On how consumerism changes religion

David Taylor just had to go and post a review of Vincent Miller’s 2008 book, Consuming Religion. As if I wasn’t depressed enough already at how my reading schedule appears utterly doomed for this year, I now have to add another book to the wish list. A few quotes from Taylor’s review (yes, they’re long, but worth reading, and obviously quite a bit shorter than the actual review which is also worth reading):

    Consumerism may fight against religion. But it is commodification that disarms it. As he puts it, “When consumption becomes the dominant cultural practice, belief is systematically misdirected from traditional religious practices into consumption . . . Traditional practices of self-transformation are subordinated to consumer choice” (225) . . .

    The “use” of Mother Theresa illustrates these dynamics. Her indelible image—the cracked outline of her face, a preternatural smile, tenderly touching an untouchable—gets printed on t-shirts. These t-shirts get mass-produced and worn by young Americans “inspired” by her life. They recite her words. They appeal to her work to denounce, say, two-car-garage lifestyles and the war in Iraq. And they do this while drinking Kenyan coffee and listening to “World Music” on their iPods . . . Religious materials, in short, are “thrown into a cultural marketplace where they can be embraced enthusiastically but not put into practice” (28) . . .

    In Miller’s account, the story begins with Karl Marx. Marx showed how laborers were alienated from the fruits of their labors. This, in turn, led to an increased “de-skilling” of workers, who then more easily “employed” by engineers to perform tasks for which they received “wages.” In time a shift ensued in the mode of human existence from being to having. The suburban single-family home epitomized this shift. Here we had a family supported almost entirely by wages. The family, under this rubric, shifted from managing production to managing consumption. Such a family, for example, now collects “devices” in order to make their lives easier. But for Miller the result leads to increasing isolation from neighbors, who are no longer felt to be needed. Wages and benefits replace “extended family and community relationships as the source of security” (48) . . .

    What advice does Miller offer the reader looking to resist assimilation to consumerism? The first task, he argues, is to name commodification as a problem. After this one can choose a number of creative activities. One can find out where their food comes — Chiquita bananas or breast of chicken. One can take up a craft and gain an appreciation for the labor costs that are involved. The liturgy, at least of the more “high” churches, can serve to reinforce the interconnections between doctrine and symbols and thus aid in the stabilization of their meanings.

After a few criticisms of Miller’s use of sociology over hard data and some hasty comments on the arts, Taylor concludes his review:

    In the end, however, I was very encouraged by Miller’s book. He offered an acute picture of the dynamics of a consumerist culture. The problem is not simply that our culture produces narcissistic individuals who increasingly find themselves isolated from neighbor and nature. The problem is the way that the dynamics of commodification make it easy for us to “consume” religion.

Read Taylor’s review in full via this link.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

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