Navigating the Aisle

Scantily clad supermodels flash seductive stares and tabloids prophesy the next apocalypse as we are funneled through a modified version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. The magazine resting next to the super-sized peanut butter cups promises we can shed ten pounds in the next fifteen minutes. Have we entered the seventh heaven of hedonism? Or are we merely among the 90 percent of American adults who each month pass through the gauntlet of temptation known more commonly as the grocery store checkout line?'

The setup is virtually the same in every grocery store. Multiple rows of magazines guard the gates of the aisle: People, US Weekly, Time, and the like. The majority are geared toward women, who compose over 70 percent of the primary foot traffic. The other side, if it does not also display magazines, often features a kiosk of individually wrapped snack foods and drinks to satisfy the urges worked up by this latest shopping expedition.

As we enter this hedonistic gauntlet, on the one side we find a narrow column of impulse items (razors, batteries, lip balm, toothbrushes, aspirin, pens, etc.), which hope to grab our attention in the approximately seven minutes we are likely to wait in line. This is frequently the home of smaller seasonal items, such as Christmas bows and cheap toys, conveniently positioned within arm's reach for your toddler in the shopping cart. Farther in, a brightly colored assortment of breath mints, candy, and snack foods begs to be sampled. On the other side rest such scholarly works as National Enquirer and The Weekly World News along with literary tomes by authors like Mary Higgins Clark, Nora Roberts, and Dean Koontz. Bellied up to these are columns of "micro mags" with the latest findings on alternative health remedies, recipe ideas, and astrological pontifications, along with the all-important TV Guide and Soap Opera Digest. Increasingly, we can also find the makings for a one-stop date as new-release videos and DVDs are offered in package deals with popcorn.

In the checkout line we find a cornucopia of media and impulse items, but it is not simply a hodge-podge of consumer goods. The checkout line conveys a message, a message of what it means to live the "good life."

Buying the "Good Life"

Shopping today goes far beyond the purchase of life's necessities. In a study of consumers, John O'Shaughnessy probes behind the process of buying and selling: "Buying is a purposive activity, motivated and directed by the belief that the consequences of buying make life that much happier." He concludes that consumer buying "tracks certain goals that reflect a vision of the good life."

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Businesses are more than happy to market their products as the road to El Dorado. The Holy Grail of the good life is reduced to a cost-efficient, high margin of return. Market research has analyzed our desire for the good life, then commodified, packaged, and mass-produced it. We are induced to believe that these products will provide us the good life, so that we will run right out to buy them.

There is, however, one more important step. Who decides what the "good life" means? What are its goals? Peter Berger's socialization theory offers some assistance: We influence society and society influences us. Unless one lives in an isolated bunker somewhere, the media has the upper hand, if only by the sheer bombardment and saturation with messages. In the case of the individual versus corporations, usually the latter win. So we begin with a look at what the checkout line projects as the good life to its unsuspecting passers-by. Our discussion mimics the manner in which we encounter the checkout line itself. Starting with the experience of the cultural text, the grocery store checkout line, we become more critically aware of how the text promotes particular messages, versions of the good life. We can then begin to question what truly constitutes the "good life" from a Christian perspective. Finally, we initiate a preliminary response, a guide for being Christian cultural agents.

Browsing the Rack

Approaching the checkout line, there is the uneasy feeling that we, the customers, are in reality the ones being browsed. Dozens of digitally enhanced sirens call to us with hyper-real eyes (and breasts) as we strap ourselves to the masts of our shopping carts. Their songs are enticing: "Less Stress, True Bliss," "Make Him Ache for You," "Feel Happier in 24 Hours or Less," "11 Ways to Guarantee Financial Success." Many a person has crashed on these rocks, and quite happily too.

Judging from their headlines, these magazines cover about seven areas—a veritable "mini-summa" of our culture—that compose the good life, roughly similar to the goals mentioned by O'Shaughnessy. They include sex, beauty, health, information/knowledge, convenience, wealth, and celebrity. These categories have some overlap, but each one carries a distinct message.

The Good Life According to the Gospel

What does the checkout line have to do with Jerusalem? In one sense, they overlap and compete, for there is a Christian vision of the good life, what we may call the good life according to the gospel. If the point of the good life presented in the checkout line is to become like a celebrity (or at least to dream about it), then the goal of the good life according to the gospel is to become like Jesus.

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What emerges from a biblical consideration of these seven areas is that most of them (with the exception of celebrity and perhaps convenience) have their place, but only a place. Sex, beauty, health, information, and wealth can all be good things in the good life of the gospel, but not if they are elevated too highly. The checkout line puts our loves out of order, an indication itself of how culture can have a subtle impact on our idea of the good life. In contrast, the good life envisioned by the gospel relativizes what the checkout line sets forth as essential. Most important are relationships, primarily to God and then to others whom he has made and the creation in which he has placed us! We must keep the main thing the main thing, that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting peoples' sins against them (2 Cor. 5:19). Reorienting ourselves toward the good life of the gospel acknowledges with Augustine the importance of rightly ordered loves. Only with such a focus on the gospel can the truly good life come to fruition. Here we may declare with the psalmist, "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8).

"In" the Checkout Line But Not "of" It

So where does this vision of the good life take us? Many Christians and non-Christians alike have expressed concern over the explicit images and headlines of checkout-line magazines. Consumer groups like the American Decency Association and Morality in Media have accused stores of indecent exposure. In response, Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the U.S. with more than 3,000 stores, placed covers over the more racy magazines. Such a step, though significant, can easily blind us to the deeper and wider troubles. The explicit sexuality of the magazines is only one part of the checkout-line good life. The subtle temptation of the easy road to financial independence, the instant gratification of a gluttonous sugar rush, and the juicy dish of Hollywood gossip are all dangerous, and no less so than the damning rocks of unrestrained sexuality embodied in the digitally enhanced, scantily clad supermodels calling our names. These other sirens call us just as seductively—though perhaps not as visibly—and require just as much diligence on our part. Christians need to realize the impact that the media has on us, even in the grocery store. Just like the Matrix, it has us; it is all around us. Being wise as serpents means that we understand what the checkout-line good life proposes and commit ourselves to seeking the good life that Christ himself makes possible and embodies. Though we find ourselves "in" the checkout line, we must not be "of" the checkout line.

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Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2007. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

Related Elsewhere:

Also see the interview with Everyday Theology's main editor, Kevin Vanhoozer, on our site today.

Everyday Theology and an excerpt of the introduction are available from and other retailers.

Daniel Williams wrote about Augustine's view of "The Good Life" in our September issue.

Other articles on books are available on our site.