Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Consumer and Christmas

I was reading Ann's excellent post over at What Is Your Only Comfort? blog on Christmas consumerism, and felt the pangs of good old Calvinist guilt. Which is a special kind of guilt only Calvinists can experience. You see, according to certain theories of economic development, Calvinism was instrumental in fostering the nascent capitalism of the Renaissance. So when I purchase things, I help the economy, keep people employed, and enjoy the blessing of God's good earth. But then I hear that consumerism is a bad thing. It depletes our environmental resources, it denudes our land with rising trash levels and pollution, and it increases one's worldliness and lack of dependence upon God. All of this comes to an exquisite, agonizing point somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I remain a dedicated consumer, I uphold my Calvinistic mercantile heritage, but I feel guilty over the economic exploitation of Jesus. If I refrain from gift-giving, I annoy my relations, violate the American economic religious commandment of "Thou canst not have enough," and risk being tarred and feathered as a humbug, a kill-joy, etc. This is the double guilt of the Calvinist at Christmas. The bottom line: you can't win.

Which reminds me of a famous quote by Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto. "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind." What would those conditions be Herr Marx? He sums up the modern world with great prescience: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country...It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In a word, it creates a world after its own image."

That's a pretty accurate description of our society, amazingly written in 1848! I've seen wristbands and bumper-stickers asking, What Would Jesus Do? What Would Jesus Drive?, but maybe we should be asking, What Would Jesus Say About Consumerism? or What Would Jesus Do at Christmas? Oh I forgot, he already gave us the answer to the first question in the gospels. "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth" (Mt 6:19). "You cannot serve God and wealth [Greek: "mammon"]. "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (Luke 18:24). As for the second question, perhaps Jesus would say to us, "Give what you were going to spend this Christmas to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (adapted from Luke 18:22).

Is consumerism the natural result of capitalism, or is it a perversion of capitalism? Since Marx and Engels' secular experiment in communal sharing was such a spectacular failure, is there room for a Christian influenced capitalism? And why do we always ask these questions at this time of the year, instead in July? Perhaps it is because we feel uneasy being wealthy, and celebrating the birth of Jesus by giving other wealthy persons things they probably don't need. What they do need is God, and yet we feel too awkward to mention Him at this time of year. Besides, you can't mention Jesus in Target any more. Happy Holidays!


Blogger Ann said...

Hi Scott,
I spent the better part of yesterday thinking about what was really getting to me about the consumerism-Christmas link. I think I'm so scared of using Jesus to promote other people spending money (which I see as taking the Lord's name in vein) that I'd prefer it if Target and other such stores would take Jesus and Christmas totally out of their marketing program.

Instead, it seems as though Christians are demanding that stores celebrate Christmas - thereby asking them to use Jesus in such an obscene way. Am I just super pietistic about all this or does it seem like American corporate culture is making a mockery out of the sacred observance of Christ's birth?

12:27 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

Absolutely. The corporate moguls sense a rising evangelical tide, and want to cash in. I get the same icky feeling when I go to a "Family Bookstore." I have this urge to make a home-made whip...

Not being the Lord, of course, I exercise discretion and leave quietly. ;)

12:41 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

You're right about "family bookstores" and the sneeking suspicion that they might be more about money than about God.

I confess that I wish so much to be full-time in the local church (currently I have to have an additional job to help pay the bills) that I catch myself thinking "if only I could hatch a great idea, I could make money selling it, then I could spend more time tending the congregation."

Usually, the ideas have to do with God or spirituality of some sort (since, as one might imagine, that's most of what I spend my time thinking about). I quickly realize that I'd just be using God to make money for myself - even if the money would be used to allow me to be a full-time pastor.

So where does one draw the line? Making money of WWJD wristbands - is that okay? Or Jesus t-shirts? Or how about books? Is it more about making the money or how it is used? If it's used wisely does that make it okay?

The intersection of faith and money occurs at many points, not just Christmas.

3:07 PM  
Blogger A Christian Prophet said...

Very interesting! Over on The Christian Prophet blog today the Holy Spirit speaks favorably of capitalism.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

Don't want to shock everyone, least of all you dear Ars, but I think Calvinism was the forerunner of present economic rationalism (you know - that exports jobs to China and India; drives prices down; gives us the working poor and health and education systems that cry out for money - and knows nothing of accountability and responsibility)via the industrial revolution and those dark satanic mills. Once upon a time, we will one day tell our grandchildren, there was full employment, a completely free medical and dental system for all (if you lived in Queensland, Australia from 1948 to 1974)and most people attended a well-funded state school.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

This is a bit tricky, and the source of many academic battles. Of course, Max Weber is the name attached to your thesis. There is an interesting alternative thesis which states that Calvinism was not the forerunner of capitalism, but merely fostered and encouraged a developing economic system. I tend to agree with that. Weber and Calvinism, as one author states, have been much caricatured, and the truth lies in the middle. Here is an interesting article:
which says basically the same thing. My belief is that Puritans and other early Calvinists, would be horrified by our materialism and our lack of concern for the poor. Two years ago I read Simon Schama's excellent book, "The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age." He asserts that the Protestant work ethic created both sanctioned wealth, and anxiety over that wealth.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Capitalism can be separated from consumerism. The former is an economic system which even the Pilgrims lived out in a primitive form, long before there was any Target around. (Quick, off-the-cuff definition of capitalism: private property+free trade+savings as investment) The latter, consumerism is a social phenomenon and a pattern of individual priorities. Capitalism is a-moral, not immoral. Like anything, it can be exploited for evil.

I agree with the fact that there is a lot of consumerism - people trying to fill the spiritual hole in them with stuff. This even happens among Christians. I saw it happen in the "family bookstore" I used to work at...

As far as over-abundance goes, I think Scripture allows for rejoicing in abundance as long as the poor are also provided for. See Deut 14:22-27, Isaiah 25:4-6.

My question would be, can we not feast until poverty is ended? Once we have invited every one needy that comes across our path to our Thanksgiving table, should we cancel the holiday because there are more needy in Africa?

10:15 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

Excellent points, Steve. I agree with your distinctions. I think that we may feast in joy without guilt if we have a good conscience toward those in need, and are actively supporting ministries and mission to bring both food and Christ to the world. America may be hated in many places at the moment, but it has a remarkable record of generosity to other nations.

I think capitalism as an economic system has many flaws and blindspots, but there isn't a viable alternative, and if Christians help ameliorate some of the sufferings caused by market forces, etc., all the better.

1:29 PM  

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