How does consumerism really affect the way we think and live?

I usually don’t tell people that I follow Lorna Jane on Instagram and ask my wife to pick up her catalogues as we walk past the ladies’ active wear store. But I can justify it by saying its part of my consumer-culture research. Sure, it might be good active wear—I don’t really know—but I am intrigued by the spiritual themes that Lorna,  their “Lead Philosopher”, uses to create a pseudo-community and story that goes way beyond an article of clothing. It isn’t simply exercise gear, it’s buying into a community of “inspired”, nourished, self-believers who are living their “most beautiful lives”—or at least that’s the “story” being sold.

Likewise, I’m intrigued when I go to Bunnings on a Sunday morning. People checking their children in for a craft. Dads going to a DIY class. Giving to a community cause and having a fellowship sausage as we aim for a makeover like the one we saw on TV. Why Bunnings? Well, it has far more choice than the little family hardware store that used to be down the road. For many, a trip to Bunnings is a spiritual experience.

Who defines who you are?

We live in what Mark Sayers describes as “hyper-real consumer culture”. It’s the pool we are swimming in. Each day we see more than 3000 advertisements that tell us we need more or that we need to be something different. We are told what to have and how to live a story of “success”. We are shown how to fit in, make it and be the best version of “me”. Consumerism shapes our sense of identity and personality. It tells us what to desire, love and have hope in. You need clearer skin, whiter teeth or better handbags and shoes. We are sold a story that we’re a purchase away from happiness. Consumerism causes me to continually think I need more and that somehow I am missing out.

Where do we put all our hope?

Consumerism is not so much about how much we have (on a global scale, we are all ridiculously rich) but more about where we put our hope and desire. Some people might be very wealthy by our standards but score low on consumerism scales as they realise what they have is all from and for God and doesn’t actually belong to them. Their self-identity is not tied up in what they own. Others might have relatively little, but their driving desire and hope is for what they don’t have yet. Like greyhounds racing after a fake rabbit, they run really hard after the elusive promises of consumer culture.

Is it all about me?

In consumerism, I learn that things exist to make me happy, that I can have gratification now and that products are disposable and are always being updated. Sadly, we don’t only treat products this way. We also commodify people and can end up using people as products for “my” happiness, who meet my needs but are disposable or need updating from time to time. I learn that I should have my “needs” met now regardless of who is hurt or mistreated along the way. Consumerism puts me at the centre and makes me think life is about my own little story and everything is for my glory. I disengage from the wider stories of religion, history and a world in desperate need to pursue my own little empire of self-happiness.

What really makes me happy?

When a culture scores high on consumer measurements, it also scores high on loneliness and dysfunction. Relationships with family, neighbours and God take time and, in consumer culture, in which time equals money, relationships are secondary. People are sacrificed to the idol of economic growth and productivity. Our elderly, who know the stories of our culture but are not seemingly productive, are left behind in the clamour for young, beautiful, celebrity versions of life. The young are pushed to grow up quickly and join the consumable race. When age works against what our culture says is beautiful, we have all sorts of products and procedures to capitalise on the marketed insecurity. We learn how to disengage from the real story of the products we purchase and instead buy into the marketed consumable story. The shoes are no longer seen as the product of a sweatshop in Bangladesh but are symbols and signifiers of who I am and what it means to wear that brand. The price I pay for the product is more about the marketed story than it is the actual value of the materials and people in the production process.

Is consumerism our new religion?

In our culture, consumerism has taken the place of what sociologists call “folk religion”. Folk religion is the thinking grid that we live within to determine our identity, actions, meaning and hope. Consumerism takes worship away from God and puts it on products, celebrities and ourselves. In consumerism, Christianity becomes just another consumer choice, another lifestyle option.

We can even start treating God and church as products to be consumed. Church becomes an event I watch rather than a community to be involved in. The main measurement becomes “Did I like it or not?” The Bible becomes a book of consumable suggestions rather than a big story of God’s love for humanity. God becomes a cosmic prosperity-vending machine to provide me with more rather than a loving Being who desires a growing relationship with us.

What is the end result?

On a bigger scale, our rampant consumerism has environmental and social implications. We are consuming non-renewable resources at an alarming rate and see the natural world as raw material for productions rather than God’s creation to be cared for. We source our products because they are a bargain and forget about the stewardship of the natural world and the dignity of people in the process. Obsessed with economic growth at the expense of fairness and wellbeing. Remembering the battery hens but forgetting about battery people who have been trampled in the production/consumer story. God had a lot to say about empires that dehumanise and crush people.

Paul writes in Romans 12 that we get “conformed to the patterns of this world” without even thinking. Paul wasn’t writing about consumerism but he was talking about how the dominant values of the empire have a way of moulding who we are. Consumerism is just a modern institutionalised expression of the same selfishness that has always been the problem. As Christians, we are called to live with a different hope and desire, and to remember that we are shaped for a greater purpose.

Jesus spoke often about the challenge of consumerism. Sure, there weren’t all the advertisements, brands and fashion magazines but He did explain in Luke 12 how things have a way of taking hold of our hearts and becoming our master. He did talk about how we can so easily give our heart to the wrong grid—define ourselves by our “treasure” — and end up serving money.

Where to next?

So how do we find a way out? How do we live in the world but not be of it? Reality is we are going to consume. We will buy shoes, clothes, food and more. Consumerism is not so much the fact we buy, but rather the meaning we place in the process. The biblical story of Daniel highlights how we can live, and even thrive, in Babylon, an empire that symbolises false worship. Daniel purposed in his heart that he belonged to a more significant empire. He prayed with and sought support from friends with similar values. He re-calibrated around God’s purpose for him often (at least, formally, three times a day) and remembered that everything, including his intellect and ability to interpret dreams, was from God and only God was worthy of ultimate glory.

When we start with knowing we exist for God’s glory, we see life and the world differently.

As Christians, we are called to give our life to a different story. Rather than conformed, we are to be transformed (see Romans 12:1–3). We will consume but with different glasses on. We will find our hope, desire and identity in Jesus, and ironically find our life by giving it away—shifting from our agenda to serving God’s. We will value people, take time to grow, serve, share and worship in ways that resist commodification. We will live to God’s glory in a world that focuses on self. This is the starting point of a significant life that matters for now and eternity.

How can the claim of consumerism loosen its grip on you? What steps will you take to be less influenced by consumerism and how it impacts your life?

Tom Beaudoin. Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy, Sheed and Ward, 2003.

Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, Allen and Unwin, 2005.

Oliver James. Affluenza, Vermillion, London, 2007

Skye Jethani. The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity, Zondervan, 2009.

Tim Kasser. The High Price of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002.

Mark Sayers. The Trouble with Paris: Following Jesus in a world of plastic promises, Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Laura M. Hartman. The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World, Oxford University Press, 2011.

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