DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Don’t be Self Consumed – Worship Locally

Written by: on February 21, 2019

This week’s book, Consuming Religion, Vincent J. Miller,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] Fortunately, by chapters five and six, he offers some hope that even in consumption people can still achieve important political and social outcomes.[4]

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[5] and Max Weber.[6] Although, more specifically, Miller argues that consumers are inspired to see the objects they pursue as constitutive of their identity.[7]

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”.[8]

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.[9] 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”.[10] 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.[11]

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.

 

[1] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London: Continuum, 2005).

[2] Ibid. 126f

[3] Ibid. 130

[4] 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.

[5] Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), Kindle Edition

[6] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge, 20011930).

[7] Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. 70

[8] Ibid. 94

[9] Ibid. 16

[10] Ibid. 16

[11] 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.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

4 responses to “Don’t be Self Consumed – Worship Locally”

  1. Hi Digby. Thanks for your post. You mentioned in the beginning that your church background includes a liturgical tradition. And you also see the disconnect between the symbols, traditions, objects and the meaning and practice behind it. Miller in chapter 7 includes as part of his solutions to combat culture and religious commodification a return to some form of liturgy.

    Question, what preventative action can we take to ensure our worship/ecclesiastical practices, etc. inside our church buildings don’t lose its meaning and significance when we step out of our places of worship? Interested in your thoughts on this brother.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hey Harry. Written from my cell phone. I can’t speak for your context, but in New Zealand much has been lost in the rush to be contemporary or relevant. Pastors have by and large lost their own connection to each traditions history. For example, when I was a Baptist I was horrified by the modern adoption of leadership models that undermined the very foundations of Baptist ecclesiology: separation of church and state (that means both ways), congregational government, and the absolute right of people to believe as they choose without coercion from either the state or ecclesiastical body. Modern Baptist leaders are often horrified by such thoughts; especially the last one. Those three foundations came from the appalling persecution of anabaptists in the 16th and 17th centuries. Loosing that connection has mean pastoral leaders are well adrift from their historic moorings and have become obsessed obout relevance, growth based in the profit motive and the competition of capitalism. Anglicans (Episcopalians) are not quite so bad, but we have suffered under the influx of other denominations over the last two decades. As a result some of our uniqueness has been damaged by relevance based adaption, not for the sake of mission, but rather to keep the current crew of church inmates happy – after all, they pay the bills. However we are pushing back on this. I find it better to ask how the church can be incarnational rather than contemporary or relevant. Incarnation requires theological reflection both past and present. What have we learned over the years and what is yet to be learned alongside.
      You asked about liturgy. For me and the people who are drawn to it, liturgy is the centre of the ‘why’ for worship and also acts as the ‘how’ (by liturgy, I mean the public orally responsive statements and declarations of faith and prayer mixed with music). In the episcopal tradition, liturgy is the thinking and worship of the ages coming to life in the present. Perhaps it’s most powerful role is the way that it provides and road map to worship when you don’t know how or have reached the limits of your own individual capacity. Modernised not liturgical worship rests entirely on the power of the individual. It assumes a prepared heart, it assumes a desire for worship, it assumes enjoyment, it assumes a lot. Liturgy assumes little. I merely provided a map to worship no matter where you are at personally. In my darkest moments of faith, liturgy has provided a light in the darkness, it enables me to worship even when I have forgotten how, or the desire is not there. For many who are new to faith it means the ability to engage without any need to have personal experience or faith. In simple terms, people worship their way to faith without knowing it – there’s a novel thought. But it isn’t novel at all, it was the thinking and experience of generations before. However, when church leaders forget from where they come, they begin the faithless struggle towards relevance. What’s interesting however, is that in our struggle for relevance we are only assuming irrelevance. In secular NZ, young people with no church connection, really enjoy liturgical worship (made accessible of course) because they don’t know they are not supposed to. They kickback against ancient liturgy has been from within, not from outside. And leadership have been responsible for that. So, we are pushing back, making the faith of the ancestors accessible to a new generation trying to find their way and find God in this new world, that, in truth, is not so new. That was very long, sorry Harry!

      • Digby Wilkinson says:

        Oh, forgot to add, we have begun to educate and re-educate about our liturgy by retelling the stories behind it’s coming to be. When people know the WHY, they tend to engage with the WHAT and HOW. It’s EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION, often through human story.

  2. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Digby, I am grateful I know you. And thank you for writing what you did – the middle class home with the toys and Chinese factory worker stuck with me too. And I was hoping for more ways forward as well. I almost wrote on Tom’s Shoes as a case study but couldn’t get myself to – I am conflicted. I think about these things, our daily choices, the world’s poor, often. I have some guilt for what I have or what others do not. I have traveled enough and stayed in the Philippines for awhile to have some awareness and yet my daughter plays travel volleyball. Ok, enough confession. Just thanks for listening and writing.

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