with those who have commodified or syncretised our historic beliefs for personal identity and desire, we have been working towards helping people engage with the history of those beliefs without criticism. In doing so we are offering depth to shallow minds and shallow experience.
Despite being an excellent read I am a little surprised that Miller does not engage strongly enough with the opportunity for religious communities to make moral decisions about their consumption. In New Zealand fair-trade coffee has become increasingly popular in churches, both for use by the congregation and as an ethically produced, environmentally sound product. Likewise, the size of our worshipping facilities is decreasing toward more efficient use with more people. Similarly, we are engaging with creation sustaining acts around refuse, power usage, and attending local churches rather than driving for mere personal preference in worship style. All this speaks to some extent of Miller’s central concerns about the moral agency of consumers and the attentiveness of middle-class religious communities to the plight of the poor and the wellbeing of the world. It would have been good to have more concrete suggestions for what an average congregation, or an average Christian, might do to engage in more thoughtful, but still unavoidable, consumption.
 Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London: Continuum, 2005).
 Ibid. 126f
 Ibid. 130
 Ironically, the knowledge of our consumption makes us sensitive to the needs of the environment, people groups, justice and so on. However, this sensitive hardly mitigates the broader damage that consumption brings about.
 Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), Kindle Edition
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge, 20011930).
 Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. 70
 Ibid. 94
 Ibid. 16
 Ibid. 16
 Ibid. 225
Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. London: Continuum, 2005.
Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001. Kindle Edition
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Routledge, 2001.