This week we’re discussing chapter 3, pages 89-103, of Desiring the Kingdom, where Smith begins trying his hand at cultural exegesis. He states his purpose thus:
I want to give you a heightened awareness of the religious nature of many of the cultural institutions we inhabit that you might not otherwise think of as having anything to do with Christian discipleship. By religious, I mean that they are institutions that command our allegiance, that vie for our passion, and that aim to capture our heart with a particular vision of the good life.
Summary: It’s More Than the Mall
Smith begins his examination of liturgies (identity-attaching, affecting-forming practices) with the easy gimme: consumerism.
Yes, there is the mall, but there is also television (which is all about and serving the purpose of consumerism), and all other forms of marketing – they all revolve around creating felt needs so that they can come to your rescue with their product.
Smith breaks down how consumerism intentionally and subtly cultivates in us affections, allegiances, and identities.
- Something is wrong with me. As in all evangelism, there must be bad news before there can be good news. We are not as thin, beautiful, and well-off as we feel we should be. This, the mall and all advertising tells us, can be fixed, by them, for a cost.
- I need people. We all need and desire community. Shopping is a fun group activity, but it goes beyond that. Being identified with a certain brand or a certain look makes you a part of a tribe, of a set-apart people: the hip, the cool (or the family-first mom or the nerd or whatever group it is you want to be in). Consumerism encourages us to look at the outsides of people to judge them (and ourselves).
- I am seeking happiness. “To shop is to seek and find.” Happiness is what marketing in all its forms is offering, it is what we want, it is what we’re seeking, and buying something is so much easier than finding happiness in trusting and obeying God. But, it’s a false promise and a false happiness, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced and know intellectually, even if we still get sucked into it again and again.
The mall offers a sanctuary and a respite, where we can count on sales clerks greeting us with friendly smiles, where we can lose ourselves in the labyrinth of the racks and find new delights and surprises that – at least for a time – cover over the doldrums of our workaday existence.
One example I often think of when I realize I have fallen into these false liturgical practices is Meg in Little Women, both her trip to “Vanity Fair” and also the story of her splurge and then shame over her household budget with her husband. In both, she was seeking happiness in material stuff, and it came back to bite her and cause her regret and sorrow. So it often does, and so it probably should more often than it does.
Our capitalist economy and production capacity would not have grown and flourished as it has without advertising creating felt need (i.e. lust and envy) for what it is now capable of producing. That is when and why marketing became a booming business. It is so soaked into the fabric of our society, though, that I can’t even envision what a culture without marketing would even look like or how its economy would function. We’re a little too far gone to return to feudalism. :) But, I do think it is problematic that our economy runs on the fuel of the sin of lust and envy, of desire. If, say, the entire nation converted, submitted to Christ, repented, and became quickly sanctified such that envy held no power over us, what would happen to our economy as it currently stands? If a society repenting would cause its economy to collapse (or be completely overhauled), is it a model we should be extolling and trying to spread (evangelize) throughout the world? All that, and we haven’t even touched on the related tangent consumerism promoting debt!
I know the more common (trendy?) moral question to ask right now is about social justice and how our cheap products are sourced, but what if we bring the issue closer to home and simply ask about our own personal sin in the matter? If envy, desire, and pride had no grip in our hearts, would we not be immune to most marketing? Wouldn’t we live in this society differently? Perhaps, even, if we addressed our own problems rather than diverting attention across the globe, the very demand for cheap goods would diminish and the exploitation issue (which certainly is an issue) might be correspondingly diminished as a side effect.
Can you even imagine being counseled or counseling another that we should not shop as a form of entertainment, going without a list, without a need, waiting for a need to be created by all the marketing ploys set in our path? I do think there is a lot of wisdom in that advice, were it to be offered. Yet, I still do sometimes shop for entertainment, shop without a need or an aim (or with a slim excuse for an aim), because, well, it is entertaining (5 children in tow makes it less entertaining, so I do it much less now than I used to out of mere inconvenience, not increased holiness). And being entertained isn’t all bad. But, I think we should exercise caution in our shopping practices in the same way we exercise caution with movie-watching. We need to set a guard on our hearts, that our practices are not pulling our affections out of joint.
Further Book Club Conversation
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Next week: page 103-118