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.

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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 Message of Love is on its way!

9781783595914

Delighted to announce that The Message of Love will be out in September. You can pre-order your copy now before it sells out!!

Seriously, I won’t be pushing the book on this blog apart from this announcement and maybe a couple of posts when it comes out.

Few things are more boring than an author obsessively banging on about their book.

So excuse me this post and then we will move on.

It has taken up weekends, evenings and holidays for the last couple of years or so, so it’s exciting to see publication in sight.

I’ve loved writing about love. For me, the book effectively turned into a biblical theology of Christianity.

It did not start there but that is where it feels like it finished.

By ‘biblical theology of Christianity’ I mean it engages with the great core questions at the heart of the Christian faith. That theology emerges via exegesis, discussion and contemporary application of 17 individual key ‘love texts’ in the Bible.

The sorts of issues are listed below. They are not a table of contents but some of the theological themes that surface along the way.

Who is God and what is he like?

God’s love for his people Israel – unbreakable covenant love, judgement and forgiveness.

God’s just love for the poor and marginalised

The love of the Father for the Son

God is love

God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ

God’s love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit

Human love for God

Wholehearted love for God – heart, soul, strength

The cost of discipleship love

Love and worship

Love and obedience

Love for one another

The difficult discipline of love as a foretaste of the future

Enemy love

Love, freedom and the Spirit

Erotic Love: sex, the body and desire

Love and Marriage

Misdirected love: the love of money

Every chapter has discussion of implications for how the ‘Bible Speaks Today’.

The more these themes came into focus, the clearer it became how and where a biblical theology of love confronts and contrasts with how love is understood in the twenty-first century West.

Overall, the book discusses how the Christian faith is effectively a beautiful vision of a flourishing life together. 

But it also asks some hard questions.

If God’s people are called to love and worship a God who is love, what does that look like in churches? In how Christians treat opponents? In a culture where the church is often seen as opposed to love rather than the embodiment of it?

If love describes God’s character, his dealings with his people and his attitude to the world; if love is the ultimate goal of his redemptive work and is heartbeat of the Christian life and future hope; if churches are to be communities of other-focused love – what challenges does this pose to churches today?

To you and I?

Where do we need repentance and renewal? What is the connection between love and mission?

That hopefully gives you a flavour of what The Message of Love is all about.

A couple of encouraging endorsements are in from NT scholars Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington.

Press Reviews

For close to two decades I have studied both how the Bible presents love and how Bible scholars have expressed that presentation. Luminaries like James Moffatt and Leon Morris, from two considerably different traditions, have become standard treatments but I found both coming up short for different reasons. No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology.

Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, USA

Oddly enough, it has been decades since a really good study of love in the Bible has appeared. Finally, we may now thank Patrick Mitchel for remedying this oversight in The Message of Love. There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended.

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary, USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

How important is love? (7) Luther and love

aliandnino

The question behind this post, and this mini-series, is how important is love?

If it is essential and important, what are implications for discipleship? For preaching and teaching? For holding each other accountable for lives which show tangible evidence of transformation? For prioritising the fact that authentic Christian faith ‘works’ – it is seen in lives of love and good works?

For facing up to, and confronting, the heresy of lovelessness in our lives and in our churches?

In the first post of this mini-series on the importance of love we talked about how, in some strands of post-Reformational Protestantism, love and works have been relegated to secondary importance behind the issue of primary concern – justifying faith.

But, as Stephen Chester argues [‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’] this relegation of love and works does not originate with Luther (or Calvin). Indeed, Luther was at great pains NOT to separate faith and love.

Some quotes from Luther (drawn from Chester’s article).

Look out for how he connects faith with love and good works.

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts.”  Table Talk, 1533.

“Therefore he who hears the Word of God sincerely and clings to Him in faith is at once also clothed with the spirit of love, as Paul has said above, ‘Did you receive the spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith’ (Gaiatians 3:2)? For if you hear Christ sincerely, it is impossible for you not to love Him forthwith, since He has done and borne so much for you.”

“[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

True faith “arouses and motivates good works through love … He who wants to be a true Christian to belong to the kingdom of Christ must be truly a believer. But he does not truly believe if works of love do not follow his faith.”

“Paul is describing the whole of the Christian life in this passage [Gal. 5]: inwardly it is faith toward God, and outwardly it is love or works towards one neighbour. Thus a man is a Christian in a total sense: inwardly through faith in the sight of God, who does not need our works; outwardly in the sight of men, who do not derive any benefit from faith but do derive benefit from works or from our love.”

“As the sun shines by necessity, if it is a sun, and yet does not shine by demand, but by its nature and its unalterable will, so to speak, because it was created for the purpose that it should shine so a person created righteous performs new works by an unalterable necessity, not by legal compulsion. For to the righteous no law is given. Further, we are created, says Paul, unto good works … it is impossible to be a believer and not a doer.” Dialogue with Melanchthon, 1536.

“believers are new creatures, new trees; accordingly, the aforementioned demands of the law do not apply to them, e.g., faith must do good works, just as it is not proper to say: the sun must shine, a good tree must produce good fruit, 3 + 7 must equal 10. For the sun shines de facto, a good tree is fruitful de facto, 3 + 7 equal 10 de facto.”

So, for Luther, love and good works, while never an effective cause of justification, are a constituent part of justification. You cannot have justifying faith without the accompanying presence of love and good works. Faith will work in love de facto.

Luther is at great pains to develop a theology where love and works are integral to saving faith – not an additional optional ‘add on’.

Contrary to how works have been treated with suspicion or even hostility within some later post-Reformational Protestantism, Luther (and Calvin) take great care to integrate love and works within their doctrine of salvation.

How Important is Love? (6) John and Love, a 10 point summary

aliandninoOn this Valentine’s day it seems appropriate to turn to the supreme theologian of love in the NT – the apostle John. No-one, not even Paul, speaks more of love than John. But it’s not just a matter of quantity – John’s theology of love elevates love to new heights. It is he alone in the Bible who describes God as love (vs 8 and 16).

A good way in to John is to look at the most condensed section of his teaching on love in 1 John 4:7-12.

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

It’s worth counting the number of times love appears in these 6 verses (I make it 13).

While John’s style is simple his content is anything but simplistic.

What strikes you from these verses?

Again, look for how love is both the MOTIVE and the GOAL of God’s action in his Son.

Here’s a 10 point summary

1) Love originates in God – he is both the source of love and, in himself, is love.

2) By implication, all that God is and does is loving. In him is no ‘unlove’ – or, as John puts it, since God is light, in him is no darkness at all.

3) No-one else loves like this, of no-one else can it be said that they are ‘love’. There is a qualitative gulf between divine and human love. Humans cannot ‘naturally’ love in the way God loves. Such love is a gift from God.

[An aside here: I don’t think John is necessarily saying humans cannot love – he is saying they cannot love in the way God loves without knowing God himself.]

4) The supreme way he shows his love for us is in the sending of his Son into this broken world (‘sending’ here is shorthand for incarnation, life, death and resurrection).

5) The cross of Christ is where sins are atoned for. While not spelt out, it is in and through atonement that humans can come to know God through being born of God. There is therefore a humility required in order to love – a need for faith and repentance and openness to God’s help and empowering to love.

6) God, out of love, enables humans to know him who is love, and therefore to be transformed into people of love.

7) Divine love in this sense is contagious. It is in knowing God and having God live in us that humans are enabled to love.

8) Yet this is not ‘automatic’: love is a moral choice. John invites and exhorts his readers – ‘Let us love one another’; ‘we ought to love one another’.

9) Love is an essential and universal requirement for every Christian – it is the fundamental ‘baseline standard’ for the Christian life.  Note how John the great apostle includes himself in the call to love – ‘Let us love’. An absence of love reveals that God is not known at all.

10) What does love ‘look like’ in practice? The answer, as is so often the case, is Jesus.

Verse 17 ‘This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus.’

Love is a life looking away from the self and poured out for the good of others.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (5) Jesus and Love

aliandninoIf love is hugely important in Paul, how important is love in Jesus?

The best book that I’ve come across over the last couple of years of reading a lot on love is Simon May’s, Love: A History.

It is excellent: his writing is a pleasure to read, his overall argument is exceptionally well made, and he paints fascinating portraits of philosophers and theologians who have written about love through the centuries.

But when it comes to Jesus and love, May argues that love just wasn’t that important for the Messiah as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Certainly not in the way it was for the two major theologians of love in the NT – Paul and John, nor compared to how love came to be elevated in later Christian theology, especially from Augustine on.

Jesus, his argument goes, does not make love the ultimate virtue. He does not say ‘God is love’. He basically reaffirms OT love commands: love of God and love of neighbour is fulfilment of the law.

Even the radical innovation of enemy love is a sub-set of neighbour love – the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that your enemy is your neighbour.

Does this sound surprising?  Isn’t Jesus the anti-establishment prophet who shows love to all and makes love the defining characteristic of Christianity (as opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees and the OT law generally)?

Certainly in some strands of Christian theology, Jesus is held up as the one whose way of love liberates us from OT ‘law’ (Anders Nygren). But such ‘love versus the law’ theology is unsustainable. It is almost Marcionite in its negative view of the OT. It doesn’t fit Jesus, nor Paul. Both see love as a fulfilment of the law.

So I want to agree and disagree with May.

Yes, Jesus’ teaching on love fits fairly and squarely within the OT.

But I don’t see a chasm between Jesus and Paul & John when it comes to love. Love is critically important to Jesus. The entire goal of the law and prophets is fulfilled in love for God and neighbour. Those who love are greatly commended.

What May, I think, downplays, is how there is a development of theology of love in the NT.

It is not that Paul and John can be compared to Jesus as if all three were independent ancient philosophers of love, and that Paul and John, in very distinct ways, are responsible for ‘inventing’ Christian love and taking it to places that are foreign to the teaching of Jesus.

Rather, as I see it, the theologies of love in Paul and John undergo radical development in light of Jesus – and most especially in the shadow of the cross and in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.

The cross is reinterpreted not as a shameful defeat, but as a glorious demonstration of divine love.

The Spirit is the empowering presence of God who enables spiritual transformation – the most significant aspect of which is love.

It is these two developments that give shape to a NT theology of love. It is not that Paul and John are going off on a totally new tangent of their own. Nothing they say is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching on love.

What both of them see, in different ways, is how love is both the motive for God’s saving work in Christ (the cross) and the desired outcome of that saving work (a life of love lived in the Spirit).

It is to the unique importance of love in John that we turn next – tune in!

Comments, as ever, welcome.