Hurt By Success

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : October 21, 2004

Check out this brief article from Christianity Today. Apparently, the huge success of such great works as the Prayer of Jabez and Left Behind have begun to hurt the Christian Booksellers of this fine nation. The success of the afforementioned books caused a number of retailers–like that gem-of-a-store, Walmart–to start selling Christian books. Now, because of the increase of Christian book sales at Walmart and online booksellers, Christian bookstores are suffering.

I am actually a bit sympathetic. A little bit. A very little bit–simply because I know people who work at Christian bookstores. They have good hearts and have a deep desire to minister to people. Your chance of feeling impacted by the love of Jesus Christ is a bit higher at a local Christian bookstore than it is at Barnes and Noble.

However, as you know, I am disgusted by the fusion of Christianity and consumerism. I’m not against consuming, per se. I am against the cultural philosophy of life that is consumerISM. Consumerism is defined on as:

1 The movement seeking to protect and inform consumers by requiring such practices as honest packaging and advertising, product guarantees, and improved safety standards.

2 The theory that a progressively greater consumption of goods is economically beneficial.

3 Attachment to materialistic values or possessions: deplored the rampant consumerism of contemporary society.

It is the fusion of ideas #2 and #3 with Christianity that bother me. Christians in America (and elsewhere in the West, I suspect) tend to ignore the dangers inherent within these ideas. MOST Christians would reject #3. It is common for American Christians to buy in (pun intended) to the idea presented in definition #2. We believe that greater choice, availablity, and convenience are beneficial to the Body of Christ. But the unholy alliance between consumerism and Christianity has birthed a host of problematic spawn:

* Human beings are now seen primarily as “choosers.” As a result, we approach our faith as though it were a commodity. Each tenet and particular is a commodity among many. We can now assemble our own spiritual “package.” Community is no longer a Body made up of those who mutually submit to one another. Instead, we choose the community that best fits our ideal package. We are a community of choosers, rather than a community of the called.

* We treat tenets of faith and doctrinal distinctives as though they were like they are optional–sort of like whether or not we want a sunroof on a car purchase.

* By nature, information is disseminated primarily among the affluent, for they have the means to purchase a larger number of books. We let the market determine the distribution of thoughts and ideas in the Body of Christ. And the Market priviledges those with financial means, and disadvantages the poor. Some may say that this is just the cold reality and we must, therefore, deal with it. But I disagree.

* Since dissemination of ideas is market-determined, the church is driven by fads and novelty, rather than by excellence of content.

* There are some items at local Christian stores that appeal to some people, but have no place in our universe–like trite bumper stickers, Jesus keychains, Testamints, etc. You might reply–”well people want that stuff.” That’s my point. People shouldn’t just get what they want. That is a consumerist value. What is distributed in the Body of Christ shouldn’t be determined by the tastes of the masses. I realize that this opens up a lot of difficulties–perhaps I’ll tackle the “how” of this question at another time.

The fact that Christian stores are in decline is not necessarily an evil. Perhaps it is a good thing. It serves as a reminder that when we decide to treat the sharing of truth as a business, then it is subject to the same vulnerabilities that all businesses share–when the competition is more convenient and cheaper, then you will lose customers.

for further reading . . .

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2 Responses to “Hurt By Success”

  1. Anonymous on October 23rd, 2004 11:13 am

    I’m afraid the only alternative you leave is some sort of authoritiarian stance. True, in the past traditions acted as an authority, but in our pluralist world, it is impossible to not, in part, play the consumerist game.

  2. Chris B. on October 26th, 2004 3:29 pm

    I have to defend my good friend Mark by saying I disagree. I don’t think authoritarian force is the only choice we are funneled into when we seek to reject consumerism. Boycotting Christian trinkets and bumper stickers is something I’ve wanted to do for years. We can preach against this in the pulpits, demand simpler lives of each other, work to distribute valueable Christian literature to rich and poor alike. None of these involve coercion, and all of them involve combating consumerism. Throwing our hands up and saying, “Well, it’s a necessary evil” is a bit like imagining Jesus had walked past all those moneylenders.

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