The Christian Consumer (4): delighting in consumption

If Christian asceticism is at one end of the spectrum of attitudes to consumption, embracing God’s good creation is at the other.

Laura Hartman, in her stimulating book The Christian Consumer, explores different voices, Catholic, Reformed and prosperity, that affirm and rejoice in consumption.

L. Shannon Jung – a reformed ecotheologian. Author of Sharing Food.

Creflo A. Dollar Jnr – aptly named prosperity teacher

John Schneider – reformed theologian defending American middle class lifestyles. Author of Godly Materialism

St Thomas AquinasThomas Aquinas – in his Summa Theologia famously argued that everything in nature, including hungers and genuine needs, is good, because God created them good.

I ain’t going to recount the whole discussion. But what these diverse voices have in common is a way of looking at the world not through the lens of avoiding sin, but as a source of blessing.

Just as much as asceticism, this is an essential Christian response to the material world. To embrace creation is to enjoy the physical world and all it gives us. It is to be alive!

For example, tomorrow evening we’re having a few people over for dinner. My daughter has volunteered to cook – she loves it. Her cooking (I’m speaking in faith here!) is an act of creativity, of sharing, of service and of love. I’m already looking forward to the meal – one of my favourites (beef tagine).

Life would be drab and monochrome if it were not for such pleasures. The voices Hartman discusses, generally agree (Dollar apart) that there are boundaries to an ethical Christian consumption. Good consumption should be done with

– a sense of gratitude to God

savouring  (enjoyment, delighting in consumption) linked to gratefulness (a long way from Francis reportedly stirring ashes and cold water into his food to dampen its sinfully tempting qualities!)

sharing – where consumption is not done for selfish gain but to bless others. Good consumption is stewardship of God-given good resources. The wealthy can be a source of blessing to others as they share their resources with others.

Such theology is linked to a positive view of the Christian as a beloved child of our heavenly Father – and, as someone once said, what father does not delight in giving his children good things?

It’s here of course that embrace of creation easily branches off into Dollar’s crass doctrine of virtual human deification.

Such a positive view of wealth and enjoyment of creation also tends to maintain the status quo. Yes, we are called to exercise moderation, but this end of the sprectrum will not tend to produce radical reform of unjust structures.

Hartman explores the question of whether it is acceptable to enjoy and delight in consumption while others suffer deprivation.

She unpacks Jung’s argument that Christians are to challenge injustice  as well as to delight and share.

She also makes a telling point about Schneider’s robust defence of middle-class lifestyles: at least he is being honest. Since it represents the unspoken position of most of American evangelicalism, why is so little written to defend and articulate such a lifestyle?

So, what do you think? Asceticism and embrace of creation both legitimate biblical perspectives? Are they simply contradictory? How do we negotiate a way between them (if that is the right way to put it)?

As Hartman says about Francis and Dollar, they represent theologies and life-practices so divergent that “they may be hardly recognizable as adherents of the same religion.”

Does Jesus himself represent both ends of the spectrum as the Messiah who came feasting and drinking, yet one who gives up his life in suffering for others?

She closes with an endorsement of ‘hedonistic self-denial’ – a pattern of consumption that delights in consumption, but a consumption that is reframed towards frugality, boundaries, other-centredness, sharing, generosity and self-denial. A type of ‘enjoyable asceticism’!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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