Clarifying My Position

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : March 21, 2005

I just want to take this time to clarify.  I’ve noticed that the word "consumerism" confuses people.  We all assume its meaning, and therefore, misunderstand when someone uses it in a way which differs from our preconceived definition.

When I knock consumerism, someone will often point out how utterly inconsistent I am.  They’ll point out the logical inconsistency between challenging consumerism and, say, throwing a conference which struggles with the problems of consumerism for our faith…or they’ll point out that one cannot knock consumerism and have a blog at the same time.  The assumption for the former being that anything that involves a fee is pro-consumerist.  And the assumption for the latter being that challenging consumerism requires that one is a Luddite or that one has to detach completely from the systems of consumerism in order to challenge consumerism.

The problem with consumerism isn’t that I find buying and selling things distasteful.  I don’t define "consumerism" as the "buying and selling of things." From this definition, we’re all consumerists and the only issue is to severely limit our buying and selling so that we have lots of money left over to give to the poor (or some other cause).  While I agree that this is a facet of consumerism, the more troublesome problem with consumerism is that consumerism offers us (to quote Vincen J. Miller): "a set of habits of interpretation and use." In other words, the problem isn’t that we buy and sell things, it is the way in which we understand and engage in the buying and selling of things. Consumerism is the Spirit of our Age.  We look at all things through its lens.  Everything from goods–to relationships–to our God, falls victim to the consumerist impulse, and is thus commodified. 

So, for me the trick isn’t merely to spend less money and give more to good causes (though that is a significant part of what I’m advocating); the challenge is for us to change the way we understand our ownership of resources, to change the way we understand our relationship to the larger world.  We must stop viewing ourselves as autonomous and sovereign consumers, and begin to authentically understand ourselves as stewards or trustees. This understanding plays out in the following ways:

  • Our possessions are not our own.  If we desire a new good, the determining factor shouldn’t be our ability to afford it.
  • Our relationships are not commodities.  We are called to submit to one another, instead of entering into some sort of relational transaction, in which our needs and wants are met.
  • Our virtues reflect Scripture…which is often at odds with our societal values of "success" "productivity" "efficiency" and "affluence."
  • Our churches are not dispensers of religious goods and services.  We don’t shop for churches.  We don’t go to the church that most aligns itself with our tastes and wants.  The discernment process is much deeper than that.
  • Our faith isn’t a set of commodities.  We don’t create our own personal creed and our own personal faith.  It is developed in community, as we submit to the presence of the Spirit and the reading of the Scriptures in community.
  • Our God isn’t the ultimate commodity.  We don’t sell Jesus.  We don’t buy-in to belief. Our response to God is one of worship.  He consumes us.

for further reading . . .

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2 Responses to “Clarifying My Position”

  1. Charlie Wear on March 23rd, 2005 8:30 am

    Okay, that’s good but what brand of shoes do you wear, and secretly wouldn’t you love to own an Ipod?

  2. Van S on March 28th, 2005 7:34 am

    He he he! I wear a pair of Doc Martin’s that were given to me 5 years ago, and last night I looked into the “free ipod” scheme that is floating around the internet…so I secretly DO long for an ipod!

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