And they’ll know we are Christians by our stuff, by our stuff…

Rarely a day goes by when we buy nothing – and even more rare is the day when we intentionally refrain from making a purchase. We even go shopping as a pastime; entering the mall with no intent to buy, but leaving with bags of unplanned purchases. Lacking any telos; an unending quest for new ways to consume without having any ultimate consummation. On one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive fulfillment. On the other, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same unfulfillable promise. We no longer consume to live; we live to consume. It compensates for a central emptiness in which serial acquisition makes itself its own goal. We have become comfortable with the circular equation that defines our never-satisfied acquisitiveness; an addiction common among Americans. In fact, the chronic disease of overconsumption has a name – affluenza.

         Where do we go from here? Like 12-steppers, we face a hard choice: whether we are Christians or consumers. We evangelicals would do well to take a moral inventory of ourselves, ask whether our life revolves around our things, and admit we are powerless before impulse and excess without Christ restoring us to sanity. A reasoned approach, as any credit counselor will advise, is to live like credit cards don’t exist, and impose a budget with planned expenses that curbs indiscriminate buying and the temptation to “buy now and pay later”. Even saving and waiting does not transform our connectedness to things. We want them all the same; having to wait until we can afford them only increases the craving. The biggest hurdle is shifting our self-stimulation by cheap, shiny trinkets that quickly lose our esteem. The psychological dependence upon things is something that we as consumers will never understand unless we confess their mediating role in our lives, and quit being managed by things which moths and vermin destroy, and thieves break in and steal.

         Perhaps the best antidote to consumer choice is anti-choice – to “unshop and unspend”. Christmas is every day in America, and very few of us really need anything. At the forefront of a growing anti-consumerism movement are faux ministers like the “Reverend” Billy Talen and his Stop Shopping Choir, and secular advocacy groups which sponsor an annual protest against Black Friday.[i] On Buy Nothing Day for example, community leaders in Rhode Island hold a Winter Coat Exchange.[ii] “How, in the richest country in the world, do people not have winter coats?”, one organizer asked.

         “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none,” John the Baptizer preached.[iii] Evangelical Christians are among the most generous givers, both in terms of money and time. Food pantries, soup kitchens, farmers’ markets, food trucks, clothes drives, and rummage sales are just few of the concrete ways they share Christ’s love. Giving from one’s surplus is what God expects of those who have more. But Jesus takes it further. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” was not just a suggestion but a command. He has something to say about owning things not for their value in terms of utility, but in what they express. And about amassing a disproportionate surplus of what is needed. Americans buy because we can, and have for having’s sake. Jesus intimates that what we consider our assets are actually liabilities. We protect our toys with alarm systems and insurance premiums. And we worry over all of it. We are hoarders, with basements and garages chock full of no longer wanted bicycles and ski equipment. Not to mention the burgeoning self-storage industry, which is like long term parking for our overflow stuff. It rarely occurs to us that maybe the stockpiled treasure we are continually amassing owns us instead.

         “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” wrote St. Paul to Timothy.[iv] Former President Jimmy Carter was asked if there is anything he wanted but didn’t have. “I can’t think of anything,” he replied.[v] Carter eschewed many of the financial perks associated with former Presidents, and in comparison, has chosen a modest lifestyle formed by his faith. Spiritual stewardship of possessions is not simply making a statement against consumerism, or even being judicious in personal spending habits. These are still decisions made by the self, and for oneself. Like dieting, exercise, or other forms of self-discipline, minimization in the form of ascetic restraint can be made into a god as well. Spiritual stewardship requires us to ask the question, how can my decisions on acquiring and retaining goods benefit not myself, but honor God and further his Kingdom?

         For Christians like Ann Patchett, it is not simply an anti-lifestyle. She described the epiphany of “living with the startling abundance that had become glaringly obvious when I stopped trying to get more.”[vi] As a Lenten practice, instead of asking herself what she could buy, she began asking what could be given away to benefit others. Patchett is dead-on in her assessment. It’s not so much a matter of downsizing the house, as it is decluttering your heart; making room for the work that God can do when you focus on others’ needs instead of your own wants.

Like the woman at the well I was seeking

For things that could not satisfy;

And then I heard my Savior speaking:

“Draw from my well that never shall run dry”. [vii]

[i] Cif Green, “The Ultimate Christmas Gift? Buy Nothing”, The Guardian, November 26, 2009. (accessed June 2, 2017).

[ii] Michelle R. Smith, 50,000 Free Coats: Holiday Ritual Bucks Consumerism”, Washington Times, November 24, 2016. (accessed May 12, 2017).

[iii] Luke 3:11 (NET Bible).

[iv] 1 Timothy 6:6 (KJV).

[v] Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan,  “The Un-Celebrity President”, Washington Post, August 17, 2018. (accessed August 29, 2018).

[vi] Ann Patchett, “My Year of No Shopping”, New York Times, December 15, 2017. (accessed June 5, 2018).

[vii] Richard Blanchard, Fill My Cup, © Copyright 1959 Word Music, LLC.

The Real War on Christmas

         “I’ve done this every year for the past six years,” one Black Friday shopper told the Boston Globe. “I love the anticipation of the doors opening and me going in and getting what I want.” And Christmas creep guarantees they begin earlier and earlier every year. We spend more money at Christmas than the gross domestic product of over 180 different nations. Americans don’t celebrate Christmas; they sacrifice to it as god.

         In itself, consuming is not bad; it is the food on our tables, the clothes we wear. And one cannot argue against the manifold material benefits that the free market system has provided America. Our high-output engine of productivity has delivered a land of plenty, with buying power never before imagined. We are no longer relegated to buying what is needed; we buy whatever fulfills our desires. Even the majority who don’t consider themselves either rich or materialistic are vested in the American zeitgeist of consumption. “The consumer is a totem pole around which a multitude of actions and ideologies now dance,” write two noted sociologists. “At its heart, consumerism is an ideology on a par with religion and politics – even overtaking them on some fronts. It looks at consumption as the source of meaning, identity and pleasure.”[i]

        “‘The main ritual in our society right now is shopping,’ explains Billy Talen. ‘It’s the national religion. It’s the thing we all do that we don’t even question anymore.’”[ii] And if there were any cultural metaphor for sacramentalizing the person-object relationship, it would be the Christmas buying season. No one splurges over Christmas better than us. When Jesus ascended on high, he “gave gifts to men”.[iii] Never mind those; gifts are the reason for the season. And we want the kind Amazon brings.

         Santa Claus is “the embodiment of our culture’s greatest religious myth: the myth of success and affluence, right engagement with the economy, and the acquisition and consumption of images and objects… In short, Santa is not secular. He is sacred.”[iv] Christ’s more agreeable successor is the ultimate mediator between life and the material world.  Santa is holy because he is beyond sin, sees everything we do and loves everybody anyway. He has no Cross, no doctrine, no church; people can believe whatever they want – the only stipulation being that they have “been good”. No matter, his annual largesse comes regardless of your sins. Contrary to popular belief, Santa doesn’t manufacture items – he manufactures desires. And he fulfills them through fleets of container ships from China weighted down with the fripperies that define the good life. So he checks his list twice to bless those offering their credit cards in his many shrines. Regardless whether it be online or the Mega-mall, the annual consumer binge is the holly-jolly obeisance to a tinseled calf.

If our shopping habits seem to take on the appearance of sacred ritual, it is because we have failed to see them for the idolatry they are. Spending is so intrinsic to our life, we rarely pause first to ask, do we really need more stuff? While God has declared everything he made to be very good, Satan’s great masquerade easily deceives man into the illusion of our desires garbed as the good. Eastern Orthodox spiritual elders reflected on this, in the notion of prelest (Прелесть). Roughly translated from Church Slavonic, it represents the sort of susceptibilities to be led astray by false beauty. The closest approximation in English might be when Eve responded to God that she had been beguiled by the serpent – while perceiving the fruit to be good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and to be desired.[v] Prelest is the corruption of human nature through the acceptance of mirages; our human desires supply the self, the individual identity to what is otherwise an empty center. That is to say, the object of our devotion has no life other than what we supply it. We bow down to a sacred nothingness of lies and fantasies enticingly disguised as truth and reality. Idols are the ultimate objectifiers of prelest. Their sole reason for being is to mediate the illusory; to transfix our gaze is their raison d’être. Idols are contemplated first within the inner eye and reflect our ultimate desires; Timothy Keller calls these the deep idols.[vi]  The intrinsic power or value of the created or superficial idol, be it money, sex, a house, car, boat, or whatever, rises and falls depending on whether its appearance continues to satisfy our heart’s subliminal gaze.

The face we fashion onto the lifeless image is the semblance of that god projecting outwards from our hearts, through which we experience the divine, and with which we seek spiritual completeness. The divinity infused into an idol is authentically sacred, because into it, we have deposited our deepest desires and our most dreaded fears. “The idol therefore delivers us the divine, wherefore it neither deceives nor disappoints. It delivers the divine to us to the point of enslaving it to us, just as much as it enslaves us to it.”[vii] What makes their removal so difficult is that, while we delude ourselves into worshipping the divine, idols speak in the voice of their maker. There are not two minds – only one and the same; the disembodied echo of oneself. The idol speaks no words of its own, performs no gestures on its own, nor grants or denies any desire of its own choosing.

         It’s an expression of what the late Jesuit priest, James Kavanaugh, prophetically called the commodity form of life, “in which the producing, purchasing, and consuming of objects provides the ultimate horizon of meaning for persons.”[viii] And yet, the Empire of Things is not redemptive, but enslaving. All those good times come with a price, and many awake to a new year staring down the real costs. January is the busiest month for the weight loss $6.3 billion industry. By then, the shopping adverts have been replaced by a barrage of weight-shame commercials, where celebrity endorsers try to snag contrite revelers before the good intentions behind their New Year’s resolutions wear off. After the annual guilt trip subsides, some 94% backslide into recidivism. Conventional weight-loss programs count on this yearly cycle of guilt for repeat customers. That’s the bitter irony of the consumer god – once you satisfy his wants, he shames you for it.

         “We are shaped by what we desire, and what we desire is shaped by the material culture that surrounds us,” writes  D. B. Hart.[ix] Christmas is not being secularized by atheists as Fox News would have us believe. It is being resacralized with the help of comfortable Christians with an acquisitive worldview. Evangelicals are just as apt as anyone to seek happiness through frenzied holiday shopping and overspending. We pray that God gives us our daily bread. Consumption, which traditionally addressed the personal need for food, shelter and clothing, is no longer emblematic of sustenance, but self-empowerment.  We no longer need to buy just for living; we buy for desire, where more often our purchases reflect a “need” where none previously existed. Christ has promised to give us everything we need for life and godliness. But maybe he seems a bit slower on delivering the goodies than Amazon does.

         Like the calf-worshipping Israelites in the wilderness, consumerism is the temptation to see God’s provision as not good enough. Our economy has brought abundance, but it is never a big enough pile of abundance. The lifeblood of capitalism is the creation of artificial necessities to satisfy our presumption of entitlement to them. Marketing determines our most intimate psychological needs and convinces us that our emotional identity lies in purchasing just the right things to satisfy them. Products make up who we are. Their uniqueness expresses our individuality and defines why we are different from the rest of the world. The wherewithal to choose and acquire them allows us control over the good life. We pour over fashion and home magazines, lovingly polish our golf clubs, even give names to our cars. We infuse our possessions with deep emotional attachment. But when something newer and better comes along, they are unceremoniously dumped in a landfill or peddled on Craigslist. Wash, rinse, repeat: buy, use, dump. After Christmas, Santa goes off to begin manufacturing next year’s desires, because the allure is already wearing off the ones he’s just delivered.

[i] Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang, The Unmanageable Consumer, Los Angeles: SAGE Publ., 2006, pp. 8-9.

[ii] Jana Kasperkevic, “The Church of Stop Shopping Doesn’t Pull Punches On Its Return To New York”, The Guardian, November 27, 2015.  (accessed January 14, 2016).

[iii] Ephesians 4:8 (NET Bible).

[iv] Dell de Chant,  The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002,  p. 194.

[v] Genesis 3:6, 3:16 (KJV). 

[vi] Keller, Timothy.  Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. (New York: Penguin, 2009).  p.  ___.

[vii] Marion, Jean-Luc. The Idol and Distance.  (Bronx: Fordham Univ. Press, 2001).  p.  6.

[viii] John F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, April 2014, p. ___.

[ix] David Bentley Hart, “Mammon Ascendant: Why Global Capitalism Is Inimical To Christianity”, First Things, June 2016. (accessed July 14, 2017).