Unbridled captialism and the erosion of civil society

From The Atlantic

An article analysing the destructive effects of long hours combined with unpredictable schedules now commonplace among corportations intent on maximising profit by utilising their workforce most efficiently.

“Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore: Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society”

This concluding paragraph

It’s a cliché among political philosophers that if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationships and local community. “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She focused on the role of terror in breaking down social and family ties in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we don’t need a secret police to turn us into atomized, isolated souls. All it takes is for us to stand by while unbridled capitalism rips apart the temporal preserves that used to let us cultivate the seeds of civil society and nurture the sadly fragile shoots of affection, affinity, and solidarity.

How kick back against this on a societal scale for the common good?

And if community is crucial within Christian faith, how does that community flourish and be sustained if significant numbers of people are unable to participate on a weekly basis due to long hours and unpredictable work schedules?

The Message of Love (2)

This is the first of two posts about The Message of Love, which is published today

What is this book?

While many questions begin to emerge when the topic of God and love comes up, this book was not written as a theological textbook systematically addressing theological issues.

The genre of the BST Themes series is each book being a set of expositions of Bible texts relevant to the theme – in this case love. It is out of those expositions that a broader theology of love emerges, but this was not the primary goal.

I like this way of doing things because it is the way the Bible actually works. The challenge in writing was to let each text speak for itself and see where that led.

So each chapter is a stand-alone discussion, structured something like a sermon in that exegesis of the text leads on to contemporary application. I say ‘something like’ in that the BST series shows the academic ‘workings’ behind that process – something that should lie well in the background of a sermon if it isn’t to become indigestible!

So the book requires work from the reader. It will best be read with an open Bible alongside the relevant chapter.

The structure is a biblical theology of love via 17 chapters unpacking and applying key ‘love texts’ within the Bible. They are organised into 4 parts:

Introduction

PART 1: Love in the Old Testament (5 chapters)

PART 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ (4 chapters)

PART 3: Love in the life and teaching of Jesus (4 chapters)

PART 4: The Church as a Community of Love (4 chapters)

Conclusion

Each chapter makes its own distinct contribution to The Message of Love and can be read in its own right.

Why this book?

It might sound over-spiritual to say but I think that God put this topic on my heart some years ago and it wouldn’t go away. In reading, teaching and preaching the Bible it became clearer and clearer to me that not only is love a core (or perhaps the core) theme of the Bible, but it gets to the great question of who God is and what biblical faith in God is ultimately all about.

These are big and important questions. I also remember being challenged by listening to theologian Miroslav Volf speak in Ireland some years ago and encouraging Christian authors to write about things that matter – big issues that connect to people’s lives and the heart of God.

Love fits that bill for sure. There are very few people not interested in love. Our culture is ‘in love’ with love – indeed one philosopher says that love has become the religion of the West, it is worshipped and idolised while faith in other belief systems has crumbled. ‘God is love’ has become ‘Love is God’.

This means at least three things.

One is that the church needs to be thinking clearly about love. What is Christian love? What does it look like and how and where does it differ from and conflict with contemporary Western individualised and romanticised notions of love? Where has the church conformed to the culture and needs reform and renewal? This is a particularly urgent question in a consumer society that relentlessly forms people towards self-love. Where does love call the church to confront evil and sin, especially on behalf of those who have no voice to defend themselves? What does it mean to love our enemies?

A second is that, fairly or not, in post-Christendom it is Christianity and the church which are seen by many as opposed to love. The church is exclusive and judgemental, the God Christians worship is malevolent and bullying. Much of this criticism is grossly unfair but sadly far from all of it. It has always been true that the church, if it is to be authentic, needs to live up to its calling to be a community of love, but today that calling has a sharper missional edge. There is no ‘Christendom cushion’ giving the church a free pass because of its privileged place in society.

Third, related to the last point, if God is love; if love is the goal of the law and the first fruit of the Spirit; if love is to define everything a Christian does (‘do everything in love’ 1 Cor 16:14); if faith working itself out in love is ‘the only thing that counts’ (Gal 5:6); if the heart of the Christian life is remaining in God’s love by loving one another (John); if a Christian marriage is to be characterised by counter-cultural love (Ephesians 5); if discipleship means above all loving Jesus wholeheartedly – then there is no more important challenge for mission and authenticity than putting love where it belongs at the centre of all Christian teaching, preaching and living.

Well that gives a sense of what and why. The next post will give a flavour of some of the chapters and talk about some of the theological, pastoral and missiological implications of The Message of Love.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Consumer culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetoric of Delight (8)

The final chapter of Mark Clavier’s book is called ‘God’s Orators’.

In it he engages particularly with Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, written at the turn of history as the Roman empire faded and the Dark Ages beckoned. It would, centuries later Clavier, argues, as a work of rhetoric on Christian teaching and preaching, have an enduring legacy in the rebuilding a Christian world.

Fast forward to the early 21st century and Clavier sees us as facing another historical turning point. He references the pessimistic end of Alistair McIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) and his bleak prognosis for Western moral discourse (as with the fall of Rome, the barbarians are now in power; the resources for forming people of virtue have dissipated).

And so to Rod Dreher’s 2017 Benedict Option – in the face of culture wars that have been lost, churches should withdraw from those battles to form new communities where Christian virtues can be preserved. As with Benedict’s monasteries, Christians can best survive and flourish through strategic withdrawal to teach and propagate the faith within a hostile world.

Clavier (rightly) isn’t convinced by Dreher’s alarmism and lack of confidence. He refers to Hauerwas’s criticism of Dreher, that his withdrawal strategy is an illusion – there is no-where to withdraw to.

But Clavier does agree that we are at a significant juncture in the history of the church (in the West at least).

Unless the church can reclaim its identity from consumerism, it will become little more than an organization for those who make Christianity a lifestyle choice … For the church to prosper again it shouldn’t engage in a ‘strategic withdrawal’ but rediscover how to proclaim the gospel in fast changing circumstances. In other words, rather than withdraw into monastic seclusion, expending their energies trying to become pure communities (when has that ever turned out well?), churches should seek to become rhetorical communities that can contest the destructive rhetoric of our world. (128)

A nice line – if I suspect a controversial one for many – the church does not need another Benedict, ‘it needs another Augustine.’ (129)

So what does it look like for churches to become these alternative rhetorical communities of delight?

Clavier answers this question in dialogue with Augustine’s On Christian Teaching and The City of God.

In CT, Augustine unpacks the task and resources for Christian orators. Christian teachers are not the source of eloquence and wisdom – that belongs to God. Their vocation is to be formed into people through whom

‘… God may teach, delight and persuade the faithful to love him and their neighbours. In that sense, they’re sacramental: they and their words are the outward, sensible signs of God’s inward, invisible truth and delight.’ (129)

This is where Augustine is powerfully relevant to the church in any age. What is the overall goal of all Christian teaching and preaching? Of study of the Scriptures? His answer is unequivocal – love.

Anyone who thinks he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up the double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. (CT 1.36.40, quoted in Clavier 130).

Amen to that. This is true wisdom – building up the community of the church in the love of God. Love, not theological or scriptural knowledge is the goal.

But such teaching is to be done persuasively – drawing listeners in to the delights of God’s wisdom. Teaching is not to be dull and boring! Such speech makes Scripture inaccessible to all bar a (nerdish?) minority interested in theology regardless of how heart-numbing the teaching may be!

There are some wonderful (and challenging) principles of communication here. Good Christian teaching and preaching will move and delight the hearers. Such eloquence fosters understanding, it elicits a response of the heart as well as the mind. Augustine again,

A hearer must be delighted so he can be gripped and made to listen, and moved so he can be impelled to action. (CT 4.12.27, Clavier, 133).

Instruct. Delight. Persuade. These are the goals of Christian oratory.

But ‘behind’ this oratory lies the character and virtue (we might say integrity) of the teacher. Augustine has searching words for any preachers and teachers today in how before speech comes prayer:

He should be in no doubt that any ability he has, and however much he has, derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so by praying for himself and for those he is about to address he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. (134)

And so Augustine’s Christian orator must excel in three areas:

  1. Study of the Scriptures ‘to discover the wisdom to teach others how better to love God and neighbour.’ (135)
  2. Know how to communicate eloquently.
  3. Be a person of prayer – only in prayer will the teacher be filled with God’s delight and the humility and love to build up others.

This is an exalted view of the ministry of Christian teaching. (Clavier notes that nowhere does Augustine limit it to the vocation of the priesthood).

So what does it look like for 21st ministry today?

Clavier sets out some boundaries:

It is not just a matter of advanced biblical studies – knowledge of the Bible, as if knowledge is enough. Rather

‘… it is primarily a matter of perceiving reality that’s rooted in Scripture and builds people up in the love of God and neighbour. (138)

Nor is it helpful to define Christian teaching too narrowly and individualistically. Yes ‘full-time’ ministry roles are important, but all believers are called to the task of teaching, delighting and persuading each other to pursue the love of God and neighbour.

Yes, Clavier says, the ministry of teaching is crucial, but

‘Teaching, however, must be something that characterizes every aspect of a church’s life. Formation isn’t just (or even primarily) information but rather the rooting of hearts, minds, and bodies in the imaginary, habits, and practices of the church. When people worship they are learning; when they pray, they are learning; when they serve others, they are learning … these activities aren’t extraneous to their beliefs but are forming them to be the kind of people who can love God and neighbour in a world that seeks to persuade them to love themselves.’ (139)

Such a church is not to be sectarian (my word not Clavier’s) – he calls for stewardship of creation and living for the benefit of others.

This is no Benedict Option, but a call to proclaim the gospel and contest ‘the destructive rhetoric of this world’ (141) – the false and unsustainable gospel of consumerism that is going one day to come crashing down.

The mission of the church is to demonstrate ‘to the world an alternative manner of living’ that people

‘experience in the very life of that church a wisdom and delight that’s unlike anything they’ve found elsewhere.’ (142).

Clavier acknowledges that some readers may be disappointed that he is not offering a roadmap of how to delight in God rather than destructive illusions of consumption, but to offer a ‘how to’ is to miss the point that delight and love can’t be prescribed.

St Paul gets the final word – his words sum up the purpose of mission and ministry

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

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As I said in the first post, there are significant areas of overlap with what Clavier is arguing and themes that emerged in my The Message of Love. Some of these include:

  • Love as the purpose of all ministry and mission
  • Discipleship as much more than knowledge, but a formation of the whole person – head, heart and hands.
  • The relevance of Augustine on love in dialogue with contemporary consumerism as that which seeks to capture our hearts (and this is not to say there are not serious issues with Augustine’s dualism when it comes to love, sex and the body in particular)
  • The mission of the church to be the church – in other words its primary mission is to be an authentic community of worship and love.
  • A strong theology of the world: the church’s mission not to be conformed to that world but to embody a different story to that of the world.  Clavier sounds pretty Anabaptist for an Anglican.
  • The need for humility if we are to love well.
  • The Christian life as communal – lived in relationship with others.
  • And the sheer good news of God – who is to be loved and delighted in

All this makes me like his book! It is also short and readable. Sure there are points you might want talked about more (particuarly the content of the gospel) but in a consumeristic, post-Christendom world he rightly is calling for the church not to be in negative, fearful, defence mode but rediscovering its calling to bear witness to the good news of God.

Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (7)

Chapter 6 The Church as a Rhetorical Community

I am pretty sure that you haven’t heard of your local church being described as a Rhetorical Community. Neither have I. So what does Mark Clavier mean?

To get to that, first some context. He argues, that despite all sorts of efforts by churches to be more culturally relevant over the last generation or two, the demographics (he uses stats from the USA) continue to show alarming decline, with millennials opting out in large numbers.

Such churches, Clavier says, have adopted the strategy of the market. They have ‘retooled’ themselves to meet the spiritual needs of their customer base. How’s this for a criticism?

Some strands of Evangelicalism, for example, have tried to adopt and reorient the practices of consumerism towards the gospel – in effect, repackaging the substance of the faith in forms developed by consumer culture. They present worship in more entertaining formats, draw from popular tastes in music to compose praise songs, and use the resources of marketing to develop brand loyalty. In a sense, these churches have created an alternative consumer culture where the presence of Jesus is pervasive; indeed Jesus himself becomes a kind of logo that assures shoppers that their goods and services are wholesome and permissible: a brand Jesus. (105)

Ouch.

He makes a telling point that the impact of consumerism reaches deep down to what issues preoccupy the Church.

Questions about identity, personal freedom, psychological wholeness, and personal spirituality have tended to eclipse traditional concerns about doctrine and salvation. (106)

He’s right – we need only to look at how issues of sexual identity and personal authenticity are tearing churches apart for an example. Themes like sin, the cost of discipleship and judgement don’t tend to sell too well (and I’m not saying that is where the gospel begins, but without them the gospel is incomprehensible).

Clavier brings in Stanley Hauerwas’ call for the church to a colony of Resident Aliens who transform the world, not be conforming to it, but by being a faithful alternative to it –  a community formed by the story of Scripture issuing in radically distinct ethics and way of living.

Clavier agrees with Hauerwas call to be Resident Aliens and that this is not a sectarian withdrawal from the world since there is nowhere to withdraw to. But he thinks Hauerwas does not go far enough. It isn’t that the church can’t withdraw because it is already surrounded, it can’t withdraw because it is already overrun by the rhetoric of consumerism.

And this brings us to the church as a rhetorical community.

For the church to reclaim its mission, therefore, it must first strive to be an intentional community of rhetoric that eloquently calls people to participate in its story of redemptive reality be appealing to their imaginations and their hearts. (107)

After discussion of Augustine, Charles Taylor, Oliver O’Donovan and JKA Smith, this is where Clavier is headed in terms of the mission of the church in a consumer dominated culture.

The church is called to be a formative community, that embodies an alternative to the destructive delights offered by consumerism.

The mission of the church, therefore, is fundamentally a mission of delight: to strive to be a formative community of rhetoric that can persuade the dispose Christians to pursue the love of God.  …. Broadly speaking, this is accomplished by beginning to think about how to proclaim Scripture, worship God, and love one another in ways that either delight or challenge anything that seeks to mask God’s delight. (121)

The church does this through communicating eloquently its own story, practices, habits and symbols with imagination and creativity in a way that resonates with people’s hearts. So Clavier wants to find a central place for art, music, architecture, story-telling, forms of liturgical worship, ritual and the ceremonial as ways to help people experience delight.

The goal is to develop habits that root believers in God, bind them together in community and develop a love for beauty. Children are to be inducted into the stories and habits of the church, engaging them imaginatively with the Bible and worship of the church. When it comes to children’s and youth work

Churches should long ago have given up on trying to out-entertain consumerism. (122)

It is only from such delight in God that Christians will make virtuous, moral choices that reflect God’s love. This is true freedom.

I really liked his description of the ‘outcomes’ (my word) of Augustine’s ‘earthly city’ (consumerism) and the ‘heavenly city’ (the city of God):

The earthly city’s self-love produces a reality manifested by a desire for glory that ends in violence, war, empire and perpetual restlessness. On the other hand, the heavenly city’s love of God produces a reality characterized by a humility that engenders communion, justice, happiness and peace. (119)

Is this all rather idealistic? How can it be enacted in day to day practice? These are some of the questions addressed in the final chapter.

Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (4)

In chapter 3 Clavier turns to the ‘Rhetoric of Consumerism’. By this he means the persuasive story / stories which shape our Western consumer culture – and people like us in it.

And I’ll say upfront, if you want to be critically informed about the world in which we live read this chapter.

He starts by referencing the atheist philosopher A C Grayling, one of the few thinkers to attempt to offer a robust defence of the good of consumerism. This quote gives a flavour. Comparing consumerism to religion Grayling says,

Both the language and the symbols offer what religion once did – a common structure. But as a community bond it is … more democratic and equitable. For consumers are not fools, not victims of dogmas taught by a priesthood. They are their own priests, they know what they want and are getting it. (42)

So in this vision consumerism is freedom and enables autonomous individuals to construct their own identities and happiness. But such freedom is only for the select who can consume as they wish. As Clavier notes

Graylings’ ethics are at best meaningless and at worst insulting to low income people or the vast majority of people who live in the developing world. (42)

It is also a vision which imagines that we are somehow detached, above the fray, and able to make free rational choices unaffected by a culture intensely manipulated by the market.

Clavier draws nice parallels with Cicero’s orators. Today consumerism works through charm and eloquence rather than rational argument. The entire superstructure of Western prosperity demands relentless and ever-evolving consumption. Buying becomes more than a purchase, but an activity of self-expression and self-fulfilment. And so desire is the driver of the consumption cycle – desires must be created, stoked and refreshed in an endless cycle of wants.

Frugality, ‘enough’, satisfaction and contentment are therefore the enemies of Western capitalist culture. They threaten the very basis of economic sustainability.

Personal dissatisfaction, therefore, isn’t a byproduct of consumerism but the very essence of it. A contented public would be the ruin of Western economies … Billions of dollars are spent on consumer behaviour research to find new methods for convincing people that they’re yet to find true happiness and that they have needs yet unmet.  (46)

And so consumerism is effectively a desire factory – new needs and new desires create new commodities while old ones are thrown out. And so our vast waste disposal problem and the destruction of the physical world. The rather inconvenient truth about consumer dreams is that they are destroying the real world at a catastrophic rate.

A major difference from Cicero’s time is that powerful rhetoric would have been rarely heard, yet Western culture is one of unceasing rhetoric, we live in a society of perpetual persuasion, telling us stories about reality and our ideal place within it.  

Clavier unpacks in more detail the processes of consumer persuasion. In such a world of endless manipulation, choice becomes a burden rather than a freedom. It is a culture of never-arriving, never-resting and never-enough (my description).

In a desperate competition for attention, marketers analyse and study us as never before. Data is gold-dust and is used to inform the stories we are sold so that they connect with us at a personal and emotional level.

The heart rather than the mind is the object of their appeal … Delight is the key to connecting emotions to information and stories intended to persuade. (53-4)

This echoes Augustine, “a hearer must be delighted to he can be gripped and made to listen” (54, quote from On Christian Teaching, 4.12.28)

And Clavier links here to the power of mass entertainment in creating delight and selling us things in the process. This includes films, box sets and such like of course, but boundaries are increasingly blurred between information like news and marketing. Everything is shaped around pleasing the customer – the market is ‘on our side’ and there to help us experience life to the full.

And so sources of delight are ‘systematically commodified’ – this is the strategy of ‘inform, delight, engage’. We are not bullied but delighted into being loyal consumers of favourite brands. Virtually nothing is beyond commodification.

Take your life for example. The genius of Facebook, followed by other social media platforms, is that our delight in sharing our lives with others has been monetized. As Clavier says, we are ‘willing (but unwitting) marketers. Delight is the key to getting them to share their experience with others’ (57).

Increasingly we are becoming aware of just how deeply Google, Facebook, Amazon and others are able to exploit our personal data, but most of us just don’t mind. It’s a trade-off – our delight for their profit. We don’t feel oppressed, in fact it is

a bondage of delight … we enjoy it. If given a choice between being middle-class consumers and any other identity, almost everyone in their right mind would choose the former … so long as we feel free, does it really matter if we aren’t? (59).

So while the planet burns and extinction rates rise; while we are increasingly aware of the hidden dark side of consumer goods made in sweat shops far away; while we may fret about the breakdown of community and social bonds and we worry about the impact of social media on mental health – we still feel that the market ‘works’ – what, after all, is the alternative? Clavier again:

Where may one go to escape from being primarily a consumer within the rhetorical community of consumerism? … (59)

The answer many conservative Christians give is choice – we must choose to resist (somehow) the all-pervasive embrace of the market. But for Clavier this is inadequate,

The contest isn’t between choices but between the suggestions and delights that give rise to choices. In short, if Cicero and Augustine are right, that what’s needed isn’t just a different choice but, more fundamentally, a rival rhetoric powerful enough to persuade people to be something else than a consumer. (60)

And it is that rival rhetoric articulated by Augustine that the next chapter gets into. We’ll discuss how successful this move is at the end of this series.

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.