By Scott Berry, pastor and music journalist
Have you ever noticed that if you wear sunglasses long enough you forget you have them on, and sometimes even ask the embarrassing question “has anyone seen my sunglasses?” We are even less aware of the cultural lenses that always colour our vision of the world. The most all-pervading cultural lens that affects us in the Western world is that of consumerism. Wikipedia, the (dubious) source of all kinds of knowledge suggests “Consumerism is the equation of personal happiness with consumption and the purchase of material possessions.”
This messes with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it suggests that the highest level of human enlightenment is not self-actualisation but the consumption of luxuries. One of the core failings of consumerism is that wealth is judged relatively, so we compare ourselves to those around us rather than recognizing our astonishing wealth in comparison to the average occupant of this planet.
Since by definition most people cannot consume more than most people the result is that consumerism has set up a competition that the vast majority of us can never win. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman cuts to the (rotten) heart of consumerism claiming that “to increase capacity for consumption, consumers must never be allowed to rest. They need to be kept forever awake and on alert, constantly exposed to new temptations and so remain in a state of perpetual suspicion and steady disaffection”. This quote alerts us to the elements of the secular world that are beginning to recognize the soul crushing hopelessness of consumerism but also how much broader consumerism is than just materialism.
The mindset of consumerism does more than push us to buy luxury items we don’t need with money we don’t have. The stimulation from endless advertising serves to flip our brain into consumer mode permanently, which means we view every aspect of our life through these poisoned lenses. Consumerism teaches us to always be looking out for a ‘better deal’ and to avoid commitment (or bail on it) on all occasions. The outworking of consumer thinking is hinted at by the constant turnover in workplaces as neither employer nor employee ever expects long-term commitment. Consumerism helps keep the ‘church shopping’ roundabout moving as believers regularly “feel led to move on” while qualities like perseverance and commitment appear to have died a slow death soon after the birth of the baby boomers. Even those who do not leave their church still get caught up in consumeristic thinking as they rate how much they enjoyed their Sunday worship experience and how close it came to “meeting their needs” (You know a society is rich and spoilt when it’s people regularly complain that their needs are not being met while they are so clearly just talking about their wants/whims/momentary desires of the heart and would not recognize a genuine need if it smacked them in the face).
The most overt example of consumerism’s bind on the friendships of Gen X and Y’s is witnessed every time you seek to organize an event/party/dinner where RSVP’s are required. Some people are even brash enough to admit that they will not commit to an event because they unashamedly keep their possibilities open as they seek to play the ‘best options game’ waiting to the last minute to see what all their different friends offer them before choosing the most exciting activities for their weekend. The epitome of consumerism in marriages is seen when the financially attractive, ageing male trades in his wife for a younger, more physically attractive female companion.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:19 – 34 are not only timeless but they strike us as even more relevant now than they were when he first preached them at the inspirational Sermon on the Mount. This passage lifts the dark veil that our consumeristic culture has blinded us with.
1.Jesus calls us to have a right perspective on ‘stuff’ (vs 19 – 30)
There is nothing you own that will last for eternity. Material possessions are not evil but everything on God’s earth is His, so let us have a stewardship attitude towards possessions rather than a selfish, hoarding mentality. As Corrie Ten Boom said “Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”
Consider your most recent purchases (excluding core groceries); what motivated you? Were you seeking to create an image, hunting for happiness, purchasing to lessen guilt, caught in an addiction?
2. God wants us to be free (vs 32)
Consumerism is exhausting and pointless as both we and those around us are dehumanized. The great underlying deception of consumerism is that you are nearly there, happiness is just around the corner, if you only buy our product/holiday/experience/course of study/etc your life will be complete. Whenever we fall into the habit of thinking, ‘I will be satisfied when I buy that house/car/clothes’ or ‘I will be content when I get married/have kids/change jobs’; we are falling for the lies of consumerism. Our purpose in life was only ever intended to come from God. However, if life on this planet even with God still leaves us lacking contentment that is okay. The truth is we are but tourists, enjoying this exotic but sometimes disconcerting foreign land travelling towards our rightful home as citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
God has plucked us from the never-ending trap of running the rat race; why would we still be jealous of those stuck on the spinning wheel?
3. We are called to live according to his priorities (vs 33)
Jesus is not content being one of the options we sometimes turn to, he calls us to live with him as Lord. He does not treat us like a consumer; instead he treats us like his beloved child. His plan is not to make all our dreams come true; his offer is simply that we can join His kingdom. He calls us to make a stand against consumeristic thinking whenever it is unhealthy (in church and in relationships) and to instead seek to live according to Jesus’ values. The wiser elements of worldly thinking critique consumerism and recognize that it is inherently flawed and dehumanizes all involved but they have no real solution. It may sound simplistic but it is true, real freedom comes from rejecting consumerism in favour of seeking first His kingdom and his righteousness.
For further reading
‘The Corporation’ secular documentary about corporations and advertising
‘The Trouble with Paris’ Christian DVD by Mark Sayers critiquing consumerism
Article called ‘Spent’ by sociologist Amitai Etzioni in ‘The New Republic’ http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=80661c9c-9c63-4c9e-a293-6888fc845351&p=1
This article was first published in the September 2009 glossy edition of RISE magazine. See back issues here.