Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The case for consumerism

There exists a large swath of the population that makes good money decrying consumerism. Never are they more vocal (or more profitable) than during the Christmas season. We have forgotten the reason for the season, we are told, and have sold ourselves into the bondage of consumerist avarice.

What is consumerism? It’s, um, well, it’s hard to define…

See, everyone consumes. Else we would die, cold and illiterate. When you eat an apple, drive your car, or write a blog post, you consume. Economies are formed on this principle. You can look it up.

Ostensibly, consumerism is the act of consuming excessively. What is excessive? That’s in the eye of the beholder. Usually, the anti-consumerism crowd defines the consumerist as one who consumes more than they, but you will occasionally find the self-loathing consumerist, who assuages his guilt via acts of linguistic flagellation and the admonition to sponsor a child or two.

Contrary to the insistence of well-meaning but economically ignorant people, consumerism during the Christmas season works out great for the poor and rich alike. It creates seasonal employment, and the influx of cash is often singularly sufficient to keep entire industries afloat.

Consider this. One million babies are destroyed every year. Planned Parenthood is offering gift cards (I kid you not) redeemable for abortions. The anti-consumerists don't seem to care about that, but it’s a crime that I bought a sweater for my wife? I’m rejecting the spirit of Christmas somehow by unwrapping a Blu Ray player (fingers crossed) this Saturday?

Am I to believe that Christ is cool with the sanctioned slaughter of 100,000 innocent people in December, but outraged by my request for a festive tie?

Some find the Christmas season stressful. That stands to reason. Most people hate parting with their money for the benefit of other people. Who wants to drive across town to find the right gift for someone they care about? Who wants to deal with the obsessively smiley clerks in women’s clothing sections (my name is not sweetie, dammit!) of mall stores and pay for the privilege?

For some, it’s all pain and no gain. Granted, it’s also winter, and that means snowstorms and gridlock and traffic deaths. In America, we consumerists are the victim of hemisphere. Not Christ’s fault, but neither ours.

Of course, churches are notorious for going balls to the wall in December. Add to that couples, many of whom having engaged to wed one year prior, who think a holiday wedding is just so romantic. Churchgoers are left with a pretty full plate, and are thusly ornery.

The conventional Christian take on the whole Christ vs. Consumer mode is highly influenced by crude semantics. In short, the word ‘reason’ rhymes with ‘season’, a fact not lost on pastors who understandably look hard for themes to tie together messages.

So is this the right time to guilt congregations into contriving a deeper meaning into what really is a very human holiday? Efforts to infuse extra meaning into the Christmas season usually entail extra meetings, extra services, and extra stuff to do. Even non-Christians feel compelled to make a couple extra treks across the tundra to the local house of worship.

And why Christmas and not Easter? We kill ourselves celebrating Christ’s birth, and the part where he sacrifices his life for us gets boiled eggs?

Let’s address the theological underpinnings of the anti-consumerism crusade. It usually boils down to the passage where Jesus calls upon the rich man to sell his possessions and follow him. I mean, what could be more anti-consumerist than that?

Fair enough, and if you are nodding your head in agreement, sell your computer to the poor. Oh, and enjoy the walk home. You sold your car right? Come to think of it, you’ll need to lose the home, too.

Still here? Then shut up and learn something. The whole meaning of that verse was not to compel us to immediately abandon any and all possessions for the sake of doing so. Christ nowhere asks his disciples to do so. His point was to highlight the fact that the man’s heart was owned by his possessions.

I can’t think of a season during which Americans are less consumed with possessions than during Christmas. Most Christians are overworked hosting relatives, cooking geese, and locating gifts (gifts being, of course, the opposite of possessions). The obsession with making this holiday more than it is, for locating some profound reason within an arbitrarily determined commemorating the birth of our savior, is what’s owning us.

To the sanctimonious anti-consumerism hustlers, I say “ba humbug”. Go sell your soap box and sponsor a cleft palate. The rest of you know where to find me. I’ll be the one sipping wine, shopping for sweaters, with visions of Blu Ray dancing in my head.

Consume on that.


Blogger revmorey said...

Typically I read your latest post for the laughs - which you do often deliver. But your exegesis troubles me regarding the story of the rich young man instructed to sell everything and give to the poor, then follow Jesus.

The text - whether you're reading from Matthew, Mark, or Luke - has been explained away and aside often enough from most pulpits to make the average church-goer believe that whatever the "reason for the season,” it simply could not be a call to die to self - whether through sale and disbursement of goods or through severing relationships that come between us and God - and live to Christ. I’m no fan of any preaching that uses this text – or this season – for its own gain (“It’s Christmas! Time to remember what the season is all about – so don’t go shopping and buy big TVs for yourselves. Bad, bad Christian! Instead, give that money to the church, so WE can buy a TV!”). I will, however, applaud preachers who will speak boldly about loving those who suffer more than we love our own comfort, much as God so loved the world that he gave his only son. . .you get the point.

Sip your wine, by all means, and dream in Blu Ray - but do so knowing that just because we all fall short of the glory of God is no reason to assume that this troublesome text is not directed toward us (in fact, in the verses that immediately follow, the disciples DO point out that they have given up everything, both material and relationship, for sake of Jesus and the gospel. This is the unavoidable follow-up whether you're reading Luke 18, Mark 10, or Matthew 19.).

So let's not do away w/the tension this text causes just for the sake of doing away with the tension. Whether we live up to the ideal or not, it's a deep reminder that we are always called to invest ourselves in a Kingdom where the meek shall inherit the earth, and the poor – in spirit or in fact – are blessed.

And a merry Christmas to you, while I’m at it.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

I don't intend to do away with the tension caused by this passage, and I agree that falling short of the ideal is no reason to do away with it entirely. But what is the ideal, and what does buying and receiving gifts have to do with it? Christ is worried about the status of the heart. Not he does not chastise the man for having possessions in the first place.

I would make the case that the Midwestern obsession with extended family is at least as powerful a hindrance to following Christ as possessions, and we freely indulge that obsession during the holidays. But Quit Worshipping the Family isn't going to move any books.

If you DO believe the ideal is to give away all possessions, then you have two options: Do so; or quietly mourn your unwillingness to do so. Don't build your own personal brand my decrying others' failure to meet your interpretation of the text.

And it is, of course, outrageous to accompany a screed against consumerism with a direct request for money, especially when you make a six figure salary. I'm looking at you, Jim Wallis.

10:38 AM  
Blogger revmorey said...

hmmm. . .Christmas Eve Eve thoughts. . .

1) I agree that determining the ideal is the first task; I'll also be so bold as to say that, by biblical design, that's a moving target on its way to a cross and empty grave. "Discipleship" is, of necessity, following a person and not principles, and for the Christian that person is Jesus. So if that's our "ideal", we should all be wandering single itinerants calling people away from gainful employment to ply their trade "of men" ("What do you do?" "I process TPS reports." "Come, follow me, and I will make you a TPS report processor of. . oh, hell. Pass.")

2) This confirms your impulse to nthe midwestern (personally, I'd widen this to "Bible Belt" given my time in the south) idolatry of the family - shockingly, I even heard a courageous pastor name this as such. Incidentally, she was also single and itinerant and lived a quasi-monastic life. She remains a hero in the ministry to me.

3) That said, I still feel as though you're pushing to an either/or resolution to the tension between what we are (insert favorite synonym for "totally depraved" here) and what we are called to be when you say "do so, or quietly mourn your unwillingness to do so." Jim Wallises of the world aside, we were all in a specific place, time, family situation, and set of responsibilities when Jesus found us. He may, in fact, call us to ditch all - as he did the disciples and this poor rich man; he may call us to sever relationships because they have taken hold of our hearts in an idolatrous way (been there.).

I'm still going to admire those whose lives of simplicity call me to self-examination and what I am putting between myself and my God. And I will pray for the courageous vision to be ever "employed or laid aside for Thee", whatever that may require of me at the time. Even if it reveals me to be the inconsistent and messy imitator of Christ that I know myself to be, on my best days.

3:10 PM  

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