Consumerism and Tired Christian Criticisms

I just finished reading Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh. Fare Forward readers will be familiar with many of its themes, but I found it insightful nonetheless.

One of his more interesting suggestions is that, contrary to much Christian rhetoric, we should understand consumerism as a form of detachment rather than attachment:

Most people are not overly attached to things, and most are not obsessed with hoarding riches. Indeed, the United States has one of the lowest savings rate of any wealthy country, and we are the most indebted society in history. What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.

The interesting thing about this is that Christianity also preaches detachment, of a sort, from material objects. In this sense, consumerism is a kind of spirituality that bears similarities to Christianity. But while both speak to a condition of restlessness and dissatisfaction, they make very different things out of them. The restless of consumerism—always needing to obey the latest fashion or craze—seeks to resolve itself by deeper commitment to the process of consumerism itself, of hunting for novelty. The restlessness and detachment of Christianity resolves itself by find rest in God (“Our heart is restless until it rests in you”) and, therefore, in caring for our neighbors.

I found this re-framing of consumerism pretty helpful, and a good example of the kind of carelessness that Christians have fallen into. We’ve inherited a set of stock criticisms of the broader culture, many of which don’t quite accurately capture the spiritual condition of our age. I think in this respect of the essay by Helen Rittelmeyer urging conservatives to stop criticizing relativism and recognize that the biggest challenge they face comes from alternative moralism. We have to do a better job of thinking well about the actual state of the culture around us, not in an effort to paint a more accurate portrait of “our enemies,” but to see what ways the Gospel is and isn’t implicitly present, and to more effectively invite people into the church.

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  • Ryan Bouton

    An excellent meditation. Let us all read more Cavanaugh!