Consuming Religion

Reflections on Vincent Miller, Consuming
Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture
.

From Pointers, Volume 16. Number 4. December 2006.

The Impact of Consumerism

In his challenging examination of the intersection of modern consumer culture and religious faith, Consuming Religion, Vincent J. Miller argues that the inhabitants of Western society have not simply become selfish, uncaring consumers, as some would have us believe. Rather, he suggests that the negative aspects of consumerism – its impact on the environment and sweatshop exploitation in developing countries being but two examples – really do concern many people. He asks, if most Western citizens are indeed disturbed by the negative aspects of a consumer culture, why is it that this culture is so powerful and pervasive?
Miller contends that consumer culture is not just a way of living that affects the physical items that we buy. Rather, the culture of consumption has influenced all areas of our lives, including our approach to, and practice of, religion. Indeed, consumer culture reduces all things religious – beliefs, values and symbols – into mere objects for consumption rather than value systems that can give direction and meaning. As such, Miller argues that religion is under extensive challenge from consumer culture.

Miller uses the celebration of Christmas as an example, discussing how many of the religious aspects of the festival have been removed from their rich traditional contexts and are consumed and applied to people’s lives in diverse ways. For example, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, who lived a life of simplicity with people on the margins and died a criminal’s death, can be contrasted with a description of the way Western culture has transformed the event into an orgy of over-eating, gluttonous drinking and indulging on worthless items.

Miller’s central argument is that people engage with and interpret their religious tradition through the lens of the dominant culture of their society. In the case of the 21st century Western world, this is consumer culture. In this context, he suggest, citizens are content to take ‘bits’ of religion that suit their needs, rather than adopting whole stories or philosophies. If we take the Christmas example further, there are those who believe in the Christmas story of a baby in a manger and respond by being ‘nice’ people, but fail to live out the full Christmas story of community, selflessness, and sacrifice.

Westerners, Miller argues, now engage with religion on an ad hoc basis based on individual ‘needs’, rather than as part of a community; they are interested in religious ‘products’ and ‘techniques’ rather than pursuing the deeper meaning and truth of Christianity.

The Development of Consumerism

Miller examines the background of consumerism. He argues that the rise of industrialisation resulted in people becoming alienated from their work and de-skilled. This in turn contributed to alienating people from the products they produced and the sense of work and skill which went into them.

Miller argues that this dramatically reshaped the structure of the family life, which went from large and multi-generational networks into the single family home. People had to consume more products and services to replace the former ‘home-grown’ labour. Miller contends that industrialisation distanced people from not only issues of politics and society itself, but also from one another. Where once people found meaning within the home, within close knit communities of local production and cooperation, people ever more turn to consumption to find their identity. The rise of mass production also made products cheap and widely available, entrenching the system.

Miller draws on sociological theorist, Henri Lefebvre, who argued that products have been linked to emotions and ideals as a way of identifying with and drawing in the consumer. People are being asked to buy a product because it will make them happy or achieve success or give them a new identity. The product offers to lift them from the mundane into the (equally unhealthy) sensational life, without offering a critique of what either mean, or why it is so. After buying the particular product, after an initial stage of satisfaction, the consumer is left empty because the promises of the product have not been fulfilled. He argues that the cycle becomes one of meaninglessness and disappointment.

For example, how many people have appraised a retail catalogue, sifting through the pages to see which item we might buy ‘one day’ – dreaming of the successful, glamorous and attractive people we will become through its purchase? In Fight Club – a controversial film also critiquing consumerism – the central character, Jack, comments:

Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct…If I saw something like a clever coffee table in the shape of a yin and yang, I had to have it…I would flip through catalogues and wonder, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”

The social theorist, Guy Debord, confirms one aspect of Fight Club’s message by arguing that people are “reduced to passive spectators, consumers of illusions”. In Fight Club, another major character, Tyler, suggests that “we are defined by the choices we make”. Consumerism is about selling the idea that we are in control, that we can make choices, and that these choices define us. Choice has become the channel by which we seek life and meaning, the be all and end all of who we are. Choices have become distractions from the real issues in our lives. For example, it seems easier and more attractive to choose to invest in consuming to create an image, such as having a ‘perfect’ Christmas celebration with ‘all the trimmings’, rather than investing in the relationships of those who will sit around the dinner table with us on the day, or, indeed, throughout the year.

Miller writes about the post-industrial period explaining that smaller groups and the individual are being targetted. This has seen groups, cultures, traditions and so on be used for symbols and ideas which can be advertised and sold in the market. Ironically, different or opposing groups to a dominant culture are not shunned; instead their symbols and messages are co-opted into products for the market. For example, a sign of rebellion against the dominant fashions, such as torn pants, soon found its way into the very shops they were seeking to resist.

Filling the Void

Miller contends that in consumeristic cultures the products are not what they are represented to be. Religion, as a consumer product, is stripped of meaningful content in terms of its ethics, politics, history, doctrines and practices. For example, what do Christmas carols offer when played in a department store? Are carols not part of sharing in the deeper message of Christ’s birth with a community of believers? The pleasant tunes played in the shops can be easily digested, yet the belly is left unsatisfied. Is that the true meaning of Christmas?

In this consumer culture, people are opting to meet their needs – of well being, validation and connection with others – through this very type of consumption. Yet, Miller questions whether people can fully experience, own, and interact with meaningful things in society, like religion, when they have a shallow shell of what the product represents. The traditional two options, community and religion, have been transformed.

Miller warns against institutional religion seeking to compete with this type of culture. He argues that promoting religious celebrities, in focusing on personalities, or using forms of mass media to communicate, may seem to increase the authority of the church. However, because it is also operating within the consumer culture framework, ultimately they will only erode the traditions that they were seeking to promote. The celebrities become objects of consumption and mass media communication erodes traditional networks, rather than being tools by which people may be engaged in a deeper dialogue and process of growth. He suggests that these can only really occur at a local, communal level.

Desire

Miller looks at the similarities and differences between consumer culture and religion to gain a better sense of how to respond. For example, the root of both of them is cultivating, promoting and sustaining desire. Yet, while the Christian desire is about an emptiness which finds sustenance in God and in others, consumer desire is about the self, about re-imagining and re-inventing who one is in an insatiable longing for “more”. In the latter, the results are not what we’re ultimately seeking. For example, in Fight Club, Tyler asks Jack: “If you died right now, how would you feel about your life?” After spending his life running away from the truth and seeking fulfilment through consuming, Jack struggles to admit, “I would feel nothing about my life.”

Consumer culture offers an endless range of ways to be fulfilled, and, funnily enough, the seeking is more important than the having. Yet, how is it that this has developed? Why is it that people are seeking meaning in empty objects?

Miller claims that commodities have been tied to human needs and desires. Consumer desire is about seeking gratification, about having choices to feel liberated and happy. This is not about functionality or durability or anything practical, instead it is about feeling important – the emotions – feeling validated, unique, successful, sexy, or part of something special.

One key way that consumerism has become about personal meaning is through advertising. Miller comments, “rare is the religious practitioner who repeats a prayer or mantra as often in a day as the average person engages an ad” (p. 125). Indeed, while a prayer is something people choose to do, advertising is less conscious in its influence. Not only do we give our time to it, especially when it is packaged so well and massages our egos or makes us laugh, but it forms the way we process other issues and areas of our lives. Tyler explains, “advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”. Is the point that he makes true? If so, why?

Not only does the consumer desire compete with and subvert the Christian desire. Miller claims that the Christian desires for justice, for hope, for the coming of the Kingdom of God, are also threatened. Indeed, many act as if whatever issue cannot be solved by living in the here and now and doing some therapeutic shopping some can be solved by some financial gesture which symbolically shows one’s support for an ethnic group, an environmental cause or other political issue. How much more commitment, sacrifice or effort actually goes into doing something! Yet, consumerism is on a campaign to remove such responses from people’s minds.

The Solutions

So, how does one respond? Miller looks at one possibility: whether the power of popular culture may be harnessed to counter consumerism. He explains that it is a complex area. Popular culture is dominated by different groups of people seeking social status through their consumption. In the end, it is only those who can afford to pay who exercise any type of power in popular culture. Importantly, Miller points out that it is also a rather expensive and wasteful way in which to respond to issues.

If this is not the answer, does this leave consumers as slaves to consumption? Miller argues that one answer is creative action within the culture of consumption. In this discussion he draws on de Certeau who describes the agency of consumers – of practical and political action. People do not have to be passive agents of consumerism. Rather people, including those considered as ‘powerless’, can use tactics which work within the consumer culture to bring about their own ends. For example, a study showed that while one film may have been designed with one central message for its audience, many people interpreted it in a different way, taking some aspects of the film and ignoring others.

The Christian Response

Miller believes that there are two groups within the Christian religion which can engage consumer culture. Firstly, popular religiosity has strength in being grounded in the masses: it is the religion of the people, including the oppressed. It is widespread and concerned with everyday life. It is here that followers adapt and apply doctrines and symbols to real life to give them meaning.

Religion is not and should not be bound to the spiritual realm alone. Rather, it is deeply entrenched in politics, society, economy, the environment and so on. As such, part of the religious response should be about resisting the wider culture. The responses to their faith by the masses can be practical responses to consumer culture. Believers can “bring together what society assumes must be kept separate, for example, rejecting a safe middle-class existence, crossing class boundaries, working with the outcasts for their civil rights” (p.175).

This is by no means easy, and how do we ensure that this occurs? Miller offers no simple formula to getting this right, as much as that would be nice. It appears to be an ongoing process, a grappling with the issues and complexities, but doing it as a group, and with the example of Jesus and his ministry on earth as the central example. I would contend that reading the Gospels would be the first place to start.

Miller describes the elite theological group, religious leaders, as the second group. The main role of this group is to bring the Christian tradition to the masses through interpreting, shaping and guiding the theology and how faith is practised. Yet, Miller also suggests that their role should include using the learning they have gained from the popular, lived religion of the people in order to develop creative responses.

Miller argues that Christianity is no longer about the institutions or doctrines we associate with Christendom. Instead, Christianity should be more reflective of what Miller refers to as the ‘Abrahamic wanderings’ of Christians. This is about responding to a call, about moving and pushing the limits according to the context.

Practical Responses

At a tangible level, first and foremost, responses should be at the level of practices and structures instead of the Christian tendency to engage on the level of meanings and beliefs.

Miller writes about the importance of promoting awareness of consumer culture. This is about being concerned about the everyday aspects of commodification, about engaging with the mentality behind the culture and understanding the systems and structures that support the culture. With much of consumerism being about one’s identity, one’s desires and longing, Miller argues that part of the response can involve looking at how consumerism forms and shapes identity, and what can be done to counter this. This can help people to understand their subconscious practices. This is a first step in empowering people and giving them opportunities to respond.

The next step is providing practical education in terms of how to gain information. For example, promoting awareness about the origins of products, such as the conditions under which they are produced, or the level of skill and time that goes into creating a product, offers a new relationship with the product and a new mentality about what buying a product is about. As a result, the consumerism myth that it is ‘all about me’ begins to be debunked.

Finally, one must actively engage one’s own culture in order to be an active agent in consumption. Such reflections enable us to choose to buy what we need rather than what we want. It is about choosing practices other than consumption. This in itself can be meaningful to oneself, to God and to others. For example, instead of buying the latest wildlife calendar to support endangered species, one could join a bush walking group, or a community responding to environmental needs, or learn more about the issues by reading articles in newspapers and discussing them with friends.

A Specific Christian Response

Ideas for Christians responding to consumer culture involve bringing together the leadership of the church with the people. First, to counter the weak levels of commitment and engagement by the masses – as promoted by consumerism – leaders should emphasise the importance of the traditions of faith. This involves highlighting the significant historical background of the traditions, the ways they have adapted and survived over the decades, and making connections between the traditions and everyday experiences.

Secondly, Miller suggests that the church should be opened up. The average person has unique experiences and beliefs to contribute, yet are slow to contribute this. Evidence shows that people have issues or concerns with church practices or doctrine, yet are not interested in bringing their issues back to the church so that it can respond. Not only is the person cut off from engaging themselves with the meaning and depth of the church, but the church misses out on contributions which can give it life and health. Miller writes, “this passive engagement can be deepened if they are given the knowledge and authorization to creatively engage the tradition” (p. 212). Leaders can encourage participation and embrace the unique agency of individuals, as these believers can offer new insight to old traditions and thereby carry the robust tradition onwards.

Being more open to the contributions of the lay may require some transformation to the nature of church. Primarily, this is because people require space to act and respond. Miller suggests that the current form and practice of church sees the space given primarily to the minister or priest, with onlookers (like at the cinema) facing him/her who dominates the space. Space and opportunity give people the freedom to express themselves – their beliefs, experiences, and interpretations of doctrine, and to ask questions and to grapple with issues. That way, a dialogue is formed between the two groups – the leaders and the people – which can bring about a holistic Christian approach to consumerism.

Finally, Miller recommends new communication in general between the leaders and the masses. Greater input from the lay believers through greater access to church ‘space’ will ultimately only be successful if there is dialogue between the two groups. Both leaders and the lay can contribute unique ideas from which the other, and ultimately the whole church, can benefit. The results offer new material and insights for leaders and the church as a whole.

A practical example of this might be the provision of a program or course for those wanting to learn more about Christianity. This could be aimed either towards those new or not so new to the faith. At the conclusion of the course, another course could be offered, perhaps one seeking to develop the connections between the participants more intentionally, one that provides further information on traditions, and that seeks input from people’s own experiences. This process would continue and is undertaken in such a way that seeks to move people from an initial ‘consumerist’ mentality to something deeper and more long lasting, all the while growing people’s understanding about faith and connecting them into life-giving community.

What comes from this is a group of people who are sharing together in community, who are reflecting on life and on Christian tradition and how the two work together. It can form the beginnings of a response to consumer culture, being something unique and meaningful and created in a way which works within consumer culture. In this way the people can identify with the Christian tradition, yet the primary message of consumerism can be replaced with knowledge, structures and practices which empower people to be active agents rather than passive consumers. It is proposed that over time, new values of community and tradition would replace the individualistic and self-oriented focus associated with consumerism, and in turn, people will be freed to engage with their beliefs and practices in a whole new way.

The power of consumerism in our lives is considerable, and the church and individual Christians need to be aware of its influence. Yet, Miller has shown that there are tangible ways in which we can work within the culture, to create a church which offers meaning and life – in a spiritual, political, economic and generally holistic sense.

Cathy Cook

References

Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Continuum, New York, 2004. ISBN: 0-8264-1531-8.

The Internet Movie Database, ‘Memorable Quotes from Fight Club 1999’ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0137523/quotes – accessed 28/08/06

The Internet Movie Script Database, ‘Fight Club’ Jim Uhls 2/16/98 http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Fight-Club.html – accessed 29/08/06

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