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Humble ApologeticsDefending the Faith Today$

John G. Stackhouse

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780195138078

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195138074.001.0001

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(p.54) 4 Consumerism
Humble Apologetics

John G. Stackhouse (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Consumerism is an outlook that frames everything in terms of consumption by the sovereign self. After having scrutinized basic convictions of consumerism, this chapter lists the effects of consumerism on the shape of religion in the private and public sphere. In the private sphere, religion becomes viewed as a consumer good; religions themselves become segmented into parts from which one may freely pick and choose according to one's needs, i.e., “Sheilaism.” Religion is selected or constructed by the self for the self, evident even in traditional Christian circles in the practice of “church‐shopping.” In the public sphere, consumerism reshapes religion such that any traits of religion contrary to the consumerist impulse are discarded. The chapter concludes, however, with the hopeful suggestion that because authentic Christianity is countercultural, it has the possibility of revitalizing modernity, rather than merely perpetuating it.

Keywords:   consumerism, convictions, countercultural, modernity, private, public, Sheilaism, sovereign self

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a consumer, everything looks like a meal.

Everything we have discussed so far—the dazzling array of choices that modern pluralism offers up; the doubt regarding any absolute standard by which we can decide among them; and the resistance to Christian proclamation as a message our neighbors don't want to hear—all of these can be viewed under a single category that defines so much of contemporary life: consumerism. Indeed, a great deal of the secularization/modernization problem that has preoccupied cultural critics in the West for most of this century—that is, the theorizing about what happens to traditional religion when cultures become more and more modern—can be expressed through the terms and dynamics of consumerism.1 So it is to consumerism that we turn last to add to our outline of contemporary challenges to Christian apologetics and also, in an important sense, to summarize it.

What Is Consumerism?

From a Christian point of view, there is nothing wrong with consumption itself. Indeed, human beings were created by God with the need to consume: to breath air, to eat food, to drink water, and so on. We need ideas as well as vitamins, company as well as oxygen, excitement as well as space. We are intrinsically consumers, according to the Bible, and God pronounced all that “very good.”

(p.55) What we are discussing here, however, is consumerism: an outlook, a way of seeing things, a way of responding to the world, that frames everything in terms of consumption by oneself.

Increasingly, our culture urges us to see ourselves primarily as consumers. In bygone times, people were defined primarily in terms of their jobs: one forged metal and thus was a “Smith;” one made barrels and thus was a “Cooper.” The first question you might be asked at a party would be, “What do you do?” You would answer in terms of your job—and, usually, not with a verb matching the question of “doing,” but with a linking verb in terms of identity: not “I engineer bridges,” but “I am an engineer;” not “I fly airplanes,” but “I am a pilot.”

This identity through work still marks us today, of course. But increasingly we enjoy defining ourselves in terms of what we do on our own time, when we don't have to conform to the expectations of the corporation or factory, when we can be “ourselves.” We pick clothes, we pick cars, we pick clubs, we pick beverages, we pick entertainments, and we pick companions. We “are” no longer what we do when we're at work, but what we pick, what we consume, when we're at leisure.

Nor does our society encourage us to consider ourselves primarily as citizens or as neighbors—two other traditional identities. Who wants us to act like citizens? Who helps us to do so? As pundit Neil Postman tirelessly has pointed out, our news media don't primarily offer us information to equip us as citizens, but entertainment to keep us interested between commercial breaks. Governments and individual politicians themselves communicate with us to please us and to persuade us to cooperate with them, not to explain what they have done and are doing so as to submit their work to the judgment of an educated electorate.2

“Cocooning” has become the way many of us live when we arrive home from work. Through the magic of electronics, we can now have “home theaters”—which is about as odd a term as a “home opera house” or “home sports arena,” except that we can indeed view operas and hockey games in our living rooms. My wife and I startled our immediate neighbors in two successive Canadian (p.56) cities when they found that, within a few months of moving in, we had actually greeted and conversed with other people who lived farther down the same block. So much for neighborhood in the modern city.

To be sure, lots of people defy these patterns. Lots of people work hard to be informed and to act as citizens. Lots of journalists and politicians try to treat us with respect and to help us vote well. Lots of people volunteer their time to improve neighborhood parks, schools, streets, and safety. The question here would simply be, What's the norm? What have we all come to expect of modern life? Mostly, we are encouraged to act as individual consumers—or, perhaps, as individual consuming families—with no strong ties to anyone or anything else that can get in the way of our free choices and the freedom of other people to market their wares to us.

Consuming thus has become a mentality for us. It is the way we tend to define ourselves and to act in the world. As such, it is no longer mere consumption, but consumerism.

The Convictions of Consumerism

A set of propositions—tenets, one might call them—structures the consumerist mentality.

1. The self is both judge of what is good and the primary beneficiary of what is good. In consumerism, the self considers itself to be sovereign. The self is free to decide just what it wants, and to decide what it wants on the basis simply of what it wants. This is not the tautology it appears (“Doesn't everyone in fact have to decide for himself or herself?”), for one might make up one's mind on quite different grounds: because one's deity commands it, or one's prince orders it, or one's beloved prefers it. In consumerism, one might indeed choose to placate one's god, or obey one's superior, or charm one's lover—but the point is that one is utterly free to choose to do so or not on the basis of one's own values, and no one ought to say otherwise. There is neither coercion nor even obligation involved. “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”

(p.57) This conviction regarding the sovereign self is in some tension with the second tenet of consumerism:

  1. 2. What is good is what the market (of individual consumers) says is good. Some who say this mean “good” here quite cynically. In a cosmos bereft of intrinsic moral or aesthetic standards, all we have left is the financial “votes” of the populace. Others believe instead that the decisions of the market reflect essentially good people making essentially good choices. So the cumulative effect on the market is as good an indicator of “benefit” as we have.

As I say, this conviction does militate somewhat against the ideal of the sovereign self, since the market will listen to a million voices on one side of an issue more readily than it will to the single voice of the dissenter, no matter how loudly the dissenter proclaims his sovereignty. It is not a contradiction, however, at least in the sense that as each of the sovereign selves makes a free decision according to what the market offers at the time, the market registers those decisions and reacts accordingly. The self is then free to choose among the resulting options, and the cycle continues. (In this sense, the sovereign consumerist self is similar to the sovereign democratic self who gets to choose among the options put before it every several years or so—and between elections has to simply cope with the decisions handed down from the higher powers it has helped to appoint.)

There is a further irony here. Consumerism can appeal to two kinds of selves that normally are poised against each other as opposites. The self that is strongly self‐directed thus corresponds to the emphasis in point 1. This sort of self is characteristic of modernity. The bewildering anarchy and anomie of postmodernity typically produce a self that is fragmented and thus it takes its cues from various and ever‐changing social forces and contexts. This sort of self corresponds to the emphasis in point 2. Consumerism thus flourishes in both modern and postmodern environments. Those who know what they want can look for it in the market. Those who need guidance and validation for their various and transient “selves” can look for them from the market. Only the premodern self—the integrated, single self that chooses to be guided by religious authority, (p.58) tradition, community, and culture—is resistant to consumerism, as we shall see presently.

3. All else has value only in light of (1) and (2), and therefore properly can be regarded, disregarded, or manipulated in that light. If the individual encounters something—an object, or a philosophy, or a person—then the individual can elect it or not as he or she pleases. The self is the arbiter of what matters for that self. On the larger scale, the market of individual selves all making their decisions determines the only other level of value. If the market likes it, it remains. If the market doesn't, it disappears—either literally (no one produces such unsellable objects anymore) or figuratively (no one cares about, and so no one informs the rest of us about, the now‐marginalized item). And if something or someone is attractive enough to receive consumerist attention, that individual might well come under pressure to change to suit consumers' desires even better. The alternative is to face what might be called the wrath—and thus excommunication and annihilation—of the market.

To tone things down a bit from that apocalyptic phrasing, what is striking about consumerism in this respect is its almost blithe disregard for the fate of the “losers” in the marketplace. There is an almost infantile innocence in relegating the now‐unattractive or never‐interesting object to the dump. If one were to protest, “But you should care! You should like that thing!” one could expect a sort of round‐eyed, blinking stare of incomprehension. “Well, I don't like it, and I don't care. So that's that.” The value of something is what someone is willing to pay for it.

4. Goods (note the pun) can be bought. Perhaps all goods. In a consumerist mentality, there is a sense that everything that matters can somehow be obtained by commercial means in order to be consumed by the interested self. And perhaps the next step is the obverse of this principle: Everything worth having is a “good” or commodity.

Of course pleasure can be obtained this way. Of course power can be obtained this way. Even truth can be obtained this way, if one is willing to pay enough and locate the right media—experts, informants, private investigators, and files. Beauty itself also can be obtained. One can buy beautiful artwork and display it in beautiful (p.59) homes. One buys beautiful clothes and jewelry to adorn bodies made beautiful by the purchase and use of exercise machines, proper foods and drugs, and the necessary surgery and cosmetics. Even goodness can be obtained by attending the right seminars, reading the right books, supporting the right causes, and choosing the right morals. “Rightness,” of course, is entirely in the eye of the consumer: It might be Buddhist rightness, or Pentecostal rightness, or environmentalist rightness—who else is to say?

These dynamics seem so machine‐like in some ways that the categories of technology, the technological society, or, even more evocatively in Jacques Ellul's French, la technique (“Technique itself,” we might say) have been used to describe us and our culture. What happens to religion, then, and particularly Christianity, in a “technologized,” consumerist culture?3

Consumerism and Religion

In consumerism, first, religion becomes a consumer good—at best. Religion is something that you add to your life to round it out, to fill in a blank or two, to complement the other ingredients of your lifestyle.

A newsweekly magazine recently called me to ask about Buddhist tantric sex workshops. Not being a specialist in either Buddhism or sex, I wasn't immediately sure why the reporter wanted to talk with me. “Well, you're often good at figuring out why something is happening. So why do you think west coasters are getting into these workshops?”

It suddenly clicked. Most North Americans don't know much about Buddhism, of course, and you can't seriously adopt a religion with just a workshop or two. So the reporter wasn't asking about any great wave of genuine conversion to Buddhism since these people weren't practicing Buddhism the rest of the time. Here's what such workshops can offer instead. You can get spirituality and sex without guilt. In tantric Buddhism there is a long tradition of probing the intersection of spirituality and sexuality, yet in that religion there is (p.60) no deity to answer to. So a weekend workshop would be just the thing to perk up a West Coast lifestyle! (I say that, let me make clear, as I reside in Vancouver.)

Second, religions themselves become segmented into items to be picked, and picked over. Traditionally, religions have been offered to us, so to speak, in a “prix fixe” or “table d'hôte” arrangement in which all of the dishes are selected in advance and you opt for either the whole thing or nothing at all. Now we see what Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby has called “religion à la carte.” I want a little Confucianism to organize my life, a little tai chi for strength and balance, a weekend tantric sex workshop for spice, and the twenty‐third Psalm when I overdo things and get into trouble.

University of California sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues interviewed such people, one of whom has now become famous in social science circles as the originator of the type of religion called “Sheilaism.” Her name indeed was Sheila, and she told the researchers how she had put together bits and pieces of various religions in order to construct a way of life that made the most sense to her and brought her the most fulfillment. She didn't claim that she had discovered a path for anyone else but her. It was just what she liked, just what worked best for her. So she called it “Sheilaism.”4

This sort of religion indicates a third theme of consumerism and religion, namely, that a religion is selected, or even constructed, by the self for the self. The proof of a religion is not in its authority, or its historical proofs, or its miracles, or its culture‐shaping wisdom. The proof of a religion is not what it has done for peoples and cultures across the millennia. The proof is what it says to me and what it does for me. Religion thus becomes both “do‐it‐yourself” and “do‐it‐for‐yourself.”

We need not pick on our friends in la‐la land, however. Across our society, people are looking at religion as something they can select or reject as consumers. Christians themselves move to a new city and immediately embark on the quest to find a new church. In the vernacular, they go “church‐shopping.” They investigate with what amounts to a shopping list: good preaching, good child care, good music, and so on. Increasingly, the denomination of the congregation (p.61) doesn't matter. The links to one's previous church don't matter. What matters is how the church suits the current needs and preferences of my family and me. Churches themselves can contribute to this mind‐set also by their advertising themselves as “the family church” or “the revival church,” as if they are trying to establish a brand in a congested marketplace.

If, as it has for many North Americans, Christianity has come up short, they can turn to the burgeoning choices on the smorgasbord of contemporary religious pluralism. Whole religious traditions are now available as never before, whether Hinduism, Sikhism, or Islam. And parts of them can be selected to suit one's own desires and agenda: perhaps Sufi mysticism in best‐selling collections of the poetry of Rumi; or the popular Hinduism‐Lite by way of Transcendental Mediation in the teachings of Deepak Chopra; or a lovely candlelit Christmas Eve service when one tires of the frenzy of Yuletide commercialism.

To be sure, North American culture has encouraged a kind of consumerist approach to religion for a long, long time. As historians have noted, since the disestablishment of state churches in the eighteenth century (in the United States), or nineteenth (in English‐speaking Canada), or twentieth (in Quebec), all religions and denominations have been “on their own” in the religious marketplace to attract what support they could. The once‐ubiquitous, if now almost vanished, “church page” in the weekend newspaper customarily contained a box with the publisher's gentle and interestingly nonspecific exhortation, “Attend the Church of Your Choice.”

Religion, furthermore, is an intensely personal matter. And all religions prize individual integrity, the voluntary embrace of the religion by each person, however much cultural expectations and norms frame that decision. So there is an irreducibly individual and volitional element in authentic religion.

Under consumerism, however, everything that does not fit through the window of personal choice and self‐fulfillment simply does not appear. Tribal traditions, denominational loyalties, ethnic histories, and community responsibilities can all be shucked off in the name of “it doesn't work for me.” Priests do not have any intrinsic (p.62) authority, but are employees hired to provide certain services on terms that suit the clients—or they are fired. Religious communities—whether a Muslim mosque, a New Age study group, or a Roman Catholic parish—do not deserve any loyalty that lasts beyond their meeting the needs of the individual participants. Once the individual consumers no longer enjoy what they want, they move on.

Indeed, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow has shown how the decades‐long trend toward forming small‐group fellowships—a way of meeting that was supposed to make up for the lack of strong social bonds among consumers of religion—has not always resulted in what was promised. Small groups can be just as ephemeral as consumerism would suggest. Once they no longer work for a participant—perhaps there's an unpleasant conflict in the group, or someone finds another member obnoxious, or the group just isn't as interesting anymore—she is free to take her leave at any time, and too many leave at the first sign of trouble. (For the record, it is important to note that Wuthnow found that many small groups do persist through unhappy times to provide a lasting community for those who persevere.)5

Ironically, then, when religions are processed through the machine of consumerism, they end up reinforcing the deep secularity that is pervasive in modern society. Whatever the actual beliefs this or that person might hold regarding God, the supernatural, the transcendent, and so on, the actual ceiling of decision making and accountability is low indeed. I pick the gods I want; I pick the rules I want to live by; I pick the rituals that suit me best. No higher authority and no higher power tells me what to do.

All of these themes characterize religion in the private sphere of contemporary life. That is the sphere to which religion has largely been relocated in modern times. When it comes to public importance, religion has nothing useful to say from a consumerist point of view. Indeed, genuine religions are a threat to the values and order of consumerism. They are an enemy to the consumerist ethos.

How so? Religions tend to tell people that there is more to life than buying and selling. Religions, even attenuated ones, tend to encourage people to lift their eyes above the roofline of the shopping (p.63) mall, to listen beyond the din of the television commercials, and to plug into something more serious and substantial than the Internet. Worse, religions tend to bind people together and to encourage them to take their cues in life from texts, traditions, and teachers that often contradict the imperatives of consumerism. Hindu asceticism, Amish traditionalism, Islamic teetotalism—these are just particularly clear examples of religion getting in the way of full‐bore consumerism. These “lumps” of religious people sticking together for religious reasons impede the free flow of advertising to the atomized individuals who are most amenable to consumerist manipulations. They are literally countercultural, and thus a menace to consumerism.

Thus consumerism tries to co‐opt religion, to make religion fit into consumerist patterns and convictions. What it cannot make fit, it then opposes—with ridicule from comedians, loss of privilege from governments, and ruthless counterprogramming every hour of every day. One doesn't have to imagine paranoically an actual conspiracy of arch‐consumerists, of course. One simply has to see the way modern life tends to flow, and what consumerism cannot carry along in its current, it tends to erode.

Consumerism is, of course, not at all confined to capitalist or democratic cultures, and to discuss it is not to implicitly deride either capitalism or democracy. China, Cuba, Russia, Singapore, Egypt, and Zimbabwe all manifest powerful signs of consumerism. It also is not a new challenge in our own civilization. To regard everything and everyone simply as commodities that might be selected for one's own enjoyment is an attitude manifest throughout history especially by the powerful.6 Consumerism as a widespread cultural phenomenon is simply most obvious and advanced in societies that are most prosperous and individualized, and thus it is most obvious and advanced in our own.

It is more than a little ironic, in this regard, that Marx saw religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to act as the opiate of industrial capitalism. To be sure, modern Christianity has often served merely to facilitate and legitimate forces that were, at root, antithetical to human flourishing and to Christianity's own ideals. (p.64) Christian preaching in the modern world has often sought to keep the poor, the female, and the enslaved in their “proper stations.”

Yet, as has been the case precisely with the poor, with women, and with the institution of slavery, it may be that authentic Christianity can continue to provide the smelling salts to awaken cultures rendered somnolent and subservient by the blandishments of modernity. To that possibility we now turn.


(1.) For some helpful introductions, see the following: Rodney Clapp, ed., The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1998); Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World or, Why It's Tempting to Live as if God Doesn't Exist (Grand Rapids, MI / Carlisle, Cumbria / Vancouver, BC: Eerdmans / Paternoster Press / Regent College Publishing, 1998); David Lyon, The Steeple's Shadow: On the Myths and Realities of Secularization (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).

(2.) Alan Bulley, with long experience in the Canadian federal civil service, comments: “Government has so completely adapted to the consumerist model that it describes Canadians not as citizens but as ‘clients’ for its suite of ‘services.’ Then the bigwigs wonder why no one is happy with the services ‘delivered’—because choice is limited by federal or provincial monopoly!” (personal correspondence with the author, 2001).

(3.) Two major Christian voices in this regard have been those of Jacques Ellul and George Grant: Among many works, see Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); and George Grant, Technology and Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1986).

(4.) Robert N. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 220–21.

(5.) Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community (New York: Free Press, 1994).

(6.) Harry Stout observes that eighteenth‐century English Christians faced challenges in similar terms (our experience is a more advanced version of theirs): “Increasingly the logic and structure of the marketplace came to stand as a shaping metaphor for society in general. . . . As the public sphere grew more impersonal and abstract, the private self gained proportionate importance as the repository of spiritual experience. . . .

“ . . .The critical issue was. . .how to take the old verities and present them through new voices that would speak to the changing circumstances of eighteenth‐century society. How, in a word, were they to make religion popular, able to compete in a morally neutral and voluntaristic marketplace environment alongside all the goods and services of this world?” (Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991], xvii).