Monday, August 28, 2006

Crunchy Cons: Consumerism

It’s probably been 20 years since I read the biography of pioneering Christian musician Keith Green, but one thing I remember vividly was his abhorrence of “jesus junk”. Some producers stamp an icthys on a pencil sharpener in either a misguided or a cynical attempt to appeal to a Christian market. He was mad at the Christians who consumed such stuff because he felt that it was dishonoring to Jesus to use his name and his symbols so cavalierly – like a fashion accessory or decorative option. He felt as though it violated the spirit of the commandment about not taking God’s name in vain. (Cerulean Sanctum has a post on this topic – featuring an absurd real life example of this kind of jesus junk).

Ghosts of Green’s complaint revived in my brain as I read the chapter on Consumerism in Crunchy Cons. Dreher defines what he means by consumerism: “It’s an uncodified materialist philosophy that considers the acquisition of goods and services at the least expensive price to be a fundamental social value. Consumerism fetishizes individual choice, and sees its expansion as unambiguous progress. A culture guided by consumerist values is one that welcomes technology without question, and prizes efficiency. A consumerist culture also tends to cede authority to the secular priesthood of scientists and other professional experts. Its idea of liberty involves the steady increase of the individual’s sovereignty ….A consumerist society encourages its members both to find and express their personal identity through the consumption of products. Its ultimate goal is the spread of happiness and well being through the improvement of material conditions, and the creation and general increase of wealth.” (29)

And then to prove that he’s not some kind of radical Marxist, Dreher qualifies “This is not to demonize wealth, at least not wealth gained through hard work and fair play. There is nothing objectively wrong with material progress, and a great deal right with it.” (29)

His point is a simple one – the love of money (and material things) is the root of all evil. Dreher doesn’t advocate withdrawing completely from the world, but he does ask questions about the affect of technology and endless consumption upon our lives. He suggests that those who opt out of the techno-consumerist carnival are often considered strange. We experienced this up close and personal – our first months of marriage we didn’t have a TV and didn’t plan to get one, and people thought we were nuts. For Christmas, we received a TV/VCR combo, so that little avenue of resistance was foiled, but in 10 years of marriage, we’ve never subscribed to cable or satellite TV. (for this reason – I didn’t want the bombardment of advertisements, the temptation to waste tons of time on triviality, and the flood of sexual imagery that comes with cable TV). But people still react as though we were some kind of lunatics to not have cable.

And that’s but one example. Consider the relentless pressure toward conformity that our teenagers face in the social hothouse that is high school. Think of the push toward bigger houses (McMansions, they’re called), bigger vehicles (who really needs a HumVee as a personal vehicle), and more elaborate amenities. Sadly, our president’s advice after 9/11 wasn’t to conserve and prepare for a long struggle. His advice was to go shopping (though I understand the logic – we shouldn’t let the terrorists think they had crippled our economy – even so, it was pretty indicative of the state of our nation). The thoughtless push to consume, buy, and acquire goes almost unrestrained in our lives. Isn’t this what Ray Bradbury warned us about in Farenheit 451? Isn’t this Brave New World? Even the recent teen sci-fi novel Uglies hits on these issues of shallow consumerism. Sometimes it takes a jolt to make us ask “what are we doing?”

Such a jolt may very well be a crisis of national proportion (see my earlier series on the Fourth Turning for further thoughts on this topic). If such a crisis does indeed strike, then it behooves us to wean ourselves from consumerist ways – but even if it doesn’t, it will be well for our spirits, our health, and our ongoing economic security if we pull back from relentless consumerism. This is where faith comes in handy:

* The discipline of Sabbath keeping – one day in seven for refraining from labor. Such a discipline reminds us that we are not entirely economic creatures. It prompts us to breathe and enjoy relationships. It leads us to find fulfillment in something other than laying waste our powers by getting and spending. It teaches us to look beyond ourselves to our Provider of all good gifts.

* The discipline of tithing – a sure way to break money’s hold over our hearts is to give it away (so I heard Richard Swensen say in a lecture from his book Margin). The more we’re able to give it away, the more we’re able to appreciate what we do have. If we give 10% to the Lord’s work (way above what most folks give), then God develops within us a healthy appreciation of money and material things.

* The discipline of fasting – taking time to refrain from food helps free us from gluttony. It leads us to appreciate what we have all the more. It leads us to identify with the hungry. It reminds us that God’s good gift comes in its own time. Sometimes It’s good to go hungry.

I could write much more, but I’m running out of my allotted time this morning for blogging. Let me know your thoughts about consumerism and resisting it.

Soli Deo Gloria


Index of interesting Links:
Other reviews
* Jonah Goldberg from National Review -- a withering attack (while admitting there's lots of good in the book)
* Kevin Holtsberry from RedState online
* Maxwell Goss of Right Reason gives one of the more balanced critiques I've read.
* The Wall Street Journal's review
* Michael Dougherty giving a reasoned and balanced critique.

Crunchy Con resources
* Russell Kirk Center
* Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog
* The Immaculate Direction a blog that is very crunchy connish
* Cerulean Sanctum’s series relating the book to 21st century Christian life. Very thoughtful and thought provoking.