Interacting with popular culture as a Christian has been an interesting journey. In the church of my youth we couldn’t dance, drink alcohol or go to movies and a few other abominations. We looked at pop culture with suspicion. When I was in middle school a friend asked if I had heard the song…
This week marks the beginning of Lent. For many of us, we understand Lent as a time of sacrifice and deprivation. It is a time of “giving up” stuff, habits and patterns, eating chocolate, drinking coffee, soda, watching television, limiting our internet time, withdrawing from playing solitaire, doing less shopping at the mall, and the list goes on and on. And I’ve noticed that the more technologically advance we have become, the greater the selection of things we have to give up! Some even try to give up “unhealthy” relationships. Whatever it is, we begin our 40 day journey of “giving up” and sacrificing perhaps with good intentions.
Yet, every year I ask myself, “why do we continue to try to “give up” something or someone and then at the end of the 40 days…we take it back?” What’s the difference? What are we trying to prove? Is the practice of “giving up” for 40 days caused our “desire” for these things to increase? Is it possible that Lent has become a journey of “consumption” for some people?
In his book, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture” Vincent Miller suggests that the problem between consumer culture and Christianity is not from conflicting goals of desire, but from the focus and texture of desire. He goes on to say that consumer desire is not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself.
For example, let’s take on the simple subject of chocolate. Obviously, we can give up chocolate for 40 days, many give it up every year with great success. However, their longing and craving for chocolate does not melt away. Easter baskets are filled with chocolate bunnies and eggs for those who have successfully abstained from eating it for 40 days. And for the more “religious/spiritual” there are chocolate crosses to enjoy after their 40 days of fasting. Sometimes I wonder if the chocolate industry has caught on to the fact that Lent is a time of the year when people cease to eat chocolate but then return to their daily consumption of it!
But there is a bigger issue than simply the desire for chocolate (or whatever else it is that we choose to give up). There is the critical issue of understanding the differences and similarities of the constructions of desire between consumer culture and Christianity. Miller states that it is not his intention to critique consumer culture but to explore how religious belief and practice are transformed by its structures and practices.
According to Tim Edwards, author of “The Contradictions of Consumption” the consumer society is a desiring society. Most people have difficulty in differentiating between “real” needs and “false” desires. Miller offers several examples of this (i.e., family sizes have decreased and home sizes have increased; larger houses filled with more appliances; large wardrobes). Yet when we have these things they leave us longing of more. Perhaps we may not sing along with Mick Jagger, but we’re certainly living out the words to his song, “I can’t get no satisfaction,
I can’t get no satisfaction. ‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try. I can’t get no, I can’t get no.”
Miller suggests that modern marketing and advertising constructs consumer desire in two complementary ways: by seduction and misdirection. Seduction is more about the continued desire of objects than about immediate gratification. It is the thrill of seeking, searching and reaching out for more that overwrites the disappointment and frustration of not obtaining it immediately. Misdirection, as Miller states, is about encouraging consumers to think of consumption as a way of enacting profound values and fulfilling serious desires. It is about the substitution of a practice, not the substitution of values.
So what is the impact of consumer culture on our Christian faith and practice? I appreciated the way Miller began his introduction, “this is not a book about religion against consumer culture; it is a book about the fate of religion in consumer culture.” The impact of consumer culture on our Christian faith is not necessarily what we believe, but how we put it into practice. The problem is the way in which the structures and practices of a consumer culture influence religious beliefs and practices. Miller states, that “when consumption becomes the dominant cultural practice, belief is systematically misdirected from traditional religious practices into consumption… When members of consumer cultures sincerely embrace religious traditions, they encounter them in a fragmented, commodified form. Beliefs, symbols, and even practices come abstracted from their connections to one another…Thus religious beliefs is always in danger of being reduced to a decorative veneer of meaning over the vacuousness of everyday life…” 
So, back to Lent, is it a journey or practice of consumption? Are we giving up something, only to take it back after 40 days? Jesus never took it back, but gave it all, not for His sake, but for all of humanity.
When was the last time you sent an email with a typo or an emotional response and regretted it? Did you know Abraham Lincoln had a similar problem? According to Daniel Forrester in his book Consider; harnessing the power of reflective thinking in your organization, Daniel tells us about Abraham Lincoln’s communication habits and his electronic messaging practice (Forrester 2011 p38). It was Lincoln’s deliberate practice to communicate first in person, next in a carefully articulated speech or letter and as a last resort, if he had to communicate quickly; he reverted to Tmail (Telegraph messaging).
When running the war, the telegram was the quickest way to communicate and to collect data to analyze. Analyzing Lincoln’s thousands of telegraphs is one of the best ways to understand his immediate thinking. Even then, he was very careful to craft his message before it was sent. Most often, Lincoln would write out his message, reflect on it, cross out words, add new words in and sometimes he told the telegraph clerk not to send. Lincoln new that an emotional message sent off quickly in response to a situation can cause unnecessary tension on both sides. An example of this was when he wrote to General Burnsides for not supporting General Rosecrans while under attack at Chattanooga, Lincoln said, “it makes me doubt whether I am awake or dreaming.” He immediately reconsidered and wrote on the back of his draft, not sent.
We can learn from Lincoln, sometimes a message does not need to be sent. I like the rule, if you feel emotional about a situation, write out a response, but do not send for 24 hours and then review it one more time. I have found that often, I reword the message or do not send it at all. Maybe, writing down my response was a way for me to articulate how I felt at the moment and the message was very inappropriate to send to another person!
Good leadership takes time to think about and reflect on how best to communicate and how messages will be received and reacted to. We can learn from Lincoln and prioritize how best to communicate. I have adopted his approach:
- Communicate in person whenever possible, especially to communicate important information.
- Next, Skype or video conferencing allows people to see some body language.
- Phone is next as one can hear inflection and listen for immediate feedback.
- Email would be next but follow up in person to make sure messages were received correctly and not distorted. Written words need to be carefully thought out and crafted. We can learn from Abe here.
- Snail mail would be better than email as it shows consideration and time to write a note in long hand if one has the time to send.
- Texting works well for a quick short message. And refrain from texting while driving.
Have you taken time to think out your communication strategy? What are your priorities?
Forrester, Daniel Patrick. Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Religious Symbolism and the Church
Miller’s book, Consuming Religion, summed up the consumer driven culture of many Christian denominations and theologies found in our world today Churches and Christian non-profit organizations have experienced great wealth and membership growth when they have been able to meet the demands of their constituents. This can be both positive and negative. In some cases, Christianity has been used as a marketing ploy for “Christian celebrities” and churches to attract monetary donations used to feed greedy individuals. On the flip side, leveraging communication and marketing structures to propagate the message of Christ in a relevant manner is critical for churches today. Many denominations utilize religious symbols or elements to engage people in faith practices. Miller’s book, Consuming Religion, provides a summary of commodification and the impact to faith. Today’s culture is so engrained in consumerism that people approach even religion with a consumer mindset. The dynamics of commodification causes people to “consume” religion instead of engage in their faith. Christianity becomes something they can acquire just like any other commodity.
After reading Miller’s book, I thought about my grandmother who was a PLT club member in the 1970s – 1980s. The PTL club (Praise The Lord) was hosted and owned by a couple, Jimmy and Tammy Faye Baker. They preached the “prosperity gospel”, which is still prevalent today. This theology teaches that one receives blessings and happiness from God when they live an obedient life and are reconciled to God. They amassed a cult like following of lower and middle class Americans. I remember my grandmother saying that God was going to provide her with wealth and riches because she is supporting the work of Jim and Tammy Faye. The only thing that my grandmother ever got from supporting PTL club was a drained bank account and a false sense of security that she was going to heaven because she supported that ministry.
Throughout history of the Roman Catholic Church, some form of religious icons or materialism can be found. The 95th Thesis of Dr. Martin Luther spoke out against the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences are “remission of part or all of the temporal and especially purgatorial punishment that according to Roman Catholicism is due for sins whose eternal punishment has been remitted and whose guilt has been pardoned (as through the sacrament of reconciliation)” The Catholic Church also has many saints with corresponding religious icons that can be found, such as the statues and images of the Virgin Mary. She is considered the “queen of heaven” and people pray to her daily for everything from healing to interceding for love ones to get into heaven. There have been attempts to reform the Catholic Church, but as Miller has pointed out, neo-traditionalists have rejected attempts to modernize Catholicism and have stuck to the traditional practices, beliefs, and costumes of the church.
Evangelicals have also fallen into the trap of religious icons and symbols. Many of our churches view their buildings, pastors, and doctrines as “sacred cows” that cannot be changed or modified. In the church that I am currently serving, there is an underlying mentality that nothing should be changed because we will lose our history and tradition. This mentality is common throughout of our older established churches, and change does not always come easily or joyfully. Everything from the old organ to the painting of Jesus on the wall has become an icon. While these items may not be overtly worshiped, people view them as a necessary part of their worship experience.
I believe that the message to Christian leaders is one of caution. Understanding the dynamics of commodification is important, as faith is not something that can or should be marketed or acquired. We need to carefully balance our marketing efforts to ensure we aren’t just driving for church growth, popularity, or financial gain. The focus must first and foremost stay on Christ. If any symbol or communication from or within the church takes the focus away from Christ, then it should not be used.
My title may be simply words to one of Madonna’s songs, as she sang about her own personal taste as a material girl. However, her conclusion is quite accusatory as she sings, “Experience has made me rich - And now they’re after me, ‘cause everybody’s…living in a material world.” Her statement implies that living in a material world makes one a material girl or boy. Unfortunately, Madonna had quite a grasp on our Western world. The words ring so true as we begin to understand that almost all things have been commodified and in our consumer culture we are all to eager to acquire these material things. Such material desire has made its way and stance within the church.
Through Miller’s book Consuming Religion we learn that even in the religious sectors we see the commodification of the spiritual things represented by material items. Miller notes that this commodification of religion needs content and that this commodification has spawned “an interest in the material aspects of religion. There is particular interest in paraphernalia of a size suitable for mass marketing” from prayer beads to jewelry, body adornments, images, statuary, vessels and the like, all are commodified and ready for the religious consumer. Miller points out that such consumption is necessary for modern capitalism. Yet this consumption it is not necessarily greed and the love of mammon, as some arguments against capitalism go, that encourages consumerism even religious consumerism. In Being Consumed, William T. Cavanaugh makes a powerful observation regarding this view of greed being the main fuel of our consumer economy, that being that greed “does not really capture the spirit of our consumer economy.” Though we live in the west it is not typical of us westerners to desire nor have the determination to hold onto the material things we acquire. We are overly attached to the things that we have consumed. We no longer buy to save, indeed Cavanaugh points out that the US has one of the lowest savings rates of any wealthy country, and at the same time we are the most indebted society in all of history. We have come to an age that we do not keep what we buy we simply discard and get the upgrade. Cavanaugh statement regarding consumerism really captured the essence of western thought for me: “Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.” That’s it! I exclaimed and read the sentence to my wife. She nodded her head with that contemplative satisfaction that I have grown to love and said, “That’s good. That’s so true! Man your program is fun.”
Cavanaugh continues with zeroing in on consumerism as “a restless spirit that is never content with any particular material thing.” This restless spirit does not, and will not, find true happiness in any item purchased. So the hunt for the next commodity commences, hoping that the next elusive prey may indeed satisfy the inner cravings. But to no avail. This inner craving is only to be satisfied in the pursuit of God. Unfortunately, the very religious system that is to assist the seeker in his quest for God has “been transformed into a narcissistic, therapeutic enterprise.” Now the empty and void spiritual man tries to fill his hollow soul with the commodified goods of his God and sings along with Madonna, “We Are Leaving in A Material World and I am a material…Christian??
 Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in A Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2003), 78.
 Ibid., 33.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Chrisitan Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 34.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., xi.
 Miller, 85.
Growing up in non-liturgical churches my understanding and comprehension of Lent was filled with indifference. I remember my cousin giving up oatmeal-raisin cookies during Lent. I could not for the life of me understand why he would do such a thing especially since oatmeal-raisin cookies were not my favorite. Maybe he did it because his parents told him (and my other cousins) that they had to give up something for Lent. Maybe it was because he really did like oatmeal-raisin cookies. Knowing him as I do now, I realize it was an act of devotion, based on his teenage understanding of Lent.
Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, forty days of reflection. Joan Chittister, speaks of Lent as calling us “to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now.” My pastor, Matt Robbins-Ghormley quoting Frederick Buechner wrote, “During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves…to answer questions like this is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.” Robbins-Ghormley followed this by asking, “What are we becoming? What are we failing to become? Lord, do your work in us this Lent.”
These words fit with the two books read this week, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consuming Culture by Vincent Miller and William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Miller confronts the prevailing notion that our beliefs drive our behavior. This statement comes home to me when I think about our prevailing Christian culture in which the stated beliefs of our political leaders is expected to be a consistent with a prescribed affinity for certain policies. I recognize the disconnect when I acknowledge that I give little thought to many of the things I purchase, whether that is the clothing I buy or the food I purchase at the grocery store. I am paying more attention to what I am purchasing and its origin, but the truth remains I am disconnected and isolated from its production. While our garden brings produce in the summer months we are not to the place where it provides much beyond September. Whether it is clothing or food convenience and time are two commodities that factor into my purchasing choices; they are in competition with both my belief and my behavior. The reality is, as Miller recognized and Cavanaugh also attempts to address, we often want to make changes to our consumption patterns, “to live another way, but we simply do not know how.”
What are we becoming? Miller asserts that we have to look at and discern the cultural factors and influences of consumerism, centered on the commodification of culture where “religious beliefs, symbols, and values are objects of consumption.” I’ll see it in my mailbox in a few weeks when I receive postcards from at least two churches in my community advertising and inviting our household to attend one of several Easter worship services, mentioning that their worship band has a CD which is also available for purchase. We are often conditioned when we talk about the “presence of God” in our worship services, associating God’s presence with particular songs or a style of worship. It also makes me wonder what we discard when something has served its purpose (and is no longer useful). There are four evangelical churches in my community that share something in common, when the talk is about new people coming the church a good number of them will be coming from one of the other churches. For Cavanaugh consumerism is not so much about having more or buying to buy, the heart of consumerism is shopping. When we shop for churches we are often looking to see and hear certain prescribed affirmations, a certain type of preaching, some with altar calls and some without. We are shopping our preferences. What drives my shopping in my personal life? Things related to household, commuting (auto, bridge tolls & gas/petrol), and family needs. My exchange is purchase related without connection to their production, their value is in the item itself, deemed by my purchase. However I know from prior experience that even in providing basic needs there is the possibility of manipulation or bricolage, which may mean the intended purpose takes on an entirely different meaning.
The challenge for the Church amid this emerging and transitory place is to reengage with its desire. Over the past several years I have begun to practice a more liturgical form of prayer. Although the form of the prayers and scripture readings varies, there is one constant: praying the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is shaping me; the words are orienting my heart; it is creating desire. Within a consumer culture desire is created and never satisfied. Desire involves, not only our desire for God, but also God’s desire for us, the desire for the kingdom of God and God’s justice originating from God’s steadfast love.
Cavanaugh focused on the depth and breadth of the incarnation placing the Eucharist at the center. Recognized by God we are sent by God; our “very identity is discovered in one’s mission.” Earlier in the book he captured our role in revealing Christ’s identity and our part in incarnation, “For becoming the body of Christ also entrails that we must become food for others.” If I, if we could grasp just a glimpse of what we are to offer the world we would experience not what it is to consume but what it is to be consumed. I was at our Soup Kitchen today, we provided for others. I am becoming at home among these men and women. They also provided for me.
 Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing, 2005), 15.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 35.
 Miller, 72. Bricolage is a French term referring to “expediency, adapting one’s actions to the situation at hand.” It describes the work of a handyman, one who makes repairs or completes jobs utilizing the tools at hand, as opposed to a craftsman who has specific tools for his/her craft. Refer to 154-156 in Consuming Religion.
 Miller, 110. “Close examination of the texture of desire in consumer culture reveals that is not simply about fixing one’s heart on material things or sensual pleasure. Indeed, it is about never being satisfied with them.”
Starbucks Medium Ethiopia Whole Beans!
Starbucks Medium roasted Ethiopia Starbucks coffee is my favorite coffee and I enjoy it every morning. It has the best flavor and aroma of all other coffee brands I have tried. A picture of a coffee pot with a cup on the brown foil packaging reminds me of home. However, to my surprise, I have never taken time to learn more about the people who produce this coffee and how it came to be in the U.S. market. I appreciate that this week’s readings, Consuming Religion by Vincent J. Miller and “Being Consumed” by William T. Cavanaugh, increased my curiosity to find resources online that might provide information about the coffee producers behind the coffee I enjoy. Then, I ran across this great article “ Promises and Poverty: Starbucks in Ethiopia” by Tom Knudson. Knudson highlights the impact of coffee plantations on the farmers and environment. The forests are being cut down to grow more coffee and the farmers (workers) on the coffee plantation are paid as little as 6 birr, which is $0.66 cents per a day. But here is what Starbucks conveys on the foil bag packaging to its consumers, which the authors calls their claim “a marketing genius ” :
“We believe there’s a connection between the farmers who grow our coffees, us and you. That’s why we work together with coffee-growing communities — paying prices that help farmers support their families … and funding projects like building a bridge in Ethiopia’s Sidamo region to help farmers get to market safely. … By drinking this coffee, you’re helping to make a difference.”
The author also asked farmers in the regions the research was conducted and here is what one of farmer said, “ We plant coffee, harvest coffee but we never get anything out of it.”
Cavanaugh also mentions about ”Fair Trade” coffee, for example, can be read as simply showing the genius of the market to accommodate all kinds of preferences, including the preference to pay a bit more to support a poor farmer.” 
Now, what is our Ethiopian church’s responsibility to counter the alienation of coffee producers from the product of their labor? How do our churches see the alienation of producers from their products affecting our daily Christian faith and practice? Can I in good conscience continue to pay $13.99 for a bag of coffee at Starbucks while most the farmers in my home country make less than a dollar a day? Not to mention our country’s corrupted system, as I read on another article, “only 5 to 10 percent of the retail price actually goes back to Ethiopia; most of the profit is shared by distributors and middlemen in the marketing sector.”
Miller and Cavanaugh suggest better ways to consume. They both offer very practical ways Christians can encounter the consumer culture. Both Miller and Cavanaugh argue that it is not consumer culture or the free market that we are for or against. Instead it is the impact of consumer culture that impacts our beliefs and practices. Cavanaugh argues that it is our Christian calling to “create concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space - the space marked by the body of Christ.”  I realized that, just like most Ethiopians, I often find myself blaming our government for controlling everything, but little do I consider finding alternatives the community of believers could possibly facilitate within the government controlled market system. In the process of creating concrete alternative practices, Cavanaugh encourages “Christians [to be] in constant collaboration with non-Christians in making such spaces possible.” The idea of creating a space marked by a body of Christ would pose a challenging question for churches in my communities that have always been estranged.
Miller is very optimistic about the plausibility of Michel de Certeau’s idea of bricolage to understand the rationality and practice of daily life. De Certeau’s concept of bricolage refers to the ways “ ordinary women and men, those whose voices are heard only as the background “murmur” of official history, live their lives from day to day” This reminds me a story of Annalena Tonelli (1943-2003) was a Roman Catholic nun who served in Somalia as a social activist and missionary. She had accomplished many great things in her life: “she focused on tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, campaigns for eradication of female genital mutilation, and special schools for hearing-impaired, blind and disabled children.”
In addition, Miller suggest the use of tactics which are referred as the “art of the weak” to counter the influence of consumer culture. Thus, it is in the nature of our Christian calling to side with outcasts, go the extra mile, and so on. Miller is hopeful that Christians can engage in consumer culture by “ bringing what society assumes must be kept separate, for example, rejecting a safe middle-class existence, crossing class boundaries, working with outcasts for their civil rights”.
Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with Miller that we develop awareness of the origins of products and the strategies used to sell them. For example, both authors suggest buying fair trade goods and obtaining produce from local family farms may seem insignificant symbolic gestures, but can certainly raise believers’ awareness against the logic of the commodification of culture.
 Tom Knudson, “Promises and Poverty: Starbucks in Ethiopia”, 2003. http://www.tomknudson.com/starbucks_in_ethiopia.html (accessed March 6, 2014.)
 William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Kindle Locations 33-34). Kindle Edition.
 “The Coffee War: Ethiopia and the Starbucks Story” http://www.wipo.int/ipadvantage/en/details.jsp?id=2621 (accessed March 6, 2014.)
 Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Kindle Locations 22-23.
 Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Kindle Locations 39-40.
 Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009), 155.
 Wikipedia contributors, “Annalena Tonelli,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Annalena_Tonelli&oldid=583931629 (accessed March 6, 2014).
 Miller, Consuming Religion, 156.
 Miller, “Consuming Religion”, 183.
On my early trips to Romania, I was captivated by the beauty and otherness of the Orthodox churches I visited. For a protestant, the mosaics, icons, candles and abundance of gold were all breathtaking and totally foreign to me. I found that one could purchase official icons in a number of stores throughout Romania. A Romanian friend, a devote Baptist believer who was serving as a translator for our team, seemed a little annoyed at my fascination for the Orthodox churches. She became even more annoyed when I asked her to help me buy an icon before I returned home. Reluctantly she went with me to me to purchase a beautiful triptych, all the time mumbling her disapproval for this my purchase. I was thrilled to take home this beautiful piece of art, not realizing then that I was part of the commodification of religion that is the central theme of Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh and Consuming Religion: Christian Faith an Practice in a Consumer Culture by Vincent J. Miller. My sole interest in the icon was a memento of Romania, a souvenir that served no greater purpose than a nice decoration. For my Romanian friend, this symbol had deep historical roots (though as a protestant, it was negative in nature) and personal meaning that reflected her deeply held religious values and those of her religious community. For Orthodox believers, these icons had even great positive meaning that spoke powerfully to them as individuals and as part of their worshiping community. For me, the icon was a mere decoration shorn completely of any religious context. Herein lies the issue of consuming religion: “Like souvenirs brought home from distant lands, the religion of the past is excised from its cultural political context and used to decorate the everyday life of our time.”[i]
Both of these books are really about disconnection as a result of our consumer culture. Through a serious events, what is consumed has been separated from its history, its source, its meaning and its original purpose. This, according to Miller, is the result of the fragmentation through such developments as Fordism, mass production and the single family home that created a greater a distance between the worker and the products produced, the origins of products that show up on store shelves, and the traditions and support structures within extended families. What ultimately has happened is that marketers have succeeded in getting us to view products in and of themselves. In the past, the value of items came from its usefulness and purpose in a given context; now the value was in the commodity itself. Cavanaugh suggests that this has developed into “a detachment from things we buy. Our attachment to things we buy is short-lived”[ii] which leaves the consumer desiring not necessarily more, but something else. “Because of these types of desire are never satisfied, marketers have us just where they want us—chained to consuming in pursuit of happiness or our ideal identity.”[iii]
Both authors suggest that this same fragmentation has also occurred in modern religion. Today, people prefer a generalized, non-specific religion, which is made possible because —like modern stuff — religion is no longer seen as a coherent whole, nor tied to any human community where it finds its meaning and practices. “The fruit of abstraction and commodification is a loss of religion’s power to be a sources of personal and social transformation. The rich mosaic of religion’s origins, history, and meaning developed by practitioners throughout the centuries is erased—the community of faith is dissected and no longer able to draw, compel, or influence daily behavior.”[iv]
Bottom line, Christianity has been cut-off from its contextual home. For Miller, what is needed is the greater involvement of the laity in religious beliefs and practices, allowing for their deeper involvement in creating liturgical and worship space. It also involves bringing the fragments of religion back to their context, where a strong connection can be made between symbols, doctrines, and practices within historically based communities. For Cavanaugh, it is a renewed focus on the Eucharistic community that can answer modern consumerism. He states: “In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient. We are neither merely active or passive, but we participate in the divine life so that we are fed and simultaneously become food for others.”[v] By retrieving historical faith in its original context and living out faith within a coherent worshiping community, we will create space for reconnecting a fragmented people and society.
The reinvestment of context and meaning in Christian symbols and practice might be similar to my icon experience. In the recent years, I’ve come to understand the deeper meaning of icons, their rich history and the strong Orthodox theology behind the practices. I can now see in the eyes and attitudes of these pictured saints and of Christ himself the message of the incarnation, the passion and forgiveness of God, love and salvation. These are objects that inform the deepest worship of a larger community. They are objects that indeed “draw, compel and influence daily behavior.”[vi] Today, I would never purchase an icon as a mere decoration, because I can no longer separate an icon’s deeply religious significance from that of a mere object for decoration. Plus, there are plenty of other cool things I can buy as mementos of my time in Romania.
Brasov, Romania: Souvenir Stand (taken by John Woodward, 2011)
[i] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), 81.
[ii] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 35.
[iii] Dreyer, Elizabeth, “How to Remain Faithful in a Consuming Culture and is New Age Spirituality All That New?” Religious Studies Review 34, no. 1 (March 1, 2008): 1-8, accessed February 21, 2014, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, 2.
[v] Cavanaugh, 97.
[vi] Dreyer, 2.
Cavanaugh’s book, Being Consumed, explains to the reader some of the problems of Consumerism, while offering Christians informed, alternative ways of living. Miller’s book, Consuming Religion, on the other hand, focuses on what excessive consumerism has done to the practices of religion. That is, how the dynamics of consumerism have been brought into the playing fields of religion. Religion is no longer about “living for Christ” as the apostle Paul once wrote (Philippians 1), or loving one’s neighbour as Jesus taught, but about self-gratification as the marketing giants instil.
Hunger drives our search for satisfaction, whether that’s material or spiritual, and advertising points us to where such fulfilment can be gained. However, God communicates a different message. As Cavanaugh writes, “The Eucharist tells another story about hunger and consumption. It does not begin with scarcity, but with the one who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). ‘Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.’ (John 6:35)” [i]
Only God can satisfy, whether we are rich or poor, as the world defines it. Whether we live in the East or West, geography poses no threat to the influence of affluence upon the Christian faith. Wherever we live, market consumerism directly affects the pursuit of God in a nation. Of course, this is nothing new. The improved ability to satisfy our everyday, human needs, through ordinary means has in essence, lessened our dependency on God to do the same. In other words, our credit cards and bank balances have become our ‘providers.’ They have taken the place of God. What that means for our faith experience is that, because we no longer need to rely on God to do something for us, we rob God of the opportunity to move in power, which, in turn, results in an anaemic faith experience. We don’t take seriously the promise that God is actually able to do provide for us in places the credit card cannot reach.
There have been numerous times when God provided for me financially when I was broke. When I was a single, full-time student in my 20s. I was travelling each day about 55 miles by car to and from my University, plus working two or three night shifts each weekend just to make ends meet. It was tight and quite exhausting, but manageable.
One Friday morning, my employer called me up and informed me that they had made a mistake with my salary. It turned out that they had been over-charging me on tax for that previous year. They owed me £300 and were going to refund it into my bank account that very morning. Moments after putting the phone down, I realised, “God is providing this money for a reason” and it didn’t take long to find out.
Later that same day, my car engine suddenly started making a very loud noise. Thankfully, I managed to get it to my local car mechanic who was situated just down the road. He looked the car over and informed me that the car needed some major work and that it was not going to be cheap. Can you guess how much it cost? That’s right, £300. It’s a small testimony I know, but it’s incidences like these that really bolster our faith and dependence on God, and I’m sure we all have such stories.
While I wholeheartedly agree with Cavanaugh that we have a Christian duty to understand better the ethics behind the machinery of consumerism and live more responsibly, we also need to understand what consumerism has done to our faith. Life is not meant to be padded from the sufferings and trials of life that occasionally come our way. We are not called to live in luxury and plenty without sharing what God has entrusted to us. Yes, Jesus is the Bread of Life that satisfies those heart desires that Cavanaugh talks about. But God also promises to provide for us what we need to survive in this life. He desires that learn to rely on Him in the midst of our needs, which enable us to better know Him and His power, a lesson that even Paul and his companions even learned (2 Corinthians 1).
The fact is we only pursue God and His love and power to the degree that we feel our need for Him. Here in the UK, many live as if God no longer does the miraculous. Where does our faith really lie? In the power of the wallet, or the power of God? Let us not fall into the danger that Miller warns us of: “…religious belief is always in danger of being reduced to a decorative veneer of meaning over the vacuousness of everyday life in advanced capitalist societies.” [ii] Yes, let’s encourage one another to live more responsibly and ethically wise. Yes, let’s create communities where we share our resources with each other and help the materially poor. But let us also acknowledge our own spiritual poverty and encourage one another to depend on God and trust in Him as He invites us to. God is looking for relationship with us, not mere purchasers. If God can rain manna from heaven, and water from rocks, let us place a little more confidence in Him.
Dr. Tony Campolo in one of his messages I heard many years ago, mentions the results of a sociological study done of 50 men and women above the age of 95. They were all asked what they would do differently if given the chance to live their lives over again. The responses as he points out, narrowed down overwhelmingly to the following priorities :
- We would risk more
- We would reflect more
- We would do more things that would continue to have significance beyond our lives.
This message had me pondering for a period of time over what my response would be while approaching the end of the journey of my life. I made intentional efforts to set aside time for reflection, time to dream and envision and to step out in faith with a few audacious goals. Over two decades have gone by swiftly in the pursuit and the fulfilment of most of those dreams and goals and now I find myself mostly preoccupied with the immediate, present, instant and consumed by the ‘tyranny of the urgent’; more of ‘catching up’ than pursuing a vision. The reasons could be the rapid changes in communication and technology, the ever increasing demands of leadership and my personal drive to be engaged in activity; this list of reasons could go on, nevertheless, at the end of the day, they leave me with the same struggles, facing the same pressures till I discover that they all turn out to be excuses for not taking time to step back and reflect.
I was reminded of this message while reading Daniel Patrick Forrester’s Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization. The author discusses the significance and value of reflection in an individual’s life and in an organization: “To define new ways to behave and operate requires leadership that has the ability to take a big step away from what we are living as “the status quo” (Forrester 2011).” He further elaborates his point with rich illustrations from the lives of several leaders who through their regular practice of reflection have enriched their own lives and that of organizations and nations that they have led.
This reading is a timely reminder for me once again that:
- That Reflection is a powerful tool for leaders. Unfortunately it is one that is undervalued not maximized . Leaders are doers and are wired for activity, that quite often the reason attributed for the lack of reflection is lack of time. Realizing that such a stance is the greatest blunder can improve a leader’s life and increase efficiency (Kotter n.d.).
- Secondly reflection is not a passive process of inactivity as it may be perceived. Though it includes the above, Reflection involves much more; thinking, reading, writing organizing thoughts on problems and solutions; all of these turn it into an intentionally active process as well (Ibid).
- Reflection is an absolute necessity for effective and successful leadership; it is not an option. Reflection helps gain perspective of the past present and the future, undoubtedly bringing deeper insights and greater clarity on issues that leaders are constantly confronted with, required to tackle and leave behind lasting legacies.
Christian faith and tradition have taken the above realities into account and made provision for it; nonetheless, practitioners of the Faith fail to practice it. The Lenten season that we have just entered is a marvellous reminder of the criticality of and opportunity for reflection, introspection and spiritual renewal. Jesus withdrew from the crowds to be alone for Reflection, sometimes just by Himself and at other times to be with his inner circle – his disciples. From the Gospel narratives we realize that these were critical times after which he came to face the realities of earthly life and ministry with renewed vigour.
A simple poem I memorized in fifth grade titled ‘Leisure’ by W.H. Davies comes to mind:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare (Leisure (poem) n.d.).”
Forrester, Daniel Patrick. Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Kotter, John. Taking Another Look: Leading Minds on Reflection Part 1. http://www.leadershipnow.com/leadingblog/2011/02/taking_another_look_leading_mi_1.html (accessed March 5, 2014).
Leisure (poem). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leisure_(poem) (accessed March 7, 2014).