Reflections on Black Friday

Black Friday is not Good Friday.  Paraphrasing Tony Campolo, “It’s friday but saturday’s coming”–meaning any day, even tomorrow, must be better than Black Friday.

I never cease to be amazed at what the media and advertisers can do to create a sensation. Today, one day after giving thanks, many people pressed into stores just after midnight to over spend and celebrate American consumerism. Once again, as for several years now, we will see reports on the evening news of being being trampled, tear gassed and even shot over attempts to get into the stores before others.

What is America’s real religion? Well, there’s probably no single answer to that.  But consumerism has to be right up there near the top of the options. It’s a pagan religion that almost nobody acknowledges, but the ultimate commitment it gains from many people reveals its quasi-religious status (to use Tillich’s terms).

A while back I blogged about the advertising industy and how it seems to be caught up in deceit and manipulation.  Just about a week ago a colleague’s excellent book on consumerism and advertising was published by HarperOne: Shiny Objects by Jim Roberts (or James Roberts).  Jim teaches marketing at Baylor School of Business.  His book is filled with relevant statistics to demonstrate that Americans wrongly equate spending and acquiring, often things they don’t need, with happiness. And he justifies my claim that many in the advertising business seem to lack scruples about manipulating people into buying things they don’t need and that really won’t make their lives better in any way. This book is an excellent example of prophetic cultural criticism.  It isn’t explicitly Christian, but it makes a Christian point with secular statistics and arguments–that rampant consumerism is not the path to happiness as many people wrongly assume (because they have been taught it by the media).

I can’t recommend Shiny Objects strongly enough; it is a book every American ought to read because it addresses a (perhaps the) major American habit of the heart that is false from the first and ultimately leads into inauthentic existence.

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  • I just read an article by Parker Palmer on The Huffington Post. One of his comments : “Just look at the fact that our nation-wide Christmas festivities begin on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, a day that celebrates consumerism, our true civil religion.” I think you guys are right. And I think that this is a prophetic word that is even harder to preach in churches than was race relations in the 1960s – so wedded are we to capitalism ans consumerism.

  • Tony Pounders

    Dr. Olson,
    A timely post, indeed. I had just finished the chapter, Wandering Minds, in Richard Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul, when I opened your blog page. Couldn’t agree with you more. I despise Black Friday foolishness and all similar foolishness in the plastic world of consumerism. I especially hate when I get drawn in and lose touch with reality. In Foster’s chapter, Wandering Minds, he writes, “Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day…We have noisy hearts.” In chapter one of Shiny Objects, Roberts defines ‘shiny objects’ as “anything that distracts the easily amused.”
    Sounds like a connection could be made there. At any rate, thanks for the post and book recommendation.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    For a heart that has not found rest in God, a shiny object just might do the trick.

    Are we, as Christians, pushing back against this hard enough within our Churches? or are we part of our own problem in this case?

    • rogereolson

      I remember hearing sermons on the sin of conspicuous consumption when I was a child. Somewhere along the way evangelicals lost that sense of sin. Now buying the latest gadget or name brand jacket or whatever is a sign of God’s blessing–even if we spent much more than was necessary just to show off how prosperous we are.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I’ve been to some churches where the “diamond-studded Jesus pin” is, as you say, a sign of God’s blessing. (Yuck!)

        I know and understand how to draw the line for myself (my depleted checking account helps me out there). How do we draw the line for others? Is it the products themselves or the motivation behind buying the product (jealousy, trying to be coolest, trying to fit in)?

        Seems strange, that the shoppers on Black Friday were largely not in it for themselves, rather they were buying gifts for others (my own assumption – since it is Christmas season). So they wanted to give the cool gifts, the latest and best gifts. Does this change the calculus for you?

        • rogereolson

          My critique is not so much of individual shoppers (who I think are often manipulated and misguided by the advertising industry) as of a societal habit of the heart that encourages the attitude that a person’s worth is in what they buy, own and give to others (e.g., name brand products that are over priced purchased to show off). I am not in favor of churches or Christian leaders condemning people; I’m in favor of them speaking out against a cultural attitude that links personal worth with shopping and buying. Perhaps you will remember (depending on your age) a famous line in the old TV show Family Ties where Mallory declares “I shop, therefore I am!”

  • icthusiast

    For another angle on how consumerism fits into the bigger economic picture click here

    If you like that try here for an understanding of the European Sovereign Debt crisis

    They’re a couple of satirists who appear regularly on an Australian TV news programme. The bald guy is actually a New Zealander.

    • rogereolson

      I also love the clips of Brother Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir on youtube.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Seems like too many are spending money that they don’t have. The world can handle that when (some) individuals do that. I’m afraid that when governments do that (and they have for many years) things have drifted too far into irresponsibility.

  • Mike

    “The pursuit of happiness…” The term happiness during the Scottish enlightenment, which is where Jefferson got it, means virtue and wisdom. It does not mean hedonism and acquisition. How far we have come.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, and Jefferson changed Locke’s “right to life, liberty and property” to “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If what you say he meant is true, then he was wiser than Locke.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      From what I’ve heard, Jefferson originally wrote “property” but the Style Committee changed it.

      I think “property” is better because it better describes one of the foundational truths of society – the right to own property. When that right is abrogated, theft is easily justified. “Legalized theft” will undermine a society’s confidence in the justice of government.

      • rogereolson

        Have you been reading Nozick?

        • Tim Reisdorf

          No, I haven’t read Nozick. I have read some of the Austrian Economists (and agree with much of what they say). The most notable of these in the public eye are Ron Paul and Peter Schiff. For an attempt at a Biblical case for this view, see (free, 226 page download)“Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views of Economics” published by IVP and currently out of print.

          If you decide to read it, I would be eager to hear your comments.

          • rogereolson

            I’ll add it to my long list of books I need to read! 🙂

  • Zac

    I am interested in reading “Shiny Objects”. Could you elaborate a little, though, on how exactly consumerism and Paganism are related?

    • rogereolson

      That’s not crucial to the argument of the book. You’ll get much out of the book whether you agree with that or not. I’m sure Jim is using “paganism” in a very broad sense of worship of things, not God.

  • LexCro


    Wise post, as usual. Here’s something funny: If you punch in “shiny objects” on Amazon, two books come up. The first is your colleague’s book “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy.” The second is “Shiny Objects Marketing: Using Simple Human Instincts to Make Your Brand Irresistible” by David A. LaBonte. Roberts HAS to have titled his is book strategically…right? In any event, I thought you’d appreciate that. Thanks again for such great food for thought.

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps he did, but it may just be a coincidence (viz., the two identical titles of very different books). I did not know that another book entitled Finding God in the Shack was being published by another publisher until it was too late. Fortunately for us (the two authors) our books don’t disagree all that much.

  • Black Friday is a hedonistic display to be sure. But the gold medal goes to the man made illusion called “Christmas”.

    “We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, and not because of divine authority.”

    C. H. Spurgeon.

  • Jerrine Regan

    Another good book on this subject is: Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani.

  • Ricky Leung

    CNN recently commented on the chaotic scene of Hong Kong people rushing for iPhone 4S as ugly, but I so far have not heard any similar comment on the not so pleasant scenes of Black Friday shopping.

    Some people can only find the specks of sawdust in others’ eyes but pay no attention to the planks in their own eyes. It is the pursue of happiness to them but an act of greed in others. Sin really has the power to blind people’s judgment.

    BTW, I am an immigrant from Hong Kong.

    • rogereolson

      In my opinion, this goes back to tribalism of which American exceptionalism is a manifestation. We do not like criticism of our own habits even when it comes from our own. And example is Jimmy Carter. Some commentators believe he doomed his chance for re-election when he went on television for a “fireside chat” (in a cardigan sweater) and chided Americans for our “malaise” in the face of extreme economic challenges.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest that no one likes criticism of their habits. It is very easy to criticize others for what they do – in fact, it is free. Envy is free as are slander and gossip. None of these can easily be set right if the initial premise is incorrect.

        Did not some of these people work extra (or save) to pay for these products? Are not workers worth their wages – and who then am I to tell them what to spend their money on? Truly, they may shop in ways that would be embarrassing to me, but as far as what they buy – that’s their decision.

        Now, if I was their creditor, and they were buying the iPhones on credit, I might be some concerned – especially if they had a poor record of repayment. Other than that, why should I be concerned? And why should I expect my own standards to have any sway over theirs?

        • rogereolson

          You seem to talking here about political rights; that’s not what my comments were about. Of course people have the right to spend their money however they want to (within legal limits, of course), but whether and to what extent such unfettered shopping is compatible with a Christian lifestyle is another question.

        • Job

          “Truly, they may shop in ways that would be embarrassing to me, but as far as what they buy – that’s their decision.”

          No, they only think it is their decision. When I studied marketing and new product introduction at Wharton, I was surprised at how many of my profs were engineers and mathematicians, and how sophisticated and complex the math is around generating that buying impulse. Is there any real functional utility to a Hummer, or is that decision simply emotion-based? The other day I cleaned out my pantry and was shocked at how many of our buying decisions were seemingly based on packaging alone, not the underlying product or need. For example, “Same Great Product, New Improved Package” can raise sales as much as 20%.

          You think you have free will at a conscious level, but there are marketing geeks working hard to get around it at the subconscious level. And succeeding.

  • Roger, I think it’s safe to say that consumerism is the American civil religion. “The economy” will take precedence in any conversation – especially in our upcoming election year. We hear the term spending framed in terms of macroeconomic “good works” and speak of the “paradox of thrift” of how we are doing our civic duty to the economy by spending. A nice piece in the NY Times this weekend by James Stewart exposes the frivolity of such thinking.