My gratitude goes out to Brian for his thoughtful comments on my last post. In response to those comments, here are some more thoughts. First, I’m using “consumerism” to refer to a culture/lifestyle which makes the pursuit of material possessions a chief priority in life. Regardless of what the possession is (a t-shirt or a big-screen-tv), the pursuit of it for its own sake characterizes consumerism, and if we take seriously Jesus’ teachings about possessions and who will inherit the kingdom of God, we would have to say this consumerism is flat-out sin.
I take for granted that there are some necessary possessions, such as food, clothing, and even our homes. In every one of these cases, the buyer can treat the possession properly (with modesty and gratitude to God) or sinfully (idolatry). The real estate market definitely adds elements of materialism to even modest homes, but the attitude of the purchaser is the issue. Is the house purchased because of what a nice house it is, or because of the opportunities for mission and fellowship come along with it? For example, buying a house in a neighborhood where you live and work is fully appropriate when it is done incarnationally (i.e. for the sake of living in proximity to the people with whom you are called by God to work), but not if it is simply because a person wants a nicer house. Either way, a lapse into the sinfulness of the community (be it buying drugs from a crackhouse near by or buying a brand-new Hummer) would be inappropriate.
The reason is this: When we contextualize the Gospel to translate it to American culture, we have to do so in a way that uses different languages and media to convey the truth of Jesus Christ, but remains faithful to that truth. Thus while we use the culture’s language, we still have to critique the culture’s sin.
As Brian pointed out, the use of expensive electronics by churches may seem extravagant materialism to some, but there is a difference between using tools and idolizing status symbols. A projector and a laptop enable praise songs to come alive in the voices of a young generation. Mp3 players and the internet allow people who wouldn’t or couldn’t step foot inside a church to access the Gospel. The culture’s language (up-beat music, film, etc) is used to communicate Christ, and Christ convicts us of the need to repent of the sinfulness of other parts of the culture, including empty impractical consumerism.
I’m raising this question in regard to American culture because I think some other efforts at contextualization fail at effectively critiquing the culture’s sin of consumerism. Example 1: Should someone ministering to high schoolers or college students wear Abercrombie and Fitch to be attractive to his/her target people group? I would say no. Doing so would convey a truncated Gospel, one divorced from action, because it conveys a subliminal endorsment of senseless materialism, human rights abuse, racial stereotyping, and sexual objectification. Certainly the Gospel can be made attractive to a younger generation without compromising moral standards demanded by Jesus Himself.
Example 2: Christmas. Everyone knows that Christmas commercialism is not Christian, but we still spend billions of dollars on it as a country every year. Last Christmas, as part of the “Buy Nothing Christmas” campaign, I saw an advertisement with a picture of Jesus and the caption, “When did I tell you to buy this much stuff for my birthday?” Here the medium of communication was an advertisement. The message was conveyed using our cultural language (advertising!), but the message was fully congruent with Biblical teachings. Contrast this with trying to Christianize Christmas by just reminding people that “it’s the Incarnation we’re celebrating” but still encouraging them to buy and sell needlessly. Which is more effective at conveying Biblical truth? Which is the better example of cultural contextualization?
If in Jesus Christ we are forgiven of our sin, but also convicted of the need to repent, how do we translate the Gospel to the cultural language without subliminally endorsing sin through the media we use? Doing so in America requires some very creative thought, and I would love to hear more suggestions.