I’m watching with interest the exploration of the identification of ‘toxic-masculinity.’ The term has not yet achieved precise definition, but it has arisen as both an academic and social project aimed at defining traditionally tolerated root beliefs about masculinity that have grown into destructive behavioural patterns. I would argue that a key contributing factor to the emergence of this problem is toxic-individualism. The emergence of individualism, influenced by the commodification of culture and people has played a significant role in both. Miller suggests that “(o)ur very lives become objects of exchange.” Once people are reduced to individual identities forged primarily around their utilitarian contributions, they become commodified in a depersonalised, and dehumanised way. We are disconnected. Just as the the rise of consumerism led to “(t)he commodity appear(ing) naked in the marketplace, shorn of all the communal references that would give it meaning,” so too do bodies lose their communal reference and become consumable. Thus rather than spirit-filled image-bearers, people are reduced to distinct collections of flesh and blood. In order to resist the powerlessness that accompanies existence as a commodity, people are invited to also function as consumer. This creates the illusion of power and offers implied agency. At it’s worst, this redefinition of self, as simultaneously consumer and commodity, results in an internalized drive towards self-improvement in order that one might become a more desirable commodity. “Deprived of communal sources of identity, people were encouraged to invest in commodity-based self-enhancements.” Consuming products, culture and experiences that have been categorised as valuable simultaneously increases the social value of the self. Turner concurs that “(t)he increasing emphasis on fitness, hygiene, thinness and youthfulness are central planks in the maintenance of self-regulation in relation to consumer capitalism.” Thus a destructive pattern emerges where individuals are in competition with one another where consumability, reframed as desirability, is measured by the success in which one is a consumer of desirable commodities. “The various commodities on offer…were offered as solutions to the inadequacies of the self, which had now become the fundamental commodity.” Creating a deeper schism, “(c)onsumer desire is, surprisingly not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself.” While capitalist consumerism has led to to toxic-individualism, in an equally unhealthy way, communism has historically resulted in erasure of the individual leaving the collective vulnerable to the tyranny of unchecked power. Could faith practices speak into capitalist culture in a way that might nurture healthy individualism?
Perhaps a first step is to reclaim the body as a site of communion with God—the body as temple of the Holy Spirit . The practices of silence and stillness refocus our attention from external action to internal action. To be still rejects the utilitarian narrative that ‘doing’ defines our value. To do this voluntarily is an exercise of personal agency rather than an enforced act of conformity motivated by fear of punishment. To practice this in community modifies communal values. Seasons of fasting function to reject the definition of our identity as defined by our consumption. Collective prayer reorients the community to a submitted relationship with God, refusing the temptation to live out of a communal authority. To pray from scripture integrates the local community within the broader Christian story which transcends time and place. The body has thus been reclaimed by the individual who then voluntarily submits it as a site for connection with the divine, the church community and the broader Christian narrative.
Scripture reading and speaking testimonies are further practices that will embrace healthy individualism which is tempered by communal identity. Freedom to both choose connection with a sacred story and reengage the creative work of storytelling are important acts of resistance to consumerism. While the commodification of religion would have icons disconnected from their source narratives for more palatable consumption and narratives reattributed to commodities for the purpose of marketing, reading sacred stories with the corresponding images will reclaim the Christian story as a healthy counter-narrative. For example the primary story of a sacrificial God who then invites us to symbolically consume His being becomes the ultimate act of consumption as it serves to satisfy spiritual desire and strengthen relational connection to God. Furthermore, practicing this act in community rejects consumption as an expression of individualism. In the Lord’s Supper then, each chooses to be found in a common grand narrative, and then using the corresponding symbols, individually consumes food for the spirit as a community. In response, a community might then take time for personal testimony. The creative act of story telling re-connects individuals with their identity as Imago Dei. Each becomes a reflection of the creative God who created the world by story telling. Recognizing that no personal story is fully reflective, and that each distinct story enhances God’s revelation to the community celebrates the individual-communal tension. Sacred identity is then bolstered by a communal narrative which counters the consumer/consumable construction. Where “(a)ds directly challenged the communitarian social bonds of local culture by portraying isolated individuals whose status was solely dependent on their individual attributes,” sacred storytelling celebrates the individual while confirming social bonds.
In order to minister well within consumer culture, the church must engage practices that disarm toxic individualism through a balance by communalism. This is a delicate task as hints of communist philosophy will be met with full rejection. However if we can protect the body as a sacred space where the personal spirit and the Holy Spirit commune; if we can affirm the dignity and worth of each individual as an image bearer of the Divine; if we can lean into a collective identity that protects the dignity of all, then perhaps the church can shine as an example of love across diversity.
1. Vincent Jude Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 37.
2. Ibid., 37.
3. Ibid., 54.
4. Anthony Elliott. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2009), GooglePlay, 112.
5. Miller, 44.
6. Miller, 7.
7. 1 Corinthians 6:19, NIV.
8. Ibid., 44.