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 (6)

Chapter 5 The Divided wills of Christian consumers

Did you watch Game of Thrones? Should you have watched GoT? Clavier starts this chapter referring to this sort of Christian debate about how to stay pure in dark world. What constitutes being ‘in the world but not of it’?

Such debates are as old as Christianity itself. How should the Christians in Corinth be ‘in’ the city but not of ‘it’ when it came to eating meat sacrificed to idols or going to pagan temples (1 Cor 8)?

Clavier’s bigger point here is that the context of such debates has radically changed in an internet age of global marketing. Whatever we like to think, it is now virtually impossible to somehow ‘stand apart’ from the world.

Consumer culture has already stormed the ramparts, leaving even Christian sectarians nowhere to hide … in a broadband world old strategies for sustaining a Christian identity no longer work (if they ever did) … unless we decide to join a Christian community that is disconnected from both technology and society, our struggle to resist the allure of consumer culture is relentless and mostly private. (85-86)

This all means that churches are, in effect, ‘weak’ cultures that have long lost the ability to enforce the beliefs and behaviours of their members. They are largely powerless to shape an alternative identity in the face of an all-embracing consumer narrative that offers a life of freedom, delight and self-fulfilment.

The reason for this, argues Clavier is that churches typically target issues of right belief, whereas consumerism targets the heart – our desires and loves and delights. The result is that the church becomes just one more leisure activity for the few. Fewer people feel any desire or need to belong, after all

‘… church communities provide little that can’t be found elsewhere in consumer culture.’ (87)

Clavier has a useful discussion of Christian world views here, and particularly the Bible as story. Indeed, I have just come out of a first year theology class teaching on the Bible as a grand, dramatic narrative in which the story of our individual lives find their significance and meaning.

Clavier references Richard Middleton, Michael Goheen and others. The argument is that a key to resisting the world (and the pull of consumer culture) is to know our place in the story. Knowledge of this worldview and our place in it will enable us to live to a different story.

I have a lot of sympathy for this – and so does Clavier. But he adds that there are two fatal problems. One is that it oversimplifies how we see the world. But a second reason is that it fails to take account of how we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Christianity is not a worldview we learn intellectually and then we live by that story. This reduces it down too much to ‘correct thinking’ and understanding of key concepts. Think of it this way – a world view can inform and educate; it helps us to see reality and how it works. But it does not have the power to transform thinking and behaviour because it leaves our desires and loves untouched.

Consumerism is much more like a deep allegiance that touches emotions and woos our hearts, turning us into willing consumers experiencing its joys and (temporary) fulfilments.

Augustine recognized that the Christian faith is confronted by persuasive appeals to the emotions more than intellectual appeals to the mind. To base the Christian response on choice is to show up too late to the battle. By then the market has already disposed people to make the choices it prefers and to pursue a vision of happiness that it has prepared them to desire (95).

Such is the power of consumer delight that few churches or Christians teach or reflect about consumerism – it is omnipresent and taken as a natural given of our way of life. Few consider that there is anything strange or troubling about the way we see ourselves in the world. And rare is serious reflection on radical changes in lifestyle needed in light of the present (not future) ecological catastrophe.

 ‘… few imagine that conversion to Christianity might involve a conversion away from anything other than a vague notion of non-belief (i.e. atheism, agnosticism, or another religion). (97)

And even if there were, argues Clavier, it is unlikely that study of Scripture, the Creeds and worldviews will challenge the powerful rhetoric we are formed by every day. It may make us aware that we are in bondage, we may have a sense that there is an alternative,

Yet, translating this knowledge into a manner of living is more difficult, not least because the obligations of being a Christian are less persuasive than the apparent freedom and fun offered by the market. Why would anyone embrace obligations if their notion of happiness is based on the total freedom to be whomever they want to be? (98)

So believers are caught between two rival rhetorics of delight.

If this all sounds too negative, Clavier concludes the chapter by setting up Part 3 of the book – ‘The Mission and Ministry of God’s Rhetoric’. Christians are not left on their own – they have the Holy Spirit.

The call for churches, he argues, is to be communities of delight: people who are transformed by the story of Scripture, whose identity and hearts are orientated towards God, whose joy is beyond the reach of the market

… love expressed through prayer can’t be monetized: the market has no means for making grace a commodity. This rhetorical context occurs within the theatre of the heart rather than the mind and the laurels of victory go to the rhetoric that lays greater claim on the affections. (100)

It will be interesting how Clavier unpacks this alternative rhetoric of delight that can subvert and challenge consumerism at its ‘own game’ of winning our hearts …

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 (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.

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.

 

 

Brueggemann on money and possessions

The church has long been haunted by a dualism … But the Bible eschews every dualism and asserts the materiality of creation over which God generously presides. That pernicious dualism has readily produced a religion that is disconnected from public realty and has sanctioned predatory economic practices that go hand in hand with intense and pious religion. Thus the earlier robber barons were card-carrying Christians in good standing; and in our time the church is mostly silent in the face of a predatory economy that reduces many persons to second-class humanity. That deceptive misreading is aided and abetted by a lectionary that mostly disregards the hard texts on money and possessions. xxi

money-and-possessionsSo begins Walter Brueggemann in his new book Money and Possessions.

The quote above reveals a big concern of this book: the church has generally ‘bottled it’ when it comes to speaking of money and possessions within a highly acquisitive culture. To do this requires putting on blinkers in how we read the Bible because from Genesis to Revelation the Bible has an enormous amount to say on the material world.

Do you agree that Christianity tends to be dualistic when it comes to money and possessions? Heard any good sermons on money recently?

He outlines 6 theses concerning money and possessions in the Bible and further proposes that at each point the Bible flatly contradicts the global market economy which now so totally dominates our lives.

I’ve cannibalised what he says along with bits of my own commentary into a wee table:

The greatest achievement of capitalism’s advance is that somehow it is seen as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.

It also has claimed to be the best way for economic and social progress – but endless crises and crashes tell another story – one we know rather a lot about in Ireland. Over 8 years on from the crash of 2008, the EU is still trying (and failing) to fight its way out of insurmountable debt.

The Bible certainly envisages a different way of handling limited resources. Capitalism is simply a man-made construction – it is not natural and it is certainly unsustainable.

God’s will is for justice and for his people to embody a different way of life. As Brueggemann says his will “contradicts much of our preferred, uncritized practice.” 13.

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You are what you love 2 (or how to develop your love life)

9781587433801Chapter 2 of James K A Smith’s book is ‘You might not love what you think’

If the first question of discipleship is ‘What do you love?’, a possible problem arises: ‘Do you actually love what you think you love?’

He tells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker  – where characters are given the terrifying choice of entering the Room where their deepest desires will be revealed. What if their conscious choice is not what they are given? The lesson being explored is whether what we think actually aligns with what we want. What we really desire is revealed in our daily life and habits not necessarily in what we say or think we love.

And Smith also goes to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty where Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (why are all Lester’s ‘losers’? – see Fargo) pursues ‘freedom’ – including in the form of Angela, the teenage friend of his daughter. Without ruining the plot, at a critical moment, Lester finds out that he doesn’t actually want what he thought he wanted.

In essence, Smith is arguing that a holistic approach to discipleship needs to appreciate how we are formed by all sorts of unconscious influences, desires and habits that “orientate our being-in-the-world.” (33). He refers to modern psychology that suggests that 95% of what we do in the world is unconscious habit (‘second nature’), only 5% is the result of deliberate choices.

He argues that ‘virtues’ are on the unconscious register – these are acquired habits that dispose to act in certain ways (36). Good character isn’t accidental – it is a web of accumulated dispositions. These can be acquired intentionally by upbringing, training and practice, but also unintentionally.

How?

Smith says we engage in formative routines and habits all that time but rarely recognize what is going on – indeed we are surrounded and immersed in environments (‘liturgies’) that have their own formative power to train our loves.

So, he argues, we learn to love rival kingdoms because we are participating in rival liturgies. Just assuming that ‘we are what we think’ is reductionistic and naïve – it misses the reality of who we are and how we love.

So Smith is writing as a sort of ‘wake up call’ – to see things as they really are. The rest of the chapter is about how to read these secular liturgies. He unpacks the spirituality of the shopping mall – an intensely religious centre at the heart of everyday life.

(I get my students to do an assignment around visiting a big shopping centre and analyzing the beliefs and practices at work. It seems utterly normal and benign, yet is full of ‘theology’ and ‘liturgy’ and the attracting power of ‘loves’).

shopping-mall
Interior of İstinye Park shopping center in the İstinye quarter of Istanbul, Turkey with 291 stores, 85,250 sqm of retail area, and four levels of underground parking. Sep 8, 2012.

Back to Smith: in brief what is going on in the mall?

  • It is not trying to engage our thinking, but it is not neutral
  • It is interested in what we love – it is aimed at our hearts. Nice line – “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (41)
  • Architecture (see back to this post on ‘Brandscapes’):
    • familiar and homogenous – we feel at home whatever city or even country we are in (the picture above in Turkey could be virtually anywhere)
    • large atriums and foyers welcome the faithful pilgrims; funneling them into the worship centre
    • High vaulted ceilings, open to the sky, bright lights, calming music draw people into a space cut off from the outside world – he makes a nice point about how the walls hide the surrounding moat of cars and distractions of the outside world. You are brought into a sanctuary, retreat and escape. (42)
    • You are ushered into a sort of timeless zone, comfortable peaceful space with its own rhythm.
    • The space has its own calendar of remembrances and festivals – one morphing into the other during the year: a ceaseless litany of holidays and special days (with new ones being created regularly) in order to draw in more pilgrims.
    • The structure parallels the great Medieval Cathedrals with side chapels for devotion
    • Rich iconography lines the walls and windows – manniquins inviting us to imitate them – ideals of perfection representing the good life.
    • This is all packaged in themes of compelling beauty – inviting us to participate in this life that can be ours.
    • Inside the ‘chapels’, us ‘seekers’ are welcomed unconditionally as we look for something that will give us joy, satisfaction and pleasure
    • The consummation of our worship is a transaction of exchange and communion – we leave with something ‘concrete’, more tangible than feelings

“Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (45).

We are not intellectually reasoning ‘this stuff will make me happy’ because, if we did think about it much, we would quickly know that no it won’t. But by endless repetition I’m ‘covertly conscripted’ / my loves have been automated / I have been formed by secular liturgies that are loaded with meaning.

And Smith says similar ‘liturgical’ unpacking can be done of all sorts of everyday rituals

  • A stadium as a temple of nationalism and militarism
  • Smartphones – in terms of content we look at and the rituals that tie us umbilicially to them – we see how they are loaded with an egocentric vision of life where I am the centre of the universe.

So what is the ‘ultimate story’ (or I would say gospel) of consumerism in the mall?

[much of what he says here about the ‘good news’ of consumerism is not new (see posts on consumerism here and especially those on William Cavanaugh) – but it is helpfully and creatively put together with the idea of liturgy

1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.

Consumerism pretends to offer a picture of unbridled endless optimism. Far from it – underneath the message is you are imperfect (‘sinner’) who needs fixing. These visions of happiness, friendship, sexiness, contentment and joy (the good life) – are not yours. You know it and so do we. You need redemption and we can provide it.

2. I shop with others.

While consumerism is associated with individualism and self-interest, it also, says Smith, is a social phenomenon – but one that fosters competition not community; objectification rather than other-regarding love. We compare ourselves to others as measured against mall’s perfect image of what we ‘should’ be.

3. I shop (and shop and shop) and therefore I am.

The market’s liturgy is an invitation to redemption – to a solution to our brokenness. Shopping as therapy and healing, a path to joy and overcoming sadness and ourselves – whether body shape, looks, clothes, cool technology. But, as Smith reminds us, the ‘secret’ of bright shiny happy consumerism is that nothing it offers is meant to last. The thrill dissipates fast – and we are back in the cycle of the next fix. A pattern not only of aquisition but of relentless consumption. The ‘unseen’ side of the story is all the discarded ‘good’s that are now useless. Consumerism reduces things to nothingness. Nothing has lasting value. In the process we are being trained to overinvest in things than cannot deliver, while at the same time wastefully devaluing things that become tomorrow’s rubbish.

4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

By this Smith means the dark side of consumerism. The mall deliberately insulates the pilgrims from the inconvenient truths about their worship. Behind the perfect shiny mythic façade is a way of life that is unsustainable globally, as well as being built on the backs of the poor in the majority world. The image is as if the goods on sale have magically arrived from nowhere and been made by no-one. The mall cuts all connections between consumer and the person who actually made the thing in question. Issues of ethics and fair treatment of workers are airbrushed out of existence. The dream is an unending and ‘costless’ provision of absolutetly anything we desire. This is the American way after all. The vast waste and environmental cost is hidden away out of sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just consume – be happy.

None of this ‘gospel’ is announced or explained in written form. It is ‘caught rather than taught’. Because we like to think we are thinking beings, we imagine sin and temptation as a rational choice that we will have time and space to decide upon.  Rather, says Smith, we have disordered loves and poorly shaped habits. We need –re-formation in our lives.

Smith suggests a couple of ways to approach this:

We need to reimagine temptation and sin – not just as rational intentional choices – but often sin is the result of vices – badly ordered habits and practices.

To begin to reorder our love lives, we first need to become aware of the daily liturgies in our lives. He mentions the Ignatian Daily Examen :

  • Find time to pause for reflection on the rituals and rhythms of your life
  • What are the things that do something to you?

What vision of the good life is carried in those liturgies?

What story if embedded in those cultural practices?

What kind of person do they want you to become?

To what kingdom are they orientated?

What does this cultural liturgy want you to love?

And as we become more attuned to the presence and power of these liturgies, we then can begin to consider engaging in counter-liturgies within Christian worship … as a powerful way to be reformed in our loves and imaginations.

 Any examples of a daily liturgy in your life come to mind?

Brandscapes

Here’s an excellent article on architecture, consumerism and branding (OK I’m a bit biased given the author) in Architecture Ireland, the Journal of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland

consuming-the-city
Consuming the physical environment © Ciara Mitchel

This blog has been known to talk about consumerism now and then ..

What’s fascinating about this piece is how it opens up how architecture is evolving in relationship to contemporary consumerism in the development of ‘brandscapes’

The impact of the market on the built environment is ubiquitous – so much so we do not even notice how pervasively the physical landscape is shaped by corporate identities. To a point where streets become ‘managed experiences’ and ‘brands’ to market the city …

The book listed in the article by Anna Klingmann is a creative and compelling read:

(2007) Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy, Cambridge: The MIT Press.