Consuming Religion

We live in a culture that tells us our goal in life is to consume. We’re constantly looking for things that are newer and better, even if the things we have work just fine. Materialism isn’t really our problem (we don’t keep things long enough for that to be an issue!) but consumerism is. Unfortunately religion isn’t exempt.

I recently read “Consuming Religion” by Vincent J. Miller. He argues that the problem with a consumer culture isn’t with belief but in how we live. For example, nobody argues that child exploitation for cheap products is good or that we should utterly destroy the Earth. A majority of folks active within Christianity can tell you what correct belief is, but that belief hasn’t been truly internalized to the point where it affects our life. This disconnect happens because we as Christians have undergone decades of inculcation into a consumerist society at the expense of being deeply inculcated into a religious tradition. Consumerism is the lens through which we view everything, including our religious beliefs. Everything is a commodity. This allows Christians to pick and choose, which religious traditions they want to incorporate into their lives. Feeling gloomy? Just read a little Joel Osteen and have your best life now! Want to rail against corporate excess and the marginalization of workers? Wear your Mother Theresa meme t-shirt (available for only $9.95!). Everything has lost its context and is defined and commoditized by its consumer, and our faith is no exception. Don’t like worship at your church? Head to another that has the latest and greatest! Disagree with a church decision? Go to a place where everyone thinks just like you! After all church is about me, my and mine, isn’t it?

Fortunately Miller does point towards an answer. He calls for renewed formation and expression of one’s theology and communal tradition. Instead of selectively piecing together what we like, a little Catholic here, a little Baptist here, a little Buddhist Zen here, we need to rediscover our traditions to the fullest extent possible – to be the best Baptist/Catholic/Methodist you can. Fortunately for Catholics (and some other denominations), there is a much larger metanarrative and tradition that helps form and shape people and there’s much to be gleaned from them.

But, I’m Baptist and not Catholic. What symbols/narratives/saintly examples exist in our tradition that we can reclaim to “free” people from a consumerist mindset and give them a telos (end or purpose) from which to understand and view their relationship with products within a consumer society? Unfortunately, Baptists often want to focus on aspects of practice that are least helpful in inculcating someone and giving them the framework and skills to resist a consumer mentality. For example, we’ve been known to split over whether we should use guitars or drums in worship. We’ve been great at majoring on things that don’t matter. Furthermore we don’t have an exhaustive theological framework (like Catholics) that governs virtually every aspect of belief. We subscribe to traditional orthodox teachings (Trinity, Jesus, etc.), but we are fiercely, and sometimes too, independent. With that said, there are some traditional Baptist tenets that can help our actions and beliefs match up.

The first is soul competency. It’s the belief that we have to choose our faith. It’s not something that’s done for us, but it is something we must own. Each person is responsible for his or her own response to God’s offering of salvation. Unfortunately, Baptists often act as if nothing matters once that decision to follow Jesus has been made. We forget that our choices and actions after we profess Christ matter greatly. Christ didn’t just come so that we could “go to heaven,” but to heal and renew a broken creation. When we remember the cosmic scope of the salvation we committed ourselves to, it should exhort us to live differently in every aspect, for nothing is outside the scope of salvation, not even economics.

Secondly, missions have always been an important focus for Baptists. Many have decided to follow God’s call to another country to witness to the resurrection of Christ. One of the most famous Baptist missionaries, Lottie Moon, was born into an affluent family but decided to give up her worldly wealth to become a missionary to China. Today, she’s only used as a rallying cry to raise money. Sadly, many don’t really know her story and how her actions made a difference, not only in China, but also among Baptist beliefs and action in the United States. Retelling her story (and the story of others) gives followers of Jesus concrete examples of rejecting the status quo and living in a way that seeks to bless the world and not just consume it.

So, what other elements of our Baptist tradition can help reframe the consumerism conversation so that our goal in life isn’t merely to consume goods/persons/religion but to be faithful to Christ in everything?