Consumed by Consumerism

Coming out of the Christmas season and looking at the statements for our credit card purchases for the last month, Christians must ask ourselves where we have invested. Jesus told us,

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

The key to understanding this is that Jesus says “for yourselves.” If Jesus spoke these words in 21st Century America, what would he have said?

At the risk of presumption, I think he would have seen the way consumerism has defined our existence in the United States and said, “Don’t let the marketers suck you into thinking that you must have all that they are advertising to you. Invest not in things that have planned obsolescence and that feed your discontent for what you already have. Rather, invest in things that have eternal significance, that do not go obsolete and you will not feel the need to replace when the newest model comes out.”

Amongst the banality of commercials that seek to tell us we should buy things we don’t actually need, I’ve been struck by Toyota’s new ads, showing people destroying their perfectly good cars so that they can buy new ones. It’s meant to be outrageous and funny, but in the joke is the hint of reality. We go to the mall looking to replace things we already own with stuff we really don’t need.

Having my undergrad degree in Marketing, I understand what’s happening here: Marketers are attempting (and succeeding) to create demand for things we don’t need or don’t really want. They get us to covet things like a new iPod, plasma screen TV, or Lexus, and we start to really believe that we deserve these things.

As Benjamin Barber, author of Consumed, recently said on Bill Moyers Journal, “Capitalism needs us to buy things way beyond the scope of our needs and wants to stay in business…That's the bottom line. Capitalism is no longer manufacturing goods to meet real needs and human wants. It’s manufacturing needs to sell us all the goods it's got to produce.”

Some Christians have seen this corruption of Capitalism and have swung the pendulum over into an almost Marxist Christian view that demonizes private property, business for profit, and free market trade. This is not what I’m advocating here (see Michael Kruse’s excellent insights on Capitalism and Christianity here).

What I am saying is that I believe Jesus wants us to not be consumed by consumerism. He wants us to be wise with our purchases. He wants us to do the hard work of looking at ourselves in the mirror in order to see if we have succumbed to the temptations of our consumerist culture.

Interestingly, Jesus does not tell me that where my hearts is, that is where I will put my money. Instead he flips that around: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, I had better watch what I spend my money on, look at what I buy and what I own, see what’s on my Master Card statement. There’s my treasure.

Frightening stuff.

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Ivy said...

Suddenly I don't feel so guilty about what we spent for Christmas gifts...it was all for other members of the family...especially our soon to be 4 year old granddaughter who lives 400 miles away with her mother, my daughter. Part of the spending was our trip there.

That may not have been your intent, but we work hard to be good stewards of God's gifts. Blessings.

Bob Robinson said...

Good to hear that your Christmas was a blessing - not only for your self but for your family in Rochester.
What we Christians sometimes miss is that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights (Jas 1:17). "For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Ti 4:4). There is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the things we own or have been given at Christmas, for God "richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Ti 6:17).

With an attitude of thanksgiving and glory given to God, we can enoy the things we have.

The problem is that many of us Christians live life without this attitude and look more like the culture than not. We're conformed to the pattern of this world (Rom 12:2) more than we are willing to admit!

Ivy said...

This is too true. I like the way the Phillips translation renders Romans 12:2:

"Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity."

Blessings and thanks again for your provocative post.