Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Consumption, Expression, Identity.


As a society, we are conditioned to find our identity in what we own or purchase. As Christians, we are conditioned to express our faith through the sanctified products we purchase, own or consume. This is the perversion of Christ into Capitalism and an expression of faith through consumption of products. It is wrong.

A good friend sent me an article he found that provided an intriguing historical perspective on our evolution from artisans to consumers. I've pulled out the quotes I found most fascinating below:

A Short History of Consumption
With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the relationship between people and the goods that they made was broken. No longer did peasants plant, tend, and harvest their crops; now agricultural workers labored over someone else’s crops in exchange for wages. No longer did artisans design, plan, craft, and sell; now factory workers repeatedly carried out a single step in the production of a product, again in exchange for wages.

In short, people were no longer producers, they were now consumers.

Our identities were no longer tied up with the work we did, but with the buying power our work left us with.

So people found their identities not in their work but in the things they could buy by working.

People became consumers, not just in the way they got what they needed but in who they felt themselves to be.

Unlike the artisan who could express his or her identity through the things s/he created, we have learned to do so through the things we buy

The entire article is mainly looking at consumption from an environmental impact perspective, but the points made about our lifelong indoctrination to consumerism as a society are very eye-opening to me.

Here's what I think we need to understand, as followers of Jesus, regarding the observations made in this article above.

CONSUMPTION IS SELF-EXPRESSION
We, as a society, have made consuming and purchasing products part of our identity structure. This is why people will fork out $30 for a t-shirt with some corporate logo and walk around as a billboard for them, not because they love that company or product, not because of their loyalty to the brand, but because they think that logo makes THEM look cool. It says something about them, and so they willingly become walking advertising...and they PAY for the privilege. Amazing.

CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
Honestly, this really does help me to formulate a clear picture of what's going on in the Christian subculture. We're finding our identity as "Christians" in the products we purchase. These products brand us and identify us as a subset of people. Instead of finding our identity in Christ by the way we relate to Him daily, obey His teachings, and emulate His example of service and unconditional love, we now identify ourselves as Christians by our t-shirts, bumper stickers, books and CD collections.

ARTISTS AND CONSUMPTION/IDENTITY/EXPRESSION
It's also fascinating how this shift in our society stems from the devaluing of artisans in our culture. People now express themselves by what they own or purchase more than by what they create with their hands or their imaginations. Artists within our society are influenced by this consumerist identity structure. Artists of faith are compelled to create art that can be sold, or that conforms to the acceptable Christian marketplace. Art in this context is devoid of pure self-expression, unless that expression conforms to the acceptable branding and messaging of the sacred market.

More from the article:
"The rise of consumption as our primary interaction with the rest of our society has had profound effects. For example, social status is obtained and marked by the things we buy and use. A car, for instance, is not just a way to get from one place to another but has to “say something” about who we are — and even the lack of a car says volumes. Unlike the artisan who could express his or her identity through the things s/he created, we have learned to do so through the things we buy: the t-shirt with the logo of our band or team, the bamboo towels that show our environmental commitments, the alternative album that shows off our indie cred, the designer shoes that place us as part of the trend-setting elite, the minivan that shows us to be part of the dependable, hard-working, family-oriented suburban middle class, and so on."

SUBCULTURE AND IDENTITY
The Christian Subculture has a market. That market embraces a brand. That brand has a message connected to it. That message serves the market and encourages ongoing participation in that market. It means providing reasons to continue purchasing these products day after day and week after week. The market serves itself. It exists to keep itself in business.

The Christian Subculture provides an oasis made of soothing products that help us escape from the Big Bad World that is "Out There". It's a sacred version of "Calgon-Take Me Away!" only our message is more pervasive. It's not just one soothing bath to calm our fears of being trapped in a world of sin, it’s our music and movies and clothing and books and toys and key chains and license plate frames and decals and candy and pens and pretty much every conceivable object and piece of product that can ever be branded with our message. It's nearly a complete world unto itself, and it's exactly what Jesus prayed to God would never happen to us. (see John 17:15)

THE CART THAT PULLS THE HORSE
I'm not against art or music or expressions of faith. Most of my favorite musicians are believers and their music contains references to our Lord and to faith in Him. Many of my friends are Artists who paint and sculpt and create art to communicate a Kingdom reality. The issue is not that creating art or any sincere expression of devotion to Christ is wrong. What is evil is the marketplace we've created to showcase product. In the beginning the market existed to serve the Art, now the Art exists to serve the marketplace. We have lost focus. Making money is now the main objective. Evangelism or edification or worship is secondary at best, if considered at all.

During my six years in the Christian Music Industry I slowly began to realize the sickness of it all. At first I saw the industry as a way to spread the Gospel and to provide a voice for talented musicians of faith. But soon I realized that it didn't matter if your music ministry was responsible for leading thousands to Christ each year. What mattered was record sales. If your CD's weren't selling at least 20,000 units per sales cycle you'd be dropped from the label in a heartbeat. It was, after all, a Record BUSINESS, and like every business making money and selling product is the very bottom line. Ministry is incidental, and sadly only useful in the context of marketing the product to your target audience, in order to drive more sales.

Like the money-changers in front of the Temple that Jesus chased away with a whip, the original idea was a good one; To provide animals for sacrifice so that people could enter the Temple and participate in the worship of God. However, when money got in the way the original vision was corrupted and the Temple became a marketplace which obscured access for the common man and made a mockery of real worship. The same is true today.

BACK TO JESUS
The tension still remains between the clear command of our Lord to "Go into all the world.." and a subculture that bears His Name, yet encourages a full retreat from the World and identifies membership based on purchasing the acceptable, branded product. The product carries a message that we should fear those outside of our group. It encourages non-involvement with the culture. It makes minimizing contact with those outside the subculture a preferable reality.

If Jesus modeled radical inclusion and commanded us to be known by our love for everyone, especially those who hate us, and a subculture emerges with His Name on it that encourages us to be radically exclusive and creates behavior by which we are known for our intolerance, hatred and condemnation of those outside our group, we must make a choice. Do we choose Jesus or do we choose the man-made subculture with his Name on it?

I choose Jesus.

If Jesus clearly teaches something, and another organization or person teaches the exact opposite we call that "Anti-Christ". To me it's plainly obvious that the Christian Subculture is "Anti-Christ" because it contradicts His message of inclusion, involvement and meaningful relationships with sinners.

I've said it before and I say it again; "Death to the Christian Subculture!"

BRINGING A CHANGE
Where can we fashion a whip and drive out the money-changers from the Temple? It's difficult because we now deal with this on a massive scale. Participation in this market-driven Christian Subculture is pervasive and intangible. There is no physical structure to kick over. There is no clear method for applying the whip necessary to drive them out.

All we can really do is to begin, one person at a time, to disassociate ourselves with this subculture. Stop participating. Stop identifying yourself as a follower of Jesus based on your purchases. Stop pandering to what the Christian Marketplace finds acceptable and palatable. Make Jesus your single source of Truth. Ask God to show you where you have replaced a Jesus way of life with a carefully branded subculture way of life. Escape the false notions of "Sacred" and "Secular" and just start living, as a disciple of Jesus, in this World (the only World), right now.

kg
**
Originally posted here Oct. 2007

4 comments:

Kent C. Williamson said...

Keith - Just checking email on my trip to Cambodia and had to take a minute to read your post. You and I have got to get together and start a foundation/think-tank that addresses these issues and more... If we can get enough of us to start chiseling away at the knee of the elephant, eventually it will crumble and collapse... needless to say, being in the far reaches of Cambodia helps to put our whole consumerism thing into perspective... stay strong, my friend!

ZooMuse said...

During my first trip back to the US after our move to Kenya (way back in 1987), I was struck by the differences between lives defined by real needs (food, shelter, clothing, education for children) and by wants. At the end of the day, when I'm focused on basic needs, I can ask myself: do I have food for myself and my family? Do we have a roof over our heads and clothes for our backs? Yes...or no. If yes, we're okay. If not, then it's time to do something more.

Once all the basic needs are met regularly and consistently, with the promise that this is the new controlling reality, my concerns shift from real needs to wants. The only controlling factor in this case is either my authentic submission to Jesus or the extent of my credit card limits.

Keith Giles said...

Kent: Don't tempt me. Actually...go ahead. I'd love to help you start a think-tank that tears down the man-made christian subculture.

ZooMuse: Having that veil lifted off our eyes is the first step towards seeing the Kingdom.

Anonymous said...

areSSEWe are getting near the right track, Occupy sandy, occupy wall street, rolling jubilee, are all demonstrations of the Kingdom of God. It is the body of Christ we are witnessing among the poor. The feeding of 4000 poor people, by protesting poor people, the forgiving of debt, the mutual aid shown on the east coast by occupy sandy relief. We are seeing humans reconnect, we could even be seeing a lamb and lion resting together, who knows.