Every person under the sun must eat to live, and in that sense we are all blameless and glorious consumers-as at a feast lovingly prepared by a grandmother. There is nothing wrong, and much very right, about consuming to live. Hence Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard speaks winningly from the Jewish tradition of "consecrated consumption."
What worries some people is that the affluent, technologically advanced West seems more and more focused not on consuming to live, but on living to consume. (I confess at the outset to being one of these ambivalent creatures, fat but troubled in paradise.) The problem with consumption, and the consumer capitalism that has pushed it to feverish historical extremes, is the fact that it has become so all-consuming.
Even Americans-citizens of the premier "nation of consumers" (Richard Tedlow)-recognize problems with the extremes to which we have taken consumption as a way of life. Recycling containers, nonexistent ten years ago, now stand sentry outside every home in my suburban neighborhood, bearing testimony to one of the most obvious problems.
We are sensitized to the ecological damage of an intentionally wasteful society fostered by "planned obsolescence." Perhaps some environmentalists indulge in hysteria and hyperbole, but however overstated their warnings may be, there is no denying the murky brown clouds of smog hanging over Los Angeles, or Lake Michigan beaches closed to swimmers because of raw sewage seeping into the lake.
A problematic feature of consumer capitalism is the inescapable barrage of advertising-its coaching and coaxing of multitudinous desires. The New York Times has estimated that the average American is exposed to 3,500 ads per day. So inundated, we are hardly aware of how pervasive and invasive these images and messages are.
Their force struck me last winter when, in the course of researching the subject of consumption, I spent three days at a Christian community devoid of televisions and radios, and removed from billboard-besieged highways. Arriving back at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, I felt assaulted by posters and billboards hyping svelte, suave men and incredibly coiffed, airbrushed women-even though a few days before I had passed them by without a second thought. Deprived of these stimuli for half a week, the ads seemed hollow, artificial, even unnatural. I heard myself mutter, "This is not the way things are supposed to be."
But consumer capitalism is much more pervasive, and much less obvious, than smog or billboards. Look harder, and you can see it at work all around-shaping attitudes, bending behaviors, grinding an endless series of lenses through which to see and experience the world in a particular way. You see it at the medical clinic, where doctors must pump a certain number of patients through their doors to meet the required profit quotas of Health Maintenance Organizations. You see it on the calendar, defined not so much by holy days as by a string of commercially hyped holidays. You see it at the ballpark, where owners and players sour even devout fans with their struggle over already exorbitant salaries and box-office revenues.
I asked Lendol Calder, a historian in New Hampshire who devoted his doctoral dissertation to consumerism, "When did you first begin to notice the depth and breadth of consumerism in our culture?" He recalled a Christian camp for college students of several nationalities. A get-acquainted exercise divided campers by nationality, charging them to choose a song representing their culture, one that all could approve and sing to the rest of the assembly. Most nationalities reached consensus, practiced, and were ready in 10 to 20 minutes; nearly all the groups chose folk songs from their native lands.
Not the Americans. They debated over 20 minutes, then an hour. Some wanted a rock song; others suggested a series of country songs. At last they settled on the Coca-Cola jingle "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." The tune ringing in his ears, Lendol realized that commercial culture was what really bound these Americans-these American Christians- together.
It is not just consumerism in its most undisguised, hackneyed manifestations that should concern us, but consumerism as an ethos, a character-cultivating way of life that seduces and insinuates and acclimates. This, too often, is consumption that militates against the Christian virtues of patience, contentedness, self-denial, and generosity-almost always with a velvet glove rather than an iron fist. It speaks in sweet and sexy rather than dictatorial tones, and it conquers by promises rather than by threats.
That is what envelops us, as surely as the air we breathe. But not as naturally as the air. Consumerism and the capitalism that created and has sustained it is not a force of nature. It has a history. Of course it cannot, and should not, be reshaped overnight. It did not itself appear overnight, but instead over the course of centuries. Yet the fact that it cannot be changed wholesale immediately is no excuse (at least not for Christians) for failing to engage it critically, understanding it as best we can, and resisting its ill effects wherever and as vigorously as we can. People can make history and change the course of cultures, though not within circumstances of their own choosing. Consumer capitalism, both for good and for ill, is a pervasive and foundational reality of our day, yet people can significantly respond to it and potentially change its course.
I. When Capitalism Was Unthinkable
Several essential features of today's capitalism were either unimaginable or positively condemned throughout most of Christian history. We no longer question the legitimacy of making money with money. But throughout church history, up through the Reformation, the charging of interest was proscribed. In earlier eras, the church would have regarded stock market speculation as nothing more than profligate gambling. We suffer no crisis of conscience, nor even a second thought, about consuming goods or experiences solely for relaxation and amusement. Yet Puritans and our Christian forebears of other strains understood consumption principally for pleasure as sinful indulgence.
We presume the obvious rightness-as long as it is done legally-of making a profit, and indeed, maximizing that profit. It did not so easily make sense to the church fathers. "Business is in itself an evil," Augustine flatly declared. And Jerome suspected, "A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God." At the end of the first century, the author of the Didache would not have gone in for building a mutual fund portfolio: "Never turn away the needy; share all your possessions with your brother, and do not claim that anything is your own. If you and he are joint participators in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?" In the second century, The Shepherd of Hermas counseled directly against investment and the accumulation of profit, arguing that Christians are aliens to this world and have no call to amass worldly wealth. "Instead of fields, then, buy souls that are in trouble. … Look after widows and orphans and do not neglect them. Spend your riches and all your establishments you have received from God on this kind of field and houses!"
Much later, in the Boston of 1635, a Puritan merchant was charged by the elders of his church with defaming God's name. He was hauled before the General Court of the Commonwealth and convicted of greed because he had sold his wares at 6 percent profit, 2 percent above the maximum allowed by law.
One more example should suffice to drive home the point that capitalism and consumerism have not always been with us. Max Weber argued that while modern capitalist employers depend on the principle of increased "piece-rates," or more pay for more production, such a thing was not at all second nature to a traditional or precapitalistic way of life. Again and again, he says, employers in the early capitalist period found that raising piece-rates did not automatically raise production. For example, Weber observed that if a hired hand were offered an increase in wage per acre of hay mowed, he would not increase his production but would rather work until he made the same amount to which he was accustomed, actually reducing his production. "The opportunity of earning more was less attractive," said Weber, "than that of working less."
But, as Weber realized, it was not just that working less was more attractive than earning more. There was simply no conception of an economy that might limitlessly increase-of progress and career tracks and salary increases. The traditional man or woman saw no sense in making more than necessary to meet his or her customary needs. So, as Weber put it, "A man does not 'by nature' wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour."
All this meant that, in the Christian-influenced West in which capitalism originated, for capitalism to succeed it required a theological foundation and legitimation. Capitalism had to be learned. Many important factors in addition to theology were at work, of course: technological innovations, the growth of cities, and other developments were necessary for capitalism to be born and to thrive. But pervasively Christian polities and people did not-in fact, could not-suddenly one day simply assume the rightness and goodness of profit-making, of taking interest on loans, of consumption for pleasure, of the accumulation of resources exceeding immediate needs.
Through decades they honestly and reverently grappled to interpret and shape their material lives in the light of God. Toward that end lay persons, and not just professional theologians, struggled to give theological credibility to what we now call capitalism and (eventually) consumerism. Of course, at no point in the development of capitalism did any theologian set out consciously to construct a theology of capitalism-let alone to justify such abuses of capitalistic economies as price gouging, addictive shopping, or ecological damage. This process of sanctioning capitalism and consumerism was done without economics in mind, so that in looking back on a "theology" of capitalism and consumption we are talking about indirect and often even undesired effects.
The theology behind capitalism
Max Weber demonstrated in his venerable The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that the mercantile way of life was not held in high esteem prior to the Reformation. According to Weber's famous and much-debated thesis, it was the Protestant, and particularly the Calvinist, understanding of
a Christian's calling that paved the way for business to be accepted as an honorable and eventually exemplary way of life. Protestants following Calvin fulfilled their calling in the entirety of their lives, not just in any one part or specially "religious" sphere of life. For them, their calling was nothing less (if a bit more) than their daily work-everything they did from sunup to sundown. And evidence or assurance of their salvation flowed from the success of their calling.
Thus, suggested Weber, did the Protestant Ethic enable the spirit of capitalism. Still, it is perhaps more a theology of production than a theology of consumption. For, as Weber put it, the Protestant Ethic was not originally consumer-oriented or hedonistic. In fact, it featured a "strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life."
But there were ironic consequences. As John Wesley famously worried, the Protestant Ethic must "necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all of its branches." He concurred that "we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich." Yet, "wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion." We have here a hint that the line between a theology of production and a theology of consumption quickly and easily blurs.
The justification of consumption
In a Weberian vein, the British sociologist Colin Campbell has traced the blossoming of a theology of consumption (The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumption, 1987). To show how Christian theology and ways of life laid the groundwork for the later Romantic preoccupation with self and the self's pleasures, Campbell focuses on those extremely influential later Calvinists, the Puritans.
Campbell notes that for the Puritans, "an intensely personal, subjective experience" was used to gauge the authenticity of faith. As the historian William Haller put it, Puritans "were taught to follow by intense introspection the working of the law of predestination within their own souls." The "theater" of the most intense drama imaginable-eternal salvation or damnation-was inside "the human breast." Consequently, it came to pass that a melancholy bearing, self-debasement, and fascination with one's own death were considered outward signs of inward godliness. True faith, observes Campbell, was associated with a certain "profound emotional sensibility."
In short, Campbell argues that Romanticism and its precious cultivation of the emotions is in part Puritanism secularized. The eighteenth century saw increases in technology and affluence that lengthened life expectancy and prompted more optimistic attitudes about life and the world. The Enlightenment took hold, and religion was forced to relax its grip. Yet even as old beliefs in sin, hell, and eternal damnation paled, "there was a reluctance to abandon the subjective states with which they had been associated" since these "religiously generated emotions had became a source of pleasure in themselves."
A secularized society seeks the satisfaction of this appetite for intense emotion by relishing the frights of a horror movie, knowing there really is no lunatic with a butcher knife behind us; or by delighting in an amusement park ride, realizing the roller coaster is not going to fly off the track. We pay money to savor the tears we weep, on cushioned theater seats, at a Shakespearean tragedy. So have our feelings become "a source of pleasure in themselves" and, as we will see, the primary "object" of our consumer culture.
And so it was that gradually and subtly, between 1660 and 1760, the middle classes reinterpreted Protestantism sentimentally, rather than Calvinistically. Weber's Protestant Ethic stressed "rationality, instrumentality, industry and achievement." What Campbell calls the Other Protestant Ethic stressed fervent feeling, sentimentality, luxurious introspection, and an abiding emphasis on self-fulfillment. This Other Protestant Ethic had a great influence on both evangelical and liberal Protestantism, as well as secular cultures.
We do well to remember that Western civilization did not go to bed one night full of faith and wake up the next morning absolutely secular. Even today, of course, faith is not finally vanquished-and neither is it unmarked by secularization. In our actual, messy world, Christians-quite apart from their ancestors' sobriety and wariness of hedonism-still had a thing or two to teach the world about consumption. Consider the example of revivalism.
Revivalism and the architects of consumerism
By underscoring the importance of making a decision for Christ, Charles Finney and other revivalists helped along the sanctification of choice, a key component of today's consumer capitalism. Revivalism encouraged rapturous feelings and a malleable self that is open time and again to the changes of conversion and reconversion. This was simply translated into a propensity toward "conversion" to new products, a variety of brands, and fresh experiences.
In fact, peddlers were fixtures on the fringes of revival meetings, where they hawked counsel and medicines promising transformation of the buyers' lives. Modern advertising grew directly out of the patent-medicine trade. And advertising testimonials drew directly on the before-and-after pattern of evangelical testimony. The difference, as Jackson Lears notes, was that "In the patent medicine literature, soul-sickness took bodily form and required physical intervention. Suffering was caused not by sin, but by constipation, catarrh, bilious liver, seminal losses, or the ubiquitous 'tired feeling.' "
Not unlike a witness at a revival meeting, one Karl Barton in 1875 confessed that his life before his first bottle of Dr. Chase's nerve pills was a mess. "It was a pretty hard matter for me to call attention to anything in particular. It was a general, debilitated, languid, played-out feeling, and while not painful, depressing." In the ads the nerve pills were, of course, his salvation and road to a new, born-again life.
Other examples might be added to that of revivalism. In fact, Christians were in a remarkable number of cases architects of twentieth-century consumer culture. Many influential advertising managers and copywriters, for instance, were the offspring of ministers. Some famous individuals stand out, not least Coca-Cola magnate Asa G. Candler and department-store impresario John Wanamaker.
Candler bought the formula for Coke from its pharmacist-inventor in 1891. Brother to a Methodist bishop and a devout Methodist himself (Emory University's Candler School of Theology bears the family name), Asa, according to his son, made his faith "the central purpose" of his life.
Candler believed Coca-Cola cured his chronic headaches and promoted it with something like evangelistic zeal. "If people knew the good qualities of Coca-Cola as I know them," he said, "it would be necessary for us to lock the doors of our factories and have a guard with a shotgun" to control demand. In this spirit, he liked to conclude sales meetings with a group singing of "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
Coca-Cola was one of the earliest commodities to be massively advertised. In 1912, the Advertising Club of America declared it the best-advertised product in the U.S. Economic historian Richard Tedlow believes that Candler's breadth of marketing vision grew out of his involvement in national and international missions.
John Wanamaker, founder of Wanamaker department stores, was a lifelong, intensely faithful Presbyterian. He was an inveterate Bible reader, a close friend and supporter of Dwight L. Moody, heavily involved in the Sunday-school movement, and refused to sell wine and liquor in his stores "on principle."
At the same time, Wanamaker, more than any other merchant of his time, brought French fashion to America. He had the country's biggest furniture showrooms and was pleased that he could translate "luxuries into commodities or into necessities" more rapidly than any other merchant.
Wanamaker, who died in 1922, was also a main player in the commercialization of the Christian holy days of Christmas and Easter. At Christmastime, Wanamaker turned the Grand Court of his Philadelphia store into a veritable cathedral, replete with stained glass, stars, and angelic statuary. The effect was so churchlike that gentlemen, upon entering, instinctively doffed their hats. The store was also sacrally decked out at Easter when Wanamaker displayed giant, 23-foot-long paintings of Christ Before Pilate and Christ on Calvary.
The point in dwelling on revivalism and such men as Candler and Wanamaker is that, to follow the historian R. Laurence Moore, Protestantism in clear if sometimes strange ways "was excellent preparation for the pleasures of … modern consumer hedonism." It sanctified choice.
It brought Christianity lock, stock, barrel, and Bible into the marketplace and redefined faith in terms of the marketplace. It refined close observation and exquisite stimulation of feelings, and, "since the Protestant imagination was free to venture forth on its own without the intervention and control of priests, it luxuriated in novelty."
II. Making Consumers
It would be a gross distortion to act as if Protestantism alone invented and sustained consumer capitalism, though Protestantism's effects are significant if we are to understand the influence of consumerism on Christians. Still, it is crucial to note other historical factors essential to the birth and growth of consumerism. In terms of the push and pull of the everyday economy, historians are agreed that production-oriented capitalism moved on to become consumption-oriented capitalism because capitalism itself was so successful.
Until the twentieth century, most American homes were sites not only of consumption but of production. Even as late as 1850, six out of ten people worked on farms. They made most of their own tools; they built their homes and barns; they constructed their furniture; they wove and sewed their clothes; they grew crops and animals, producing food and drink; they chopped wood and made candles to provide heat and light. One nineteenth-century Massachusetts farmer, for instance, produced so much of what he needed at home that he never spent more than $10 a year.
The Industrial Revolution changed all that, very quickly. As the factory system and mass production came to dominance over the space of decades, it displaced home production by cheaply producing a host of commodities formerly made at home, driving out cottage industry and forcing millions into wage labor. From 1859 to 1899, the value of manufactured goods in the United States shot from $1.9 billion to $13 billion. Factories grew from 140,000 to 512,000.
Rather suddenly, this economic system could produce many more goods than the existing population, with its set habits and means, could afford and consume. For instance, when James Buchanan Duke procured merely two Bonsack cigarette machines, he could immediately produce 240,000 cigarettes a day-more than the entire U.S. market smoked. Such overproduction was the rule, not the exception, throughout the economy. From flour manufacturers to stovemakers, there was a widespread and acute recognition that the amount of goods available had far surpassed the number of buyers for those goods. Further, new products emerged for which markets needed to be developed. For instance, when Henry P. Crowell of Quaker Oats (benefactor of Moody Bible Institute, where a building is named after him) built an automated mill in 1882, most Americans ate meat and potatoes, not cereal, for breakfast.
There was, in short, a huge gap between production and consumption. How to close it? Industrial production's momentum had already built up, so cutting production was not feasible. Manufacturers decided instead to pump up consumption, to increase demand to meet supply. But they realized consumption was a way of life that had to be taught and learned. People had to move away from habits of strict thrift toward habits of ready spending. To be adequate consumers, they had to depart from a dependence on traditional skills, on production by families and artisans and local merchants. They had to learn to trust and rely on a multitude of products and services manufactured and promoted from far away by complete strangers.
By trial and error, manufacturers arrived at methods for reshaping people's economic habits. They instituted money-back guarantees and credit buying. They created brand names and mascots to give their mass-produced goods an appealing "personality." They introduced mail order and, as in the case of Sears, coached and reassured semiliterate customers to order by post ("Tell us what you want in your own way, written in any language, no matter whether good or poor writing, and the goods will promptly be sent to you"). And, of course, they advertised.
The cultivation of consumers
Many other factors were important in the rise of consumerism, but since advertising is the most insistent and undisguised face of advanced consumption, it merits special attention.
Until the late nineteenth century, advertising had been mainly informational. Advertising pages in eighteenth-century newspapers looked like the classifieds in today's papers. There were no pictures and, rather like news items, the ads simply did such things as announce when a shipment of rice would arrive from the Carolinas. But faced with a mass market and the crises of overproduction, manufacturers by the late nineteenth century initiated an advertising revolution. New advertising departed the realm of pure information, incorporating images and a host of persuasive tactics. It was, and remains, a primary tool in teaching people how to be consumers.
Early twentieth-century advertising, for instance, was used by Colgate to teach people who had never heard of toothpaste that they should brush their teeth daily. King Gillette, the inventor of the disposable razor, coaxed men to shave daily and to do it themselves, not see a barber. Thus his ads included shaving lessons, with leads such as "Note the Angle Stroke." Eastman Kodak advertising tutored the masses in making the portable camera their "family historian." Food manufacturers published cookbooks training housewives to cook with exact measures of (branded) products. Newly enabled by preservatives and far-flung distribution networks, Domino Gold Syrup sought in 1919 explicitly to "educate" people that syrup was not only for wintertime pancakes. Said the sales manager, "Our belief is that the entire year is syrup season and the people must be educated to believe this is a fact."
The effectiveness of advertising in selling any specific product remains debatable. What cannot be doubted is that early advertising successfully introduced an expansive array of products and services, playing a key role in the replacement of traditional home production by store-bought commodities. Furthermore, advertising and related media have served and still serve as important shapers of an ethos that has the good life attained through acquisition and consumption, and that would have its inhabitants constantly yearning for new products and new experiences.
Indeed, advertisers soon recognized that they must not simply cater to pre-existing needs, but create new needs. As Crowell of Quaker Oats noted, "[My aim in advertising] was to do educational and constructive work so as to awaken an interest in and create a demand for cereals where none existed." And as The Thompson Red Book on Advertising put it more generally in 1901, "Advertising aims to teach people that they have wants, which they did not recognize before, and where such wants can be best supplied." Consequently, one newspaper reader in 1897 said that not so long ago people "skipped [ads] unless some want compelled us to read, while now we read to find out what we really want."
Advertisers did not act alone in training consumers. Government began in the early twentieth century to solidify and boost the newly emerged strength of business corporations, capping this alliance with Herbert Hoover's expansion of the Department of Commerce in the 1920s. Schools quite self-consciously cooperated with corporations in molding young consumers.
One 1952 Whirlpool short-subject film, for instance, featured three teenage girls around a kitchen table, at work on a report about the emancipation of women. Did emancipation equal winning the vote? Assuming property and other legal rights? No, the girls decide, as the host rises from the table to attend a shiny washing machine. Real emancipation came with release from the drudgery of chores, with washing machines and dryers that liberated women from clotheslines and "dark basements." Business Screen magazine gave clear instruction for the film's use in its review: "Some good clean selling takes place during this half-hour. … The film will have special appeal to women's groups of all kinds and to home economics classes from teenage on up."
Consumers, in short, were made, not born.
The deification of dissatisfaction
Into the nineteenth century, then, advertising and consumption were oriented to raw information and basic needs. It was only in the late nineteenth and then the twentieth century, with the maturation of consumer capitalism, that a shift was made toward the cultivation of unbounded desire. We must appreciate this to realize that late modern consumption, consumption as we now know it, is not fundamentally about materialism or the consumption of physical goods. Affluence and consumer-oriented capitalism have moved us well beyond the undeniable efficiencies and benefits of refrigerators and indoor plumbing. Instead, in a fun-house world of ever-proliferating wants and exquisitely unsatisfied desire, consumption entails most profoundly the cultivation of pleasure, the pursuit of novelty, and the chasing after illusory experiences associated with material goods.
Sex appeal sells everything from toothpaste to automobiles. (Recently, a cancer-detection ad on the back of a Christian magazine headlined, "Before you read this, take your clothes off." Then, in fine print, it counseled how to do bodily self-examinations.) Often, cigarette and alcohol ads do not even depict their product being consumed, but instead prime us to associate them with robust cowboys and spectacular mountain vistas. By 1989, the American Association of Advertising Agencies explicitly stated that consumer perceptions "are a fundamental part of manufacturing the product-as much as size, shape, color, flavor, design, or raw materials."
In 1909, an advertising manager for Winton Motor Cars representing the old school had declared, "When a man buys an automobile he purchases a specific entity, made of so much iron, steel, brass, copper, leather, wood, and horsehair, put together in a specific form and manner. … Why attract his attention to the entity by something that is foreign thereto? Has the car itself not sufficient merit to attain that attention? Why suggest 'atmosphere,' which is something he cannot buy?"
But by 1925, "atmosphere" no longer seemed beyond the reach of the market. In that year advertising copywriter John Starr Hewitt wrote, "No one has ever in his life bought a mere piece of merchandise-per se. What he buys is the satisfaction of a physical need or the gratification of some dream about his life."
In the same year, Ernest Elmo Calkins, the cofounder of the Calkins and Holden ad agency, observed, "I have spent much of my life trying to teach the business man that beauty has a dollars-and-cents value, because I feel that only thus will it be produced in any quantity in a commercial age." Calkins recognized that, in his words, "Modernism offered the opportunity of expressing the inexpressible, of suggesting not so much the motor car as speed, not so much a gown as style, not so much a compact as beauty." All, of course, with a dollars-and-cents value attached.
Thus speed, style, beauty, sex, love, spirituality have all become for the modern consumer categories to be evoked and sampled at will by selecting from a vast array of products, services, and commodified experiences. Colin Campbell considers contemporary tourism a prime example. Tourism as an industry and a commodity depends for its survival on an insatiable yearning for "ever-new objects to gaze at." The same can be said for shopping, spectator sports, concert-going, movie-viewing, and other quintessential "consumer" activities. "Modern consumers will desire a novel rather than a familiar product because this enables them to believe that its acquisition and use will supply experiences they have not encountered to date in reality." Moreover, as those many now blissfully lost in cyberspace will attest, reality can be decidedly more inconvenient and less purely pleasurable than virtual reality.
In 1627, Francis Bacon's New Atlantis dreamed of a utopia in which technology could adjust growing seasons and create synthetic fruit tastier and better looking than natural fruit. In our culture, the New Atlantis has, after a fashion, come into being, and its plenty includes cosmetically enhanced fruit, artificial sweeteners, nonalcoholic beer, and fat-free junk food.
Yet, as Campbell reminds us, actual consumption is "likely to be a literally disillusioning experience, since real products cannot possibly supply the same quality of perfected pleasure as that which attends imaginatively enjoyed experiences." So we modern consumers are perpetually dissatisfied. Fulfillment and lasting satisfaction are forever just out of reach. And if we cannot escape completely to cyberspace, we reach for and grab again and again the product or commodified experience that provides temporary pleasure.
We are profoundly schooled and thousands of times daily reinforced-remember, the average American is exposed to more than three thousand sales messages daily-in an insatiability that is, as the theologian Miroslav Volf remarks, "unique to modernity." Insatiability itself is as old as humanity, or at least the fall of humanity. What is unique to modern consumerism is the idealization and constant encouragement of insatiability-the deification of dissatisfaction.
Economics and the consumerism it serves is, as the economist Robert Nelson candidly admits, "our modern theology." Modernity is that age that has believed in the future against the past, in limitless progress that would eliminate not just the practical but the moral and spiritual problems of humanity. Many of the major concerns and practices of classical Christianity were accordingly redefined along economic lines. Material scarcity and the resulting conflict over precious resources were seen as the sources of human sinfulness. So economic progress and the building of consumer societies has "represented the route of salvation to a new heaven on earth." Economic efficiency has for many replaced the providence of God.
Christian missionaries traveled to spread the gospel; economic theology has missionaries such as the Peace Corps and international development agencies, delivering the good news of "economic progress, rational knowledge, and human redemption." Christianity saw the coming of Christ as history's supreme revelatory moment. Economic theology, or a theology of consumption, considers it to be the discoveries of modern science and technology. And twentieth-century religious wars are no longer fought between Roman Catholics and various Protestants, but "among men often inspired by Marxist, fascist, capitalist, and still other messages of economic salvation" (Robert Nelson).
III. The Importance of Character
"Whoever has the power to project a vision of the good life and make it prevail," the historian William Leach writes, "has the most decisive power of all. In its sheer quest to produce and sell goods cheaply in constantly growing volume and at higher profit levels, American business, after 1890, acquired such power and has kept it ever since."
Since consumer capitalism-today not just in America but around the world-so effectively promotes its version of the good life, and since consumers are made rather than born, a Christian response demands a consideration of character.
Every culture or way of life requires a certain kind of person-a "character" with fitting attitudes, skills, and motivations-to sustain and advance the good life as that culture knows it. Thus Sparta was concerned to shape its citizens in the character of the warrior; Aristotle hoped for a polity that would make aristocrats; and twentieth-century America charged its public schools with the task of instilling the American way of life in their students.
In the postwar boom days of 1955, retailing analyst Victor Lebow echoed his advertising predecessors, declaring, "Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. … We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate."
Can there be any doubt that we now live in the world Lebow prophesied and desired? That shopping has become a conspicuous ritual profoundly indicative of our social ethic is facetiously but tellingly betrayed in such slogans as "I shop, therefore I am," and "They came, they saw, they did a little shopping," scrawled on the Berlin Wall shortly after East Germans were allowed to pass freely into West Germany.
Planned obsolescence, installment buying, and credit cards-all creations of this century-were key means to making consumption a way of life. Now, as with President Bush a few years ago, public officials dutifully appear on the evening news buying a pair of socks to inaugurate the Christmas season.
Our language is one significant indication that consumption is a way of life. We are encouraged to see and interpret more and more of our activities in terms of consumption. In the language of marketers, people who go to movies are not "audiences," but "consumers"; those who go to school are no longer "students," but "educational consumers." People who visit a physician are no longer "patients," those who go to church are no longer "worshipers," those who go to libraries and bookstores are no longer "readers," those who go to restaurants are no longer "diners." All are as frequently designated "consumers."
The church must examine and challenge consumerism at exactly this point. What sort of people does consumer capitalism want us to be? What are the key character traits of the consumer par excellence? And how do these stack up against the standards and aims of Christian character?
The character of the consumer
The consumer is schooled in insatiability. He or she is never to be satisfied-at least, not for long. The consumer is tutored that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased by commodified goods and experiences. Accordingly, the consumer should think first and foremost of himself or herself and meeting his or her felt needs. The consumer is taught to value above all else freedom, freedom defined as a vast array of choices.
One of the most striking ways we are trained and reinforced in the consumptive way of life is exactly through a flood of ever-proliferating choices. In 1976, the average American supermarket carried nine thousand products; today it stocks thirty thousand. The typical produce section in 1975 had 65 items; today it stocks 285. The median household with cable now picks up more than 30 tv stations. During the 1980s a new periodical was born for every day of every year.
Certainly this plenitude of choice is not all bad. Eating fresh foods in the winter transported from California or Florida or being exposed to the foods of other ethnic groups are not negatives. As a movie lover, I can tell you that the typical video store stocking 5,000 videos is more likely than one stocking 1,000 to carry first-rate foreign films. Most of us can affirm much that is right about the undergirding philosophy of freedom as noncoercive choice. And surely the diversity of commodities and commodified experiences can foster increasing openness to people and cultures different from our own.
Yet we are so trained and reinforced in freedom as choice that we fail to question if many of our choices are actually significant. Is quality of life really bettered by having four rather than two brands of catsup to choose from? Is rock troubadour Bruce Springsteen too far from the mark when he complains of TV that there are "57 channels and nothing on"?
It is no less important that we fail to notice a whole array of significant possibilities that are eliminated when consumer choice rules all. As Alan Ehrenhalt relates in marvelous detail in his book The Lost City, the worship of choice and spread of the market mentality has without doubt weakened communities. These developments have dissolved locally owned banks, newspapers, grocery stores, and restaurants. As late as the 1950s, "The very act of shopping was embedded in the web of long-term relationships between customer and merchant, relationships that were more important than the price of a particular item at a particular time. The sense of permanence that bound politicians to organizations, or corporations to communities, reached down to the most mundane transactions of neighborhood commercial life."
This is a way of life that we can no longer choose, even should we want to, for it is practically obliterated. Instead, as Ehrenhalt eloquently concludes, "Too many of the things we do in our lives, large and small, have come to resemble channel surfing, marked by a numbing and seemingly endless progression from one option to the next, all without the benefit of a chart, logistical or moral, because there are simply too many choices and no one to help sort them out. We have nothing to insulate ourselves against the perpetual temptation to try one more choice, rather than to live with what is on the screen in front of us."
The character of the Christian
Classical Christianity, as we have observed, was very wary of insatiability. There was, in fact, only one acceptable sort of insatiability: insatiability in relationship with the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. In the psalmist's words, "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Ps. 42:1). Augustine would surely consider our consumer compulsions a symptom of disordered desire, of the sort of desire that should be directed only to God but instead is directed to God's creatures. This is theologically a serious matter, since this disordered desire can verge on, if not become, outright idolatry.
Additionally, though Christianity can be a tremendously fulfilling way of life, it does not teach or promise fulfillment construed in individualistic terms. The church ultimately hopes and yearns for the fulfillment of all creation through the rightful worship of God and fulfillment of God's kingdom. Thus the initial petition of the Lord's Prayer beseeches (in the first-person, plural), "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Likewise, Paul sees the church as a formative community whose members are variously gifted by the Holy Spirit "for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7). The Christian hope surpassing evil and death is not, according to the New Testament, for the escape of the individual soul to heaven (or of individual pleasure fulfilled in a consumeristic heaven on earth), but for a new heaven and earth and the corporate resurrection of all the blessed.
The consumer way of life fosters a number of values antithetical to many Christian virtues. Can we simultaneously seek and to some degree realize both instant gratification and patience? What about instant gratification and self-control? Is gentleness cultivated in an ethos that must become ever more coarse and gross to excite overloaded, jaded consumers, or joy cultivated by an economic system that deifies dissatisfaction? Since these virtues are at the heart of Christian character, they deserve more extensive consideration. We can explore these matters in more detail by turning to a related, cardinal Christian virtue in which the other virtues are all rooted: the virtue of fidelity.
Fidelity and the consumer way of life
A central virtue of biblical faith is fidelity. Christians aspire to be enduringly faithful to one particular God, not to a succession or collection of gods. Likewise, the Christian practice of marriage is an exercise in the virtue of fidelity. A Christian marries and commits him- or herself exclusively to a particular mate-"till death do us part."
The consumer, on the other hand, marries because marriage will serve his or her interests as he or she understands them at the moment. Commitment in the Christian way of life is an ideal and a goal; commitment in the consumer way of life is more exclusively an instrumental and typically temporary good. Marriage in the consumer ethos is too often open to reevaluation. If at any point it fails to promote the self-actualization of one or another spouse, the option of ending the partnership must be available.
In the Christian way, lifetime monogamy makes sense. In the consumer way of life, serial monogamy (a succession of mates, one at a time) is a much more sensible practice. Highly increased divorce rates signal many things, but one of them surely is that consumption is our way of life.
Another sign that consumption is our way of life is the profound societal confusion and ambivalence about children. Although we idealize children as innocents and perhaps sentimentalize them more than any other society in history, as sociologist David Popenoe bluntly says, "American communities are strikingly unfit for children." Children want and need social stability, yet our communities are "transient, anonymous, diverse and increasingly unfriendly to children." Children need communities in which they are physically secure, yet even those of us in comparatively safe suburbs can hardly allow our younger children to walk to school by themselves. Children need communities that are accessible to them, yet there are few self-contained neighborhoods, so that most activities require an automobile, and thus adult transportation.
Under the sway of the consumer ethos we have shifted from child-centered to adult-centered families, fostering higher divorce rates and constructing communities that often subordinate the needs of the young to the needs (and felt needs) of grownups. Frankly, consumption as a way of life renders it difficult to make sense of having children. The consumer ethos, again, is above all one of individual self-fulfillment and autonomy, of keeping choices open.
This makes it irrational to bear a child, since children represent the commitment of a lifetime. In the wonderfully apt phrase of novelist Michael Dorris, children "hold us hostage to the future." They limit a parent's mobility, their needs dictate how much of their parents' money is spent, and they create "agendas" a parent otherwise would never have imagined-let alone have chosen. Attempting to stay true to consumption as a way of life, we soberly build daycare centers that label children Precious Commodities, fixate on the monetary costs of rearing a child from diapers through college, and seriously wonder whether or not we should "force" our faith and morality on our children.
Beginning the resistence
There are aspects of consumer capitalism Christians can certainly appreciate and defend, but it is so dominant and unquestioned in our setting that I have emphasized characteristics and tendencies that bring it into tension with the faith.
Consumer capitalism grew over centuries; it will not change overnight. People of faith living amid overweening consumerism have a responsibility to resist where they can, to cultivate the good life as it is understood in the Christian tradition. So we are impelled both theologically and strategically to devote attention to the peculiarly and explicitly Christian formation of character, to build a Christian way of life or culture.
To get a sense of how Christians can undertake such a resistance "on the ground," I visited believers who represent three socioeconomic classes: the affluent (Malcolm Street), the middle class (Lendol and Kathy Knight Calder), and the voluntary poverty of intentional Christian community (the Bruderhof). The financial means and lifestyles of some of these folk are closer to my own than others, but I learned something from each about Christian responses to consumerism.
Malcolm Street grew up in the wealth of a Texas oil family. In financial terms, he has always been well off. Yet he is anything but a comfortable person. During our three days together, he repeatedly prodded me to ask him the hard questions, to push the line of faith-filled logic past the point of his own comfort. Congruently, his reading is engaged and critical. Browsing through thoughtful Christian magazines in his apartment, I found margins laden with scribbled comments ("enlightened social policy won't get it. Only Lordship will") and grades ("B+," "A+," "A++") assigned articles in the table of contents.
With such glimpses of Street, I was not surprised to learn that his vigorous confrontation with consumerism and the temptations of wealth grew out of determined questioning and examination.
During the fifties, while studying finance in college, he had a summer job at a bank in Fort Worth. The summer job led to a full-time position, and by the time he was in his late twenties, Street was an upper-level officer. It was then that he had a "conversion" that brought to life the Methodism in which he was reared.
He noticed that several of the older, economically successful men and women he counseled financially were deflated, sometimes despairing, wondering (in the words of the old Peggy Lee song), "Is that all there is?" Street says, "All their lives they had focused on climbing the ladder, only to find when they got to the top that it was leaning against the wrong building."
This began a process of re-examination for the young banker. Intense and self-critical, Street reacted to the prologue of 1 Corinthians 13 by deciding he had a "calloused heart." He realized, among other things, that it was too easy for the affluent to be disconnected from the pains and needs of "ordinary" folk. "If the public school goes downhill, we send our kids to a private one. If the neighborhood gets violent, we move behind the walls of a peaceful one. If we don't get satisfactory medical care, we switch doctors."
Now 53, Street has in the intervening decades repeatedly exposed himself to the neediest of the needy, with mission trips to such places as Haiti, Liberia, and Honduras. He devotes 30 percent of his time to service on the boards of Christian organizations. He believes that money has a purpose-"to make friends for God"-which in practice means that business is about "maximizing human benefit, not profit." Profits, he says, "are essential if services are to be proportional to human needs, but they are not the ultimate 'bottom line.' "
In keeping with this perspective, Street has over the last 13 years built and operated "assisted living" apartments for the frail elderly. Determined to make himself vulnerable to the needs of those who are not "insulated" as people of means are, he lives on the premises of a Fort Worth complex called the Courtyards, where he leads a weekly Bible study for residents and meets monthly for a breakfast with male residents.
Street's way of life demonstrates that a kind of intentional vulnerability can help revive sensibilities and empathies dulled by satiating overconsumption. A degree of affluence not only insulates us from a keen awareness of our limits and mortality, but, through indulgence, it can coarsen the senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch so that we require increasingly gross stimuli to experience pleasure. We can-both to help others and to reawaken our truest senses-regularly draw close to those suffering from want, sickness, or loneliness.
Street has also learned from spiritual director Henri Nouwen the importance of periodic spiritual retreats. To withdraw for a weekend of vulnerability to silence, away from television, radio, and bookshelves, is to force a reconnection with things deeper than the inundating ephemera of mass consumer culture.
Malcolm Street emphasizes that generosity is a crucial, life-enriching habit for wealthy Christians. "Giving proportionately to your ability is a way to force yourself out of the insulation of affluence, beyond your comfort zone. For the upper-income Christian, a 10 percent tithe is just the threshold of your capacity to give 'to the least of these.' "
Hearing the water speak
Lendol and Kathy Knight Calder lived near New London, New Hampshire, where Lendol taught history at Colby-Sawyer College until they moved last summer to a college in Illinois. I visited them at their New Hampshire home, nestled in the White Mountains-a five-minute walk from a breathtakingly beautiful mountain lake.
Kathy and Lendol, who met in a college InterVarsity chapter, have had their sensitivity to consumerism heightened by Lendol's doctoral dissertation. Their modest New Hampshire home, also occupied by their two small children, is filled with wall-hung quilts and furniture passed down from family.
They worry that consumer culture tends to mediate all "reality." People in a mass consumer society watch television and movies created, promoted, and distributed by other people; they listen to prerecorded music rather than make their own, and they buy birthday cards instead of writing a poem. Consumer reality is secondhand and often sanitized; you can, for instance, "play" basketball by watching Michael Jordan without ever straining a muscle or touching a ball. Lendol is struck that most of his students can look out their dorm windows at mountains that they might hike, ski, and climb, but instead spend their time watching television and listening to cds. Likewise, on a splendid spring day in New Hampshire, "in the safest place in the world," he says, residents of his town exercise on a treadmill inside a gymnasium.
In contrast, the Calders try to take full advantage of their natural surroundings. Lendol runs, bikes, and mountain-climbs. He and Kathy take frequent walks with their children and pass summer evenings at the lake. They encourage the kids to appreciate and participate in the wonder of creation. (One afternoon we walked to the lake, still and serene as a mirror, and three-year-old daughter Abigail proclaimed that the lake was not talking or laughing today. Lendol explained that they have discussed how different parts of creation "speak" to God.)
Kathy and Lendol agree that consumer culture reigns partly because it so thoroughly defines time for most people. In response, they try to pay more attention to natural and liturgical rhythms. As Episcopalians, they prize the church year, believing it provides a significant alternative to consumer holidays and the values they promote. In Kathy's words, the weeks leading up to Christmas are in the church year a time for penitence, not "stuffing your face." During Advent, the Calders eat more simply so that they might truly feast on Christmas.
Such appreciative celebration is reinforced by the cultivation of gratitude. Consumer culture would have us feel constantly unsatisfied. In response, Kathy practices gratitude as a kind of spiritual discipline. In difficult times, or times of temptation due to dissatisfaction, she sometimes lists simple, basic things she has enjoyed that day but has easily taken for granted. "Thank you for the roof over my head," she prays. "Thank you for the good, warm bed I slept in last night. Thank you for the cup of tea I had at breakfast. Thank you for my husband." As the list lengthens, she finds herself less desperately in need of a new dress or book.
Like Malcolm Street, the Calders emphasize the importance of generosity. The consumer mentality focuses on the immediate and ceaseless gratification of our own desires. Lendol and Kathy have found gift-giving an excellent and enjoyable way to resist that constant inward pull. They present gifts not just on birthdays, but to friends on special occasions with no expectations of the gifts being reciprocated.
I was perhaps most impressed that the Calders' down-to-earth attempts to resist and reshape consumer culture were undergirded by a profound sense that they, and other Christians, must accept that we are in this struggle for the long haul. Lendol suggests one of the best analogies to resistance of consumer culture is the challenge of Eastern European Christians and intellectuals to communism.
Christians under communism did not, in the apparently "small" and mundane actions of their lives, set out to overthrow the system. In fact, many have since said they expected to live the rest of their days under the sway of communism, recognizing that they were a part of a system they considered the Big Lie. Yet they stood against it when and where they could, and one thing eventually led to another.
Likewise, we Western Christians cannot escape consumer culture. We are part of it and in many ways (not all for ill) molded by it. The Christians of the East remind us that even small resistances are significant. They open our imaginations, and who knows where that will take us-or our children, or our children's children?
VCRs and song
The Bruderhof is a collocation of eight communities in the Eastern United States and England descended from the Anabaptist tradition of the Hutterian Brethren. Each 'hof, as the communities are called, consists of 300 to 400 men, women, and children. Members hand over all personal wealth (including automobiles and inheritances) upon entering the community and make major life decisions (such as where to live) with the assistance of the 'hof. I visited the Woodcrest and Pleasant View communities in upstate New York.
What most forcefully struck this outsider is that the Bruderhof is a kind of family monasticism. Marriage is vigorously encouraged and, since members do not practice birth control, most families have six to eight children. Children are prized as children, but also as exemplars of true Christian spirituality; Bruderhofers take very seriously Matthew 18:3: "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
The Bruderhof's very radical response to consumer capitalism underlines how profoundly pervasive and penetrating that system is. The Bruderhofers in no way think consumerism can be completely "escaped" or avoided, nor that all aspects of it should be. They operate thriving businesses that manufacture furniture and play equipment for preschools. On visiting their operations at Woodcrest, I found twenty-some men and women seated at computers, the women wearing telephone headsets over their characteristic Bruderhof head scarves, all taking orders from around the country. I overheard two computer specialists discussing how they might find an out-of-print book via the Internet and talked with the Bruderhof equivalent of a business manager (they don't go for titles) about what he called a looming "paradigm shift" in preschool furniture.
Still, the Bruderhof's communitarian way of life enables members to be much more judicious in their appropriation of consumer technologies and lifestyle than is the typical North American Christian. When I asked elder Christoph Arnold for an example of a consumer technology that the Bruderhof tried and then quit, he thought only briefly before he replied, "vcrs. We had vcrs for a while, but then we noticed the children weren't singing. They weren't playing and running and making up songs. They wanted to put in a tape and sit in front of the tv. So we locked up the vcrs. Now the children are singing again."
In such ways the Bruderhof exemplifies the importance of a culture that encourages and supports alternative practices to a pervasive and powerful consumerism. Although most Christians may not be prepared to relinquish the degree of autonomy necessary to be a Bruderhofer (I confess I am not), we can take steps toward an openness and accountability that may loosen the uncontested stranglehold of consumer attitudes.
After all, focusing on consumption as individuals plays right into the consumption ethos (which was partly created by an overly individualized and introspective Christianity). For instance, one of the most popular and enduring Christian responses to materialism has been the counsel that the Christian may hold any amount of possessions so long as he or she has the right attitude-an inner detachment-toward those possessions. There is surely much value in this approach, but we have at the same time left the assessment of genuine inner detachment up to the isolated, individual Christian. (Ask yourself how much you actually know about any other believer's salary or tithing.) Thus any authority the faith has for our economic behavior is entirely privatized.
As Robert Wuthnow indicates (and Bruderhofers would surely agree), what this individualism and privatism amounts to in practice is complete capitulation to consumerism. Attitude and behavior are not so easily separable. Nor are we wise to think that we can accurately assess our attitudes in solitude, apart from the counsel and discernment of others. With such powerful social forces as the market and the media constantly exhorting us to excesses of consumption, it is ludicrous to think the most viable and faithful response is to face these forces as an isolated individual or family.
Yet the taboo on discussing what we do with our money is so strong that, according to Wuthnow's data, churchgoers are less likely than the general population to discuss their finances with someone else-and less likely yet to discuss finances with a fellow Christian! Consumerism will continue to exercise undue influence over Christians until we desecrate this unholy taboo and stop regarding our economic lives as an entirely private matter, finding ways to open our wallets and checkbooks in front of trusted Christians. Christians need what Wuthnow calls a "critical and collective resistance."
IV. Priestly Stewardship
Malcolm Street, the Calders, and the Bruderhof are all fine examples of what I call priestly stewardship- of spending time, money, and the resources of the earth for the service and praise of God. We are priests. We are chosen of God to declare and exemplify the will of God to creation, and in turn to represent the needs and praise of all creation to God-the core job description for priests. This was expressed most concisely when Moses was told by Yahweh that while he is creator and owner of the whole earth, Israel "shall be for me a priestly kingdom" (Exod. 19:6). Likewise, the church was designated "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9).
We are stewards. We are called to serve as caretakers of God's good creation (Gen. 1:26, 28). Although the concept of stewardship has been one of the church's main Christian responses to the problems of materialism and the environmental crisis, it has come in for considerable (and effective) criticism. Stewardship has at times been perverted by Christians who assume that the world and its resources are at our human disposal, to use or abuse as we like. Thus we are tempted to treat the world's resources as "dead" matter fit merely for human manipulation and, yes, consumption. While these criticisms and perversions of stewardship are based on faulty understandings of the biblical concept, combining stewardship with priesthood restores the God-centered nature of our stewardship, that our role as caretakers of creation is on behalf of God the Creator.
Having the job description of priestly stewards helps us as we try to shape lives that are formed by something other than consumerism.
Although priestly stewardship has an individual component, it is most fundamentally a communal stewardship. In our consumeristic world, stewardship is too easily understood as simply an individualistic concern: How much will I tithe? How can I pollute the environment less? Priestly stewardship reinforces the truth that the fundamental Christian witness is not that of the isolated individual, but of the church. The church, not just isolated Christians, is called to form the alternative vision of life to the consumer ethos so prevalent today.
Priestly stewardship suggests that creation is not just for us, that it has purpose independent of the uses we can make of it. All of creation-human and nonhuman alike-exists ultimately for God and to the praise of God. Significantly, God in Genesis 1 pronounces the rest of creation "good"before humanity is created. The psalmist and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel can speak of mountains, trees, sun, and moon praising God. Unlike an office complex or gymnasium, which have no value if people do not inhabit them, creation can glorify and bring God delight apart from human presence. Plants, animals-and the Calders' mountain lake that "talks" to its Creator-exist first and foremost not for human use or enjoyment, but for God's pleasure. Christians can affirm much of the environmentalist agenda in its effort to preserve creation for its own sake.
Priestly stewardship is quick to admit and encourage appreciation of God's wonder and delight in his creation. After all, it emphasizes that the right end and ordering of all creation is doxological, oriented toward the praise of God.
While priestly stewardship sees all creation as the sign and means of God's love, wisdom, and power, it understands that humanity has a special role within God's creation—precisely the role of priest. Commenting on Romans 8 ("We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now," 8:22), C. E. B. Cranfield suggests that the universe is unable to do its part in praise of God unless humans do their part. So faithful people articulate the praise of all creation; they pronounce the resounding and thankful "yes" every grateful creature would utter to its Maker, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Since the stones and trees and cats are not as articulate as we are, humanity praises God on behalf of stone, tree, and cat.
Priestly stewardship also stresses that nature and human society are fallen. Stewardship language can obscure and neglect the great hope of redemption. It can imply that nature or a particular society as we know it is basically in fine shape. Then all humans need do is tend to things as they are, and otherwise stay out of the way of its "natural" tendencies. But all of creation-even innocent "nature"-is awry and in need of redemption. Moreover, creation suffered its fall before it reached maturity and fullness. Christians hope for a redemption, then, that is much more than a return to the Garden of Eden. Fulfilled, consummated creation will be grander and richer by far than the unsullied but also unripened creation of Eden.
In such a spirit of priestly stewardship, the church father Irenaeus poetically anticipated grapevines that would grow each vine with ten thousand twigs, each shoot with ten thousand branches, each cluster with ten thousand grapes, and each grape yielding 225 gallons of wine! He wrote, "And when any of the saints shall take hold of one of the clusters, another cluster shall call out, 'I am a better cluster; take me, and bless the Lord through me.' " Through such a vision lies the way toward what Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard calls "consecrated consumption."
Consumption is by no means necessarily bad. We must consume to live, and we can consume Christianly. We- and all creation—are creatures of a wonderful God, and as Christians inheritors of a bountiful, glorious, and hopeful faith. It is a faith that calls and equips us to act as priestly stewards, preserving and enhancing the other parts of creation given into our care. Doing so, we not only look back to Genesis, but ahead to the coming kingdom of God in Christ. Then lion will lie with lamb, and no child will want for bread, and every act of consumption will be an act of praise.
Rodney Clapp is a senior editor at InterVarsity Press and the author of Families at the Crossroads (1993) and the forthcoming A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (1996). He lives in Wheaton, Illinois.
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Last Updated: October 2, 1996