This is the first of four papers dealing with issues that we all face in modern society even if we are not aware of it. You may not immediately recognize the terms I am using, but I imagine that most of my readers will be familiar with them but may not wish to give a precise definition. If, at first, you are put off by the technical terminology, please bear with me and read on. My aim is that by the end of the article you will see where I am going, and how it applies to your life.
In Hebrews chapter 13 verse 5, we read the instruction, ‘Let your conversation be without covetousness and be content with such things as ye have’. This verse is a necessary reminder in a culture where, ‘to keep the economic machine moving, people have to be dissatisfied with what they have; hence, who they are’.1 Which leads me on to my topic – consumerism.
Very simply, consumerism is, ‘a way of life built on the centrality of taking for oneself goods and things, and where human well-being is assessed in the light of our success in doing this’.2 Its growing importance has arisen from observation that, ‘in the context of material abundance focal interests in much of everyday life had been reoriented towards possession and use of goods and services’.3 ‘Consumer society’ is a term that has arisen mainly through critiques of the misuse of affluence in post – war years,4 although many will date the seeds of consumerism back to the 1800s and especially the industrial revolution.5 The early advertisers recognized the danger of the Christian mindset to its development, setting it as their goal to overcome the Protestant ethic of work, savings and simple living.
In light of this pervasive mindset, I would suggest that there are a number of questions we need to ask ourselves:
Traditionally, goods were assigned a value based on their use or exchange value but, since the rise of capitalism and mass production, objects have increasingly carried a sign value.6 Things have meaning, and identities are built from things, leading to one person making this startling statement, ‘my view of myself is my neighbour’s view of me’. It may be argued that goods have always had meaning to individuals, but the increased danger in a mass media age is that these now come with ‘complex meaning in them or attached to them’.6 Advertisers dress up goods not just to tell you what they will do for you, but what they say about you.
Understanding my relationship to God, as a believer, is the only way I can honestly answer the question – Who am I? Primarily, I am the child of a God who has promised to always be there. He is the great I AM, the Lord who changes not. My value in this relationship is based on His eternal immutability, and derived from His matchless glory and virtue. I am free to seek His kingdom first, knowing that everything material will be added unto me according as I have need.
‘The first step in consumption is establishing a mental association with the objects to be consumed’.6 The devil was the first master advertiser, mixing just enough truth with plenty of lies to firmly fix the desire of Eve on the fruit. With a daily bombardment of adverts, we need to take refuge in setting our affections on things above, not on things on the earth, Col. 3. 2.
A characteristic of a consumer society is the availability of choice and credit.4 ‘Take the waiting out of wanting’, might give instant gratification, but the value of such goods to us will often diminish quicker than the credit card balance we bought them with, leaving us in debt and hindering us in providing ‘a treasure in the heavens that faileth not’, Luke 12. 33.
The personalized goods market is large and growing,7 but should we personalize the moral and spiritual? Is the fact that there are so many churches out there a justification for seeking one that suits me? The scriptures are clear; the church is God’s and He tells us how we ‘ought to behave in the house of God’, 1 Tim. 3. 15.
It may also affect the way we think about our relationships. If I have the right to choose in order to gain instant satisfaction for myself, the idea of commitment begins to be lost! Rather than persevering when the going gets tough, do we end up shopping around for what pleases us? Consumer societies are characterized by ‘an increased breakdown in family and community’. Is this because we are consumers, rather than committed in our relationships?
Our Lord made it quite clear that, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’, Acts 20. 35. Have we experienced the joy of, ‘my half tasting better because I’ve given away the other?’8 This is seen ultimately in the joy we will have as we do what we were designed to do and worship God. The ‘prince of this world’ has turned God’s order on its head, where true happiness is achieved through a complete giving of self to God. I would suggest, therefore, that consumer thinking stands in opposition to the Lord’s great summary of the Law; God first, our neighbour second.
‘Consumerism, feeds on feelings of malaise, alienation, and discontent. To heal this malaise, we place a primacy on “things”, because we have lost our trust in “relationships”. People, “under the influence of consumerism”, never feel completely satisfied because owning something cannot help one achieve the security of heart and mind which are the deeper needs of humanity’.9 The application is clear. The world ought to see a people moving among them with a peace that passes all understanding; the peace of God, from God, because we know peace with God.
Do I have a consumer mindset? The old definition of consuming was to, ‘use up, waste, destroy’. Is it possible, in light of the answers to the questions we have asked, that, unless we are careful, to be a modern day ‘consumer’ really has no different meaning? The Christian ought not to be a mere consumer, but a good steward of what God has entrusted to them.
O.S. Guinness, The good life or a life of goods. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uw35PLnD4WQ.
Bryan S. Turner (Ed.), Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology – Consumption, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 88-89.
Ibid., p. 88.
Of necessity, in an article of this length, a simple generalized definition and history has to be given to a term and subject which has many factors. (Some of which are more positive than the issues I have focused on.) It should also be noted that I am not professionally qualified in this subject (or any of the following areas to be covered), and they are observations made by a lay person which has stimulated additional research due to recognizing some of these things having an influence on my own thinking.
Alan Barnard And Jonathan Spencer (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology – Consumption, Routledge, 1996, pp. 128-129
Anne of Green Gables on receipt of her first ever box of caramel chocolates!
http://www.kon.org/archives/forum/13-2/mcgregor.pdf Postmodernism, Consumerism and Peace.