An Interview with Rodney Clapp

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : December 15, 2005

In preparation for the Conference on Christianity in a Consumer Culture, I did an email interview with Rodney Clapp, who will be one of our main speakers. The interview is available on the conference site if you want to link to it there.

Read the interview, then register for the conference ;)

1.  What is consumerism and what does it have to do with Christianity?

The suffix–”ism”–is key here. All living things, humans emphatically included, must consume to live. Even plants consume sunlight and water. Consumption is part of life as God created it. That?s why it?s a very different thing to talk about simple consuming vs. consumerISM. The “ism” alerts us to an ideology and congeries of practices, indeed, to a way of life. The “ism” indicates that we are talking about the significant passage from consuming to live (consumption as one, subordinate part of life) to living to consume (consumption as the goal of life). Consumerism is an all-consuming attitude, even itself at least a quasi-religious take on who we humans are and what we are for. This makes it obvious what it has to do with Christianity- consumerism is a competing faith. Christianity as a faith and a way of life affirms that humans are created ultimately for participation in the life of God; in a phrase, for the praise of God. Consumerism says we are born, live, and die to consume material goods, experiences, an unending array of novel pleasures.

2.  Why it is important for Christians to develop a framework for thinking about consumerism?

If we intend to be faithful Christians, we need to respond faithfully
and effectively to cultural, economic, political realities that may
dilute our faithfulness or even on occasion run directly contrary to
it. Consumerism is especially tricky to begin to sort out but it is not
a tangle and a temptation we can avoid just by quitting or absenting
ourselves from discrete aspects of the culture. For instance, If we
decide smoking or extorting bribes is harmful and unfaithful, we can
quit smoking or extorting bribes. We can live without tobacco and
bribes. But we can?t live without some level and some kinds of
consumption. So we need to be able to develop standards, languages,
conceptualities, and practices that will help us to discern when and
what consumption is consumerism. 

3.  Why do you think this is a non-issue for so many Christians in America?

On a trivial but still true level, it is a non-issue for so many
because, for those of us who are affluent (and most Christians in
America are, by any global and historic standards, affluent),
consumerism is comfortable and more than a little pleasant. At least on
a surface level, it can make us feel secure.
(When we delve just below the surface, we begin to uncover a lot of
frustration and even desperation–with the out-of-control busyness of
our lives, with the gnawing emptiness that comes from never truly being
satisfied, with the numbness of soul that comes from disregarding our
neighbors and only looking out for “number 1,” and so on.)

More profoundly, consumerism is a non-issue because it has so
thoroughly suffused our society, our lives, that we have trouble
imagining life without it.
Think how few activities you can conduct in a normal day without
spending money, without thinking of yourself as a consumer making
choices and purchasing commodities. Our youth in school are no longer
first and foremost “students,”
but are designated “educational consumers.” We are prone spiritually to
be “church shoppers” rather than “worshipers.” We approach our problems
and discontents as individualized consumers: in another cultural
setting someone having trouble relaxing and sleeping might learn how to
pray or meditate; in ours, we think first of a sleeping pill or other
elixir we can buy and consume. When we worry for a spouse?s or elderly
relative?s safety while driving alone, we don?t ask how safer roadways
and neighborhoods might be achieved politically and structurally, but
we buy the spouse or grandparent a cell phone. In short, we are fish
and consumerism is the water we swim in–and that we breathe. Because
it?s so pervasive it?s hard to notice, let alone question.

4.  What has troubled you the most about American Christianity in regards to consumerism?

Right now, I am especially troubled that we American Christians seem so
determined not to notice and name consumerism as a detriment to our
faith and our witness. We are apparently willing to go to great lengths
to locate all that troubles us outside ourselves, even to the point of
designating scapegoats. I offer two examples: It is absurd that so much
attention, not least by conservative Christians, was squandered on
Janet Jackson?s Super Bowl “scandal” of exposing her breast, while the
televising of the same game included numerous ads to rectify erectile
dysfunction. Jackson?s scandal was noticed only by slowing and freezing
the screen image; meanwhile, parents around the country are at every
commercial break having to explain or fend off their children on what
exactly is erectile dysfunction. But the latter is unnoticed as
absurd–as even more problematic than Janet?s split-second “wardrobe
malfunction”–because commercials and consumerism undergird our “way of
life.” Scapegoating Jackson helped us not to notice the consumerism we
are all complicit in. A second, and more serious, example concerns
homosexuality. Christians have reason to be concerned about this issue,
but it is an act of scapegoating to posit what is at most five or ten
percent of the American population as a major cause of the breakdown of
stable American families. Much more significant in eroding the
stability of and fidelity within American families is consumerism and
its deeply engrained attitude of always pushing ahead to the new, the
novel, the upgraded.
It is very hard to remain married to one person for years, let alone a
lifetime, when you are constantly coached in nearly every aspect of
your life to change, to exercise options, to acquire the latest model.
Scapegoating homosexuals obscures and diverts our attention from the
consumerism that much more dramatically and certainly has eroded the
traditional family.

5.  How can Christians resist the negative effects of consumerism?

You have to understand that I am a writer, theologian, and cultural critic.
From my vantage point, it?s important that we learn language,
practices, conceptualities that allow us to name and discern
consumerism at work. It is a matter of imagination. I think that once
our imaginations are reformed enough for us to be begin to notice
consumerism for what it is, resistance follows naturally enough.

6.  Do you think that consumerism benefits Christianity in any way?

Again, I distinguish between consumption and consumerism. Consumption
is a God-created good. More than than that, it is a redemptive
good–our Lord even invites us to consume his body and blood in the
eucharist. But of course, it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish
when a particular act of consumption crosses the line and becomes
participation in consumerism, in consumption as all-consuming, as a
competing faith and allegiance. I heartily believe that our daily
encounters with consumerism provide the material, existential
opportunities for us to appreciate what is true, good, and beautiful
about a life that is not marked by scarcity. I?m not interested in a
distorted Christianity that imagines faith can only be real or true
when we are miserable. So I think that when we have the resources or
tools to discriminate and discern when consumption has become
consumerism, we can most boldly, robustly, and yes, thankfully, consume
goods that are meant to be consumed. But to say that consumerism as an
ism and a way of life benefits the church and true worship would be
tantamount to trying to figure how idolatry is good for the faith.

7. Where do you see Christians doing well with this issue?

There are fine books on the subject. Philip Kenneson’s Life on the Vine
and John Kavanaugh’s Following Christ in a Consumer Society are two
great examples.
I can think of any number of intentional communities which confront
consumerism head on and provide examples for all of us–such as the
Bruderhof communities in Pennsylvania and New York, or my friends at
the Church of the Servant King, in Eugene, Oregon. Above all, we must
remember that we don’t have to come up with all kinds of new approaches
or tools or techniques. (That would in fact be an act of consumerism.)
The Christian tradition is replete with treasures that help us
collectively and individually to engage consumerism. For instance, the
ancient monastic tradition and figures such as John Cassian give close
guidance in discerning when food consumption becomes gluttonous. It’s
not a matter of nothing out there to celebrate and to deepen our
convictions and practice–it’s a matter of waking up and availing
ourselves of this astounding heritage. In that regard, I’m cheered by
the development of the New Monastic movement among young Protestants.

for further reading . . .

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5 Responses to “An Interview with Rodney Clapp”

  1. graham on December 15th, 2005 6:16 am

    Great interview, Mark. Thanks.

    I’ve linked to it here.

  2. Organic Church on December 15th, 2005 6:16 am

    Do you think that consumerism benefits Christianity in any way?

    If I get a chance, I’ll post up a brief review of Narnia today or tomorrow. In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out Mark’s great interview with Rodney Clapp.

    Here’s a snippet:

    2. Why it is important for Christians to develop a frame…

  3. Chris on December 15th, 2005 11:02 pm

    See, I usually resonate on any conversation about taking a critical approach to consumerism, pretty much any time I hear such a conversation. But I am utterly bewildered that, almost uniformly, Christians who are critical of consumerism truly believe that awareness of the true nature of consumerism will change anything. Or, as your subject for this interview says, “resistance follows naturally enough.” The only way I can conceive of someone really espousing this view is if they (1) don’t believe most people have a good understanding of consumerism, and (2) believe that simply having a negative attitude about something leads naturally to resistant behavior against it.

  4. Van S on December 17th, 2005 2:00 pm

    I totally agree, Chris. That is why I really appreciate Vincent Miller’s approach (follow the link to his book from my “recommended reading section”). Miller argues that we can only effectively resist commodification and consumerism in our actions because ideas are vulnerable to the effects of commodification.

  5. Chris on December 17th, 2005 5:32 pm

    hmmm…that’s interesting, the idea that ideas themselves can be commodified, but that makes sense.

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