On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (3)

In chapter 2 Clavier unpacks Augustine’s ‘rhetoric of self-destruction’. In other words, we are in the theological territory of the human will, love, desire and choice. On the one hand, we are lovers who find our true identity in pursuing our desires. On the other hand, pursuing those desires leads not to freedom but to bondage. 

Clavier traces the early career of Augustine: small town Thagaste in modern day Algeria, to Carthage to study rhetoric, of being deeply impressed by the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), a career move to Rome where, after impressing an influential Roman senator he was appointed imperial Rhetor in Milan.

“… a kind of PR expert for the beleaguered court of the emperor Justinian II” p. 24.

In a sense this is a very modern story of ambitious young man forging a career in places of power, of getting noticed and having significant patrons. While we may struggle to understand the power and appeal of eloquent rhetoric in the ancient world, we still admire great orators today. Regardless of politics, Obama is one such example. The same, um, can’t quite be said of the present incumbent of the White House – but I digress.

The key theme here is the ancients had a profound understanding of human nature and of the power of persuasion, emotions, desires, and language in shaping beliefs and behaviour.  It is the will that follows the heart. Given the power of rhetoric, it was recognised that there is need for the orator to be moral – to use such power well for the benefit of his hearers, rather than for self-interest.

It was these sorts of insights that probably helped Augustine develop ‘what might be termed as a psychology of sin’ (p. 27) that

“… took seriously the unarticulated forces that motivate people to pursue particular ends. This in turn led him, probably unintentionally, to describe redemption as a kind of rhetorical contest between an eloquent God and an eloquent devil. Satan lures sinners to consent to sinful and earthly pleasures through the promise of delight. The experience of these illicit delights in turn binds sinners either to sin or to the world. Sinners delight in their own perdition, just as a captivated audience might delight in agreeing with incompetent or malevolent orators. The dreadful irony of an eloquent devil for Augustine is that people mistake their own bondage for happiness and this subsequently leads them to identify closely with the very things that destroy them.” p. 27

And of course this all ties in with Augustine’s own experience. After his encounter with the Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, he has come to accept the Nicene Creed with his head, but not his heart. He remains a man ‘caught between two opposing forces’ (p. 32) – two competing delights.

If all these offer equal delight at one and the same time, surely the divergent wills pull apart the human heart while we are deliberating which is the most attractive option to take (Confessions 8.10.24, quoted p. 32).

And so conversion for Augustine is primarily a matter of the heart, of what delights he gives his life to. There is a cost associated with this – to embrace one is to say no to the other.

In other words, his conversion to Christianity when it came wasn’t a victory of the intellect over his emotions but a conversion of the heart to a more appealing Christian faith. p. 34

Clavier unpacks how Augustine’s understanding of the power of delight led to a robust theology of the power of sin (the bondage of the will).

Think of it this way: what delights you? What do you love doing?

I might love DIY, you may not. I might love writing and you may find that incomprehensible. The point is our delights are complex and mysterious – what delights one may bore another senseless.

Such delights can be ‘dark’ as well – what sins and addictions I struggle with you may have no problem with and vice versa. For example, I remember being in Las Vegas some years ago and being utterly mystified how people could spend all their days (and money) pulling the handle on a slot machine. Gambling seems such a fool’s game. But just because that particular ‘delight’ does not attract me does not mean I am not attracted to other destructive delights.

The very reason we struggle with sins is because they are delightful – they appeal to us at a deep level, they offer freedom and joy and pleasure …

The point is that our delights ‘choose us’ more than we choose them. We feel most free and ‘ourselves’ when we get to do what we love. All this means that we are less free than we like to think.

So, according to Augustine Clavier says

“… we are already enslaved to delights, and not just any delights, especially those that ultimately dehumanize us. Left to our own devices, sinful, illicit delights continue to draw us inexorably to our ruin.” p. 40.

Clavier will return to how Augustine spoke of the good news of God’s liberating grace (chapter 4). But first he turns in chapter 3 to how Augustine’s theology of freedom, delight and slavery speak theologically into the power and appeal of modern consumerism.

Advertisements

On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (2)

Mark Clavier’s Introduction sets the scene for the book with a scalpel-sharp dissection of how consumerism ‘works’. How all of us cannot escape its omnipresent grasp: “Like it or not, we now perpetually live in the marketplace” (p.5). How from cradle to grave we breath in and are shaped (mostly unknowingly) by the ‘rhetoric’ of consumerism – which has a persuasive power unrivaled in human history.

Of particular relevance is discussion of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion. Writing in the 1990s before the Internet, he saw how mass-mediated images and ideas shape our perception of reality to create a ‘pseudo-environment in which

 “public opinion isn’t governed by rational principles, but by meaning-laden images woven together by our social imagination.”  p.8

Lippmann’s genius, argues Clavier, was to see how perceptions of reality are malleable through the power and reach of mass media. This is a form of social engineering – the ‘manufacturing of consent’ that has become infinitely more powerful than Lippmann could ever have imagined.

Just think Brexit

Just think Cambridge Analytica

Just think warnings about systematic Russian manipulation of the last US Presidential election.

Just think about Chinese govt control of information and propaganda to where entire generations know next to nothing of Tiananmen Square.

We are anything but the mythological rational autonomous individuals making detached logical choices (Spock clones). Rather, governments and advertisers know that

‘minds go where the heart leads’ (p.10).

We inhabit a persuasion society which is segmented into interest groups which have common identities based on shared perceptions produced by the market. We are

“consumers gathered into tribes of shared consumption, shared sentiment, and shared notions of the good life” (p.11).

Within this all pervasive market, the individual has no escape. It is from the market we derive our identity, our freedom and our happiness (p.12). Clavier tells the story of Jack and Diane, children shaped from the cradle to be consumers, free and autonomous, and yet their whole world is shaped by persuasion and the market.

Christian Responses?

Clavier’s argument is this: there are two general Christian responses to the malign impact of the market on individuals and on the planet.

One is effectively to sell out – go with the flow of consumer culture and simply become a religious segment of the market. Become a Christian tribe, use the tools of marketing to sell Christianity to consumers. Present Christianity as a lifestyle that offers happiness and self-fulfilment in the here and now – and offers zero critique of the market, of self-interest and of the global destructiveness of consumerism.

Maybe you can name names here – I will resist!

A second response is to stand apart, reject consumer dream and exhort believers to an alternative way of living in the world. Clavier give the example of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si (2015) which presents Christianity as ‘a different, even opposing manner of engaging with the world’ (p.15). One of contemplation, prayer, and simplicity from endless consumption.  

But, Clavier argues, this second response is inadequate. First, it is impossible to stand apart – the market has already over-run the ramparts and invaded every sphere of life.

‘The Church is just one stall amongst countless others set up in a global marketplace, whether it likes it or not’ (p. 16).

Second, even a critique consumerism ends up being assimiliated within the all-embracing reach of the market. (I guess you could say Clavier’s book itself is an example – Bloomsbury is the business of selling books after all).

So, he contends that both conformity and resistance lead to the same place – a Christianity as occupying a niche within an overarching consumer culture.

[I think he overplays the point that both conformity (sell-out) and resistance lead to the same destination. There is a huge ethical and moral distinction between the two. At least resistance is naming the enemy and fighting against it. And his book is not a ‘third way’ – but is surely a form of resistance – his argument is that a better strategy of resistance is needed.

What is this better strategy? It is to go to Augustine and a theology of the heart. It is in the arena of love and delight that the rhetoric of consumerism captures consumers’ loves. And so the challenge for the Church is to articulate and embody an alternative rhetoric of delight and love – which is what this book sets out to do.

On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight

As a teacher who also loves to write, now and then you come across a book that makes you wish you’d written it. It captures what you have been thinking and teaching about for a long time, only in a much better way than you could ever have hoped to articulate!

Mark Clavier’s On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight is such a book. It’s a gem. He is Residentiary Dean of Brecon Cathedral.

I got a copy out of curiosity since the description overlapped so much with themes covered in a course I teach called ‘Faith and Contemporary Culture’.

In the course we spend most of the time exploring the story, appeal (‘Rhetoric’) and pervasive power of consumerism to shape our identities and capture our hearts.

We consider how consumerism shapes contemporary Christianity at an individual and corporate level, and how, despite its ubiquity, it is rarely preached and talked about – almost like an invisible force shaping every aspect of our lives that we remain blind to.

The core of the course is the idea that consumerism is an issue not of the ‘head’ but of the heart, and it is the heart that truly shapes our ‘loves’ and our choices – how we live our lives day by day.

We spend time particularly with Augustine, the great Christian theologian of the heart, who saw more clearly than most, how it is the heart that is the seat of our identity.

We look at the teaching of Jesus on money and how Augustine’s focus on the heart is faithful to Jesus’ radical challenge around discipleship.

We bring in J K A Smith and his modern re-appropriation of Augustine and his argument that so much Christianity is rationalistic. Human beings are not ‘brains on a stick’ but lovers – we ‘believe’ through passionate commitments to stories that capture our hearts and imaginations.

An aside: It is my conviction that Christian discipleship should ultimately be framed around love. The baseline issue in being a Christian is what or who we love the most. And so any discussion or ‘programme’ of discipleship that does not focus on the heart is missing the point …

So, it has been a joy to read Clavier: he captures the dynamics of modern consumerism; he engages in depth with Augustine (the book series he is writing for is ‘Reading Augustine’); he links to J K A Smith; he brings in Stanley Hauerwas and he resists any easy ‘step by step guide’ to ‘how to beat consumerism’…

Another aside: In The Message of Love, published next month, I have a chapter on ‘Love Gone Wrong: Money’ – in which all of the above themes appear so you can see why I have found this book both helpful and significant.

So, after a rather long break from blogging – due in part to some globe trotting over the summer – this post is the first of a series on Clavier’s excellent book. More to come.

‘The love of money is a root of every kind of evil’ or ‘money is spiritual kryptonite’: some thoughts on contentment and dissatisfaction this Christmas

This verse from 1 Timothy 6:10 is probably one of the misquoted texts in the New Testament.  The popular shortened version – ‘money is the root of all evil’ – makes two errors:

i. It wrongly identifies money itself as the problem when it is human attitudes to money that is in view – love of the green stuff.

ii. It also wrongly lumps all causes of evil to money. While it is very likely that the vast majority of evil is linked to love of money, the text says ‘a root of every kind of evil’ – not the root of evil per se.

Now, having said this, these clarifications in no way lessens the force of what is being said in this verse. Money is spiritual kryptonite – it’s highly dangerous stuff. To be treated with extreme caution.

I started listing evils associated with the love of money. It started to get pretty long pretty quickly.

Here’s an invitation – what evils do you see today that are the direct consequence of love of money?

Here’s the immediate context in 1 Timothy 6:6-10:

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

The dangers of the love of money are unpacked in 9-10. Look out for key words around the human heart – what drives us:

‘want’

‘temptation’

‘foolish and harmful desires’

‘love of money’ (philarguria – a rare word in the NT with the sense of craving or greed for more)

‘eager’

Those desires are powerful but utterly destructive. ‘Plunge’ has the sense of drowning, being overwhelming and sinking without hope into ruin and destruction.

Those motivated by love of money have wandered into apostasy, abandoning the faith. Now lost, it is as if they have impaled themselves and are in agony. It is graphic imagery.

money trapThey have fallen for the oldest temptation of all – greed for more. Their dissatisfaction meant that they were lured into a trap. The bait was money. By taking the bait they are imprisoned in harmful and foolish desires.

Has this convinced you yet that money is a dangerous substance? Perhaps our Euro notes should have a skull and crossbones on them.

Yet I suspect that there is little Christian teaching on the toxic dangers of love of money – especially in a culture of turbo-charged consumerism where ‘greed is good’ and ‘more’ is never enough.

Gordon Fee comments, if this is the case

‘Why would any one want to be rich?’

The desire for more is foolish because money is a transitory and powerless thing. It could not bring us life nor is it any value in death (7). To pursue it and love it is to chase after something that cannot deliver.

By falling to its temptation we are like rats in a trap – we follow its allure and can’t escape.

What then is the only ‘protection’ or inoculation against the toxic poison that is love of money?

Two words:

Godliness (eusebia) : love for God. In him is our source of identity. Hope. Purpose. We do not need to pursue false gods of money and its illusionary promises.

Contentment: Satisfaction with ‘enough’. Simplicity of lifestyle (8). Rest. Gratitude. Contentment is the most radically counter-cultural attitude possible in a consumer society.

It is quite literally ‘heresy’ in a culture of ‘never enough’.

This combination of godliness and contentment constitutes real riches. Note the irony and the polemic – this is the only place where ‘great gain’ is to be found.

Do we really believe this?

What do you think?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

Parkrun theology?

Parkrun has become a global movement. After starting in 2004 in London there are now something like 3 million runners in over 20 countries. The concept is brilliantly simple – join others at 9.30 on a Saturday morning in running 5k around an open public space. It’s a timed run, it’s free and volunteer led.

Here’s a map of parkruns in Ireland (from the Irish Parkrun website)

Parkruns ireland

I am a Parkrun novice but get to my local venue when I can. My aim is modest – try not to die and keep moving until it’s finished. The ethos is non-competitive and friendly. There are young children running with parents, dogs on leashes, and even mums running while pushing a buggy complete with baby (good for the humility to be passed out by such a pair – I should know!).

Why talk about Parkrun on a theology blog? Well, as I was ‘running’ around the course this morning it struck me that there are parallels to baptism and the community of the church.

Better explain how before you think I have lost the plot.

A Radical Levelling

At a Parkrun everyone comes as they are. The ‘uniform’ is some sort of running gear. Participants are stripped down to bare essentials. It is just each person facing the same physical challenge. The only ‘resource’ each one has is their body.

Pretty well all the trappings of the modern world are left behind (apart from those running with headphones on). Practically all markers of status, wealth, achievement and distinction become irrelevant. There is a certain vulnerability in having those ‘protective’ layers removed. Whoever you are ‘in the world’, here you are just another runner. For each person, it is just ‘the course and me’. But – and this is the genius of Parkrun – ‘me’ is able to join with others in a community of runners sharing the same task together.

In the early Church, there was a different type of ‘levelling’ experience linked to community – that of baptism. Ben Myers describes it in his wonderful little book on the Apostle’s Creed (from a 3rd Century document called the Apostolic Tradition).

When the rooster crows at dawn, they are led out to a pool of flowing water. They remove their clothes. The women let down their hair and remove their jewelry. They renounce Satan and are anointed from head to foot with oil. They are led naked into the water. Then they are asked a question: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”. They reply, “I believe!” And they are plunged down in the water and raised up again.

Two further questions are asked – about their belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit. Each time they are immersed after their affirmative reply. Then

When they emerge from the water they are again anointed with oil. They are clothed, blessed, and led into the assembly of believers, where for the first time they will share in the eucharistic meal. Finally they  are sent out into the world to do good works and to grow in faith.

Now, I’m not advocating that modern baptisms (or Parkruns for that matter) should be done naked! But the symbolism is powerful. Believers bring absolutely nothing of their own status and achievements to baptism. They come utterly dependent on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And this radical levelling is permanent. From now on there are to be NO distinctions in status and treatment of believers based on their status and wealth. James is the most outspoken but it is a consistent theme in the NT.

Wealth and status are irrelevant before God – indeed they are most likely to be severe hindrances to the Christian life. Take this warning in 1 Timothy 6: 6-10 that I’m studying at the moment.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

And this is where (the admittedly loose) parallel to a Parkrun begins to break down. For at the end of the run the hundreds of runners return to the car park (yes, some irony about driving to a run) and get into their cars.

Immediately the world’s obsession with status and achievement comes rushing back – for few things in modern Ireland proclaim those values than our licence plates numbered by year of production attached to famous brand names – whether Mercedes, Audi, BMW or whatever.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

In love with wealth

Over at the Guardian, there is an article on Lauren Greenfield who has spent years photographing the extreme rich  – ‘How the Modern World Fell in Love with Money’

Greenfield has amassed 500,000 images of the often absurd lives of the wealthy. The highlights – including a picture of go-go dancers hired for a 13-year-old’s bar mitzvah – are published by Phaidon in a £60 2.5kg tome called Generation Wealth. An accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary film is released in the UK next week.

Can’t say that I’ve had much experience hanging around with the absurdly wealthy (unless some friends are keeping their Swiss bank accounts secret).

But I did have a few days in Cannes during the film festival a few months ago (long story). It was a brush with an alternative reality for sure.

Here’s a photo that I really like. Wonder if you have a caption?

IMG_9273

A bit of context. The festival is ticket only. Many main event films require black tie / evening dress. Those with tickets are expected to attend or give their tickets to others so that there are no empty seats. So you get lots of young people dressed up hanging about outside hoping for a free ticket.

And many who do not get in, like this woman, pose for photos in front of the red carpet. Sort of imitation celebrities if you like. Almost touching the dream of limitless wealth that pervades the festival. Literally surrounding the pavilion were hundreds of multi-million dollar yachts, occupied with crews and venues for after-film parties.

Yet that dream is fragile. I grew up in ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and have never seen more security than at Cannes. Police and army patrols were on every corner. As she posed, this group of policemen marched by. She pretended not to notice them.

Is this picture a sort of parable for late modern Western capitalism I wonder?

  1. The apparently ‘solid’ Western hopes of power, happiness and celebrity offered by wealth dependent on the power of the state to protect its way of life.
  2. An undercurrent of fear under the surface of glitz and apparent perfection.
  3. The exclusion of the vast majority from the lives of isolated elites

As the Guardian article says, more and more people pursue and revel in dreams of limitless wealth. Yet, at the same time, such dreams are both utterly unattainable (except for a tiny few) and unsustainable. Such injustices may reach breaking point as hyper-capitalism collapses in on itself.

A growing number of academics warn that the widening gulf between the richest 1% and everyone else could lead to a backlash. The richest 0.1% of the world’s population has increased their combined wealth by as much as the poorest 50% – or 3.8 billion people – since 1980, according to the World Inequality Report. The report, by the French economist Thomas Piketty and 100 other researchers, also found that the richest 1% of the global population “captured” 27% of the world’s wealth growth between 1980 and 2016. Piketty warns that inequality has ballooned to “extreme levels” in many countries, and will only get worse unless governments take co-ordinated action to increase taxes and prevent tax avoidance.

 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Gospel and Capitalism – Daniel Bell

What do you think of this quote from Daniel Bell, Divinations: theo-politics in an age of terror (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017) on how the gospel confronts and overcomes capitalism?

 

Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.

This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.

An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.

A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.

Comments, as ever, welcome.