David Westerfield

Theology, Culture, Technology, Reviews, and Other Commentary

The God of Consumerism: Identity and Meaning Flow From Consumption in the West

Charles Hugh Smith, a writer over at the site Of Two Minds wrote a very interesting blog on the state of the global system, whether political, economic, social, or otherwise. He sums up our situation globally, as many others have, as one based on three fundamental things: 1) debt, 2) consumption, all with the the assumption or presupposition that 3) demand for these will always continue to infinity. And the little/big secret many, if not most, are beginning to see yet don’t want to speak of is that this entire model of debt and consumption is collapsing.

The results are first being felt in smaller nations dependent upon or a part of the West’s system: the Arab nations and southern and peripheral European nations. The riots across the Middle East and now the riots of Greece, Spain and other places in Europe are rooted ultimately in the fact the Western system is coming undone and our policies are making the dollar less valuable, which drives up the cost of food and energy. What follows is anyone’s guess.

That aside, what is interesting in particular is when Smith gets to why this is the case, philosophically, perhaps even theologically, speaking. Why are we reaching this point in the West? What has brought this about? I agree with his assessment and analysis while offering an even better remedy: Christ. Here are some of the best quotes without getting into all the economic talk as much (emphases from his site):

There’s another deeply pernicious facet to a consumer-based economy: our identity and meaning now flow from consumption, not from production or inner resources. I spent a considerable amount of Survival+ explaining how marketing and consumption are two side of the same coin.

The marketing complex has hijacked our sense of identity by engendering a deep, soul-destroying anxiety that only buying more stuff can assuage: since we are judged and valued solely by our purchased externalities, we are constantly in danger of being rendered worthless if we fail to measure up to the current metric of brand-group identity (wearing all black and a tattoo for one “brand,” a BMW and designer clothing for another, reading the New Yorker and claiming to only wear vintage clothing for another, etc.)

What we do in the real world is simply part of the “brand” which we must project, or cloak, to sooth the gnawing anxiety that is the bedrock of a consumer society. The iconography and totems of consumerism define our identity, our strivings, our sense of purpose and our experience of meaning: what I call the politics of experience, a phrase coined by R.D. Laing.

Consumption is our god, our faith and our religion. Like a cargo cult dependent on a magical connection to prosperity, we are terrified by the prospect that our religion is based on a false god–that is, that consumption and consumption alone leads to prosperity and happiness.

Like a cargo cult that we mock in our infinite industrious superiority, we worship the equivalent of rocks painted to look like radios that we can use to “call” the gods of endless prosperity.

This rock that’s painted to look like a radio is called “debt,” and we call upon it to magically provide us with prosperity from over the seas.

This other rock that’s painted to look like a radio is called “aggregate demand,” and it’s carefully worshipped by a special troop of voodoo-wielding witch doctors called Keynesians.

We are chanting magical phrases to these rock-painted “radios,” pleading for a return to easy prosperity, but nothing’s happening. We fear the magic no longer works, and that possibility terrifies us so much we can’t even bear to speak of this loss.

Future generations won’t get to spend their surplus; they will have to devote it to servicing the debts we have gaily borrowed and blown on digging holes and refilling them, part of our worship of the magical painted rocks of our false and hollow religion, Consumerism.

By degrading ourselves from producers to consumers, we have not only lost our identity and our meaning, we have lost the ability to create surpluses and invest those surpluses wisely.

And oh how the Western church has bought into and borrowed from this whole system of Consumption, and with it the marketing apparatus that has become so pervasive in our midst it’s sickening. We have bowed in many ways to the idolatrous “god” of Consumerism as a useful tool if not the answer to the survival of Christianity in the West. We have set it up as an idol that we need to repent of, returning to a more Biblical framework, i.e. faith in Christ, for every facet of church life instead of borrowing from the corrupt and worldly business world of our day.

On a related note, I was considering the other day how much the religion of Consumerism is actually rooted in the philosophical concepts of materialism, particularly dialectical materialism. This is a philosophy put forward by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose philosophy gave rise to the theories of none other than Karl Marx. Marx held to this view of the over-arching meta-narrative of life, dialectical materialism, which says (being a bit reductionistic) our sole purpose in life is related merely to the here and now. There is no deity we need to appease or even refer to, simply because he doesn’t exist, so it is thought.If he does exist he’s irrelevant to our lives and therefore we must find our own answers to our own problems.

Of course Marx went in the direction of collectivism as the answer to find hope and meaning in the midst of his bleak worldview. What is odd is that Consumerism as a religion is merely the flip-side of Marx’s view, yet they both spring from the same place: the absence of the true and living God, made known in Jesus Christ. They are two sides of the same coin. Both of these systems are inherently atheistic and borrow from the same corrupt worldview of dialectical materialism. Christianity has no business meddling in let alone borrowing from a worldview that is inherently anti-Christian.

May we repent of our dependence upon materialism, consisting of brands, products, styles, entertainment, fictional worldviews, fictional story lines and narratives that detract from the glory of God by the way we operate in life. May we find our identity in Christ alone, His person and work in the Gospel, not any of the aforementioned results from materialism. May we find our identity in who He has made us and what He desires for us, namely, holiness. Praise Christ there is hope for the lost and self-absorbed materialists. May we be a witness to a world absorbed in self and consumption as the meaning to life.

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  1. Some Thoughts for Super Bowl Lord’s Day | arjaystevens says

    […] Some quotes from The God of Consumerism:  Identity and Meaning Flow From Consumption in the West […]

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    [...] Stuff Is green consumerism a contradiction?   Quotations on Consumerism / Overconsumption   The God of Consumerism: Identity and Meaning Flow From Consumption in the West   Rate this: Share this:DiggMorePrintEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  3. robwest says

    Very well put. Our ‘important’ purchases symbolized as painted rocks brings back the Matrix scene where the guy freaked out over someone stealing his virtual cellphone. Our culture is the Matrix in the sense you mention above, that without Christ at the center of our lives and culture, everything is a mist and vapor – grass that flowers in the morning but is burned away by the heat of the sun at the end of the day, as the Psalms say. What you write is true: our so-called Christian culture needs to be shaken to separate the wheat from the dross. Have to believe there’s a kernel of wheat in our individual lives and trust the Lord Jesus that His Spirit is that kernel in us renewing our hearts. Again, very nice blog.

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