I remember the day quite clearly: I was a junior in high school – a time when I was active in our local Young Life group, regularly attending church, and eager to grow in my faith – and I was opening my mail at my mom’s house after school. The envelope that most excited me was from “Sound & Spirit” – a mail-order Christian music distributor. It was one of those “Buy 1 CD get 13 FREE” deals that were popular before mp3s were invented. I opened it up, flipped through the catalog inside and smiled to myself, thinking “Wow – there’s so much I can buy that will make it easier to be a Christian!”
The word consumption used to apply to disease. It described a wasting away of the body, or was used to describe tuberculosis. Marmeladov, the drunk man whom Raskolnikov encounters early on in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, speaks of his wife dying from consumption. Two books I’m reading right now think the Church is dying from consumption.
The first is Paul Louis Metzger’s Consuming Jesus and the second is Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism. Both trace the American evangelical church’s division along race and class lines to the consumerization of American society. And there’s much to support that idea: the Church certainly has played mistress and not prophet to the economic structures of the West. As Rah notes, to be a good Christian in America is to be a good consumer. Even immigrant congregations face pressure to assimilate to the unholy (Next Evangelicalism pp. 60-61). He cites two examples that are particularly disturbing. The first is President Bush’s charge to Americans after 9-11: “I encourage you all to go shopping more” (p. 48). I remember hearing these words on television eight years ago. I remember wondering then why it didn’t strike anyone around me as odd (much as I wondered silently why so many of my Christian friends in college eagerly supported the war in Iraq). The best advice this “evangelical” President could give was to shop more? Really? . . . The second example Rah cites is that of a professor at Colorado Christian University who was fired because “his lessons were too radical and undermined the school’s commitment to the free enterprise system.” That quote isn’t from Rah’s own words; it’s the statement given by the university president for why this professor was fired. That president also said “I don’t think there is another system that is more consistent with the teachings of Jesus” than free market capitalism (p. 50). I’m ashamed that this happened at a school that’s inside my home state.
Rah continues, “The Western, white captivity of the church means that capitalism can be revered as the system closest to God and the consequent rampant materialism and consumerism of the capitalist system become acceptable vices” (p. 50). The Church doesn’t just fail to confront consumerism, it buys into it hook, line, and sinker: Buy 1 CHRISTIAN CD Get 13 Free CHRISTIAN CDS and God Will Love You More!
And yet the system is somewhat inescapable. To cite the books mentioned above, I linked to their Amazon pages. (Though, no, neither was free to me nor was I paid anything to write this.) Still I have to confess I’ve traded the Sound & Spirit subscription for a book fetish, thinking at times like so many other “Ministers of the Word” that the answers to all of my questions can be found in possessing more books.
But there are changes we must make to bear authentic witness to Christ’s Kingdom. In Advent, Upper Room will be participating in Advent Conspiracy, encouraging people to spend less and give more meaningful or alternative gifts this Christmas. I look forward to the conversation we’ll have at Upper Room’s Fall Retreat in two weeks about Consuming Jesus. And I pray that the Spirit will guide us in finding concrete ways to fight of the disease of consumption.