Being Consumed Book Review

William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008
William Cavanaugh is, quite simply, brilliant. He’s a prolific writer. He’s one of the very best I’ve ever read in Political Theology and Social Ethics. Torture and Eucharist is one of the greatest works of Ecclesiology I’ve ever read. But for folks who are not theology geeks, he can be hard to read. Being Consumed fixes that. This short book is accessible to the masses but totally pulls are consumeristic, greedy little American pants down around our ankles. Stop what you are doing & go buy this book…
Cavanaugh begins by considering the notion of capitalism and the free market. Instead of offering a full critique – trashing capitalism – he changes the debate and asks, “When is a market free?” The free market is typically described as a market which is free to operate without interference whereby both parties in exchange stand to benefit. Using Augustine’s writings on free will he shows that real freedom must embrace the positive end toward which human life points or the telos of humanity, which is life in God. For Augustine desire is a social construct. Cavanaugh uses the contrast of negative freedom (freedom from this or that) which is pointed toward no specific end or telos, and positive freedom (freedom for something – a positive end) to draw a bead on the illusion of autonomy upon which free market dynamics rely. It is our telos which helps us discern between true and false desire. An exchange can only be free (or a market can only be free) when the will of those involved is moved toward a good end. Typically free markets pursue a lust for power. Christians must refuse giving free reign to the lust for power and give a clear account of human telos which is embodied in particular kinds of economic practices.

Next, he turns his attention to consumerism. He doesn’t make the typical assumption that consumerism is essentially about greed, and argues instead that consumerism is an unhealthy detachment from production (we don’t make our own stuff), producers (generally the poor overseas), and products (our attachment to products is short-lived) which results in a continually restless spirit; mostly because possession kills desire. He uses the Eucharist as a model for healthy consumption which changes us into the body of Christ whereby we are consumed by the world around us and by God. Instead of consuming, we are consumed. Through it we find healthy attachment to God, but also to others; including production, producers, and products.

Cavanaugh considers globalization by examining the binary concepts of the global and the local. He defines Globalization as a sort of aesthetics produced by a particular kind of desire which fails to produce to unite human beings because it abstracts human relationship from their concrete embodiment in the particular and local (thus it is a sort of parody of catholicity). He makes a fascinating argument that Globalization appears to encourage diversity on the particular and local level. Yet it’s never ending drive to proliferate serves to allow the local and particular to actually be swallowed up in what he calls the “universal gaze.” There are profound and prolific differences, yet they do not matter as they all become swallowed up in the global or “universal gaze.” Drawing on Han Urs von Balthasar, Cavanaugh argues the Christian response involves Christ as the “concrete universal,” as local communities realize their universality in particular and local ways.

Finally he deals with the myth of scarcity by contrasting the assumptions of scarcity and abundance. His assessment of the myth of scarcity is based chiefly on the critique of the assumption that human desire is limitless, which results in a tragic view of the world. His solution is based in the Eucharist, which tells the story of abundance and life in God that beckons each person to call into question their way of life especially in regards to the poor. God’s abundance consumes us as the Eucharist proclaims that the heavenly feast is occurring now.

Cavanaugh has an incredible mind and he writes very well. This book is interestingly very short, yet densely packed with analysis, critique and imagination. I read this book, in part, because I am preaching about consumerism as a part of our advent celebrations in my church. I wanted to be informed by Cavanaugh’s critique. However, after reading it I’m forced to realize just how far away most of us are from his vision of humankind. Christian formation is always ongoing, but it seems – for most of my church at least – more formation would be required to read and understand this text. I’m inspired to keep chipping away at the assumptions of my congregation and to continually call into question our economic practices, especially in regards to the poor and the environment.

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