Today, I thought I would sum up some basic points from a paper I presented at the Wesleyan Theological Society Meeting a few years ago. What follows are a few thoughts on consumer culture and how liturgy might help you to live with it.
One of the things I love about the Eastern Orthodox Church is that we get consumption right. I am under no delusions that we are “perfect.” We have our problems, but I think our spiritual practice can help a person live more authentically in modern consumer culture.
Authenticity in our culture is tricky. As Vincent J. Miller wrote in his excellent book, Consuming Religion, despite our differences, the one thing we all share in consumer society is that we need to use the market to negotiate and maintain our sense of self. We use purchase to tell others and ourselves who we are in the world. Because many of our purchases are manipulated by advertising, then who we are – what we believe and what we value – is largely under the control of others. But to be a Christian means that our “identities” (a term I don’t really like but will use for simplicity) are to be shaped largely by our fellowship in the body of Christ.
We can respond to this reality in one of two ways.
Christians aware of this influence may opt for a strict economic asceticism. We witness this in the case of John Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist movement. He advised his followers to work hard and save what they can so that they have as much money as possible to give to the poor. He took saving and giving so seriously that he considered most “nice” things we would have around our home (art, furniture, etc) to be sinful extravagances. Ironically, many of his followers became quite wealthy, but this is not too surprising. Crash diets lead to an inevitable binge.
The other extreme is simply to give in to modern economic hedonism. Of course, we might spiritualize our hedonism. We will work hard to buy not only our flat screen TV’s and iPads, but also the latest study Bible or fad in Christian fashion. But if this is where we draw our identities from, then what we end up with is something that runs only as deep as the latest marketing scheme concocted by a large media company.
The odd thing about these two extremes is that they actually meet in a shared hatred of matter (I am drawing here from Sergei Bulgakov’s essay “The Economic Ideal”). They are both gnostic. One spurns the pleasures of the world as sinful. The other seems materialistic, except that consumer materialism is false and temporary. We consumers do not cherish the material world so much as we cycle through it.
What I like about the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church is that it mediates between these extremes in a way that transcends and unites them both. (For the Christian, this is how we understand transcendence. To paraphrase Augustine, for God to be “above” us is for God to be closer to us than we are to ourselves.)
Our liturgical life is a pattern of feasting and fasting. The purpose of the fast is not to punish ourselves, to deny the goodness of matter, or simply to deny ourselves luxuries. A fast is like an appetizer. When we fast, we anticipate the feast. This temporary “denial” of some matter is actually an affirmation of it. Because the fast anticipates the feast – which anticipates the feast of feasts in God’s kingdom – then what we consume for us becomes a kind of icon.
An icon is what it is by virtue of what it is not. Wood and paint communicate the divine because wood and paint are not the divine (to say otherwise would be idolatry). Yet the matter of the icon is essential to our experience of what is beyond it. I think that this is the way we need to approach how we buy. The solution is not do deny ourselves pleasures or simply to give ourselves over to them but to let our pleasures – our consumption – be ordered by our future hope in God’s reign. (What that means practically is a matter for another post because this one is already too long.)
I am not suggesting that Orthodox Christians are necessarily better consumers than everybody else. Hardly! But I do think that living into our liturgical cycle – embracing the fast in anticipation of the final feast of the kingdom – is one way to discipline our desires and maybe make us more conscientious consumers. If what we buy brings us into peace with God and neighbor, contributes to our love of others, and brings us joy that lasts longer than the euphoria of the initial purchase, then consumer culture’s grip on us is just a little less secure. That does not mean we are under our own control, either. That is the sin of Adam. But maybe a little wiggle room is just the thing we need to give our lives in love to God and each other.