Suburban Religion: The Divine Commodity-Skye Jethani

A few years ago, I was asked to teach the beginning of Rav Dessler’s Miktav MiEliyahu whee he discussing the purpose in life. They did not know what they were asking for, and they had never read it, but they knew it was an important book. As we were reading it, they all remarked how it cannot say the things it does- for it invalidates the suburban trajectory of their lives. By the end they did not want to continue, they preferred something more relevant to their lives. Rav Dessler was known to be anti-bourgeois and the sharpness of his thought has receded into memory. Recently, people have however been turning to R. Itamar Schwatz (belevavi mishkan evneh) who screams out for people to abandon their cell phones, suburban homes, and nice clothes and flee into devotion toward God. A shock treatment to remember what life in this world is all about-service of God. But not everyone is ready for such shock treatment.

How do you tell such people that they do not get the world-to-come simply by paying a mortgage in a religious neighborhood? How do tell them that it is not just where you once upon a time learned but also what you study now? Rav Nahman of Bratzlav mocks the material life in his story “The Master of Prayer” But what if one is not looking for reductio ad absurdum, rather insight?

American society has also been witnessing preachers who are questioning the religious value of suburban life. One of these is Skye Jethani The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity .

Americans live in a consumer-driven society. We are consumers. This is our world, and the ethos of the corporate and consumer dominated life has been with us and expanding for well over 100 years. Consumers R Us.

However, there is a difference between being a consumer and having a worldview of consumerism. Consumerism is “a set of presuppositions most of us have been formed to carry without question or critique” (12). It has become the subconscious framework through which we view everything, including God, the gospel, and the church. In Jethani’s view, “it is competing with the kingdom of heaven for the hearts and imaginations of God’s people” (12).

For Skye Jethani, the concept of imagination is key. “Learning to see the world as it truly is—saturated with the presence and love of God—should be the essence of Christian discipleship, or what many call spiritual formation” (13). However, the church is failing to provide an alternative vision that will captivate the hearts and minds of consumers and break the chains that bind their imaginations. Instead, churches are catering to consumers without challenging the worldly assumptions that leave them undernourished and anemic in their faith.
What are Skye Jethani’s complaints about consumerism? How does this worldview stunt our faith?

• It commodifies God. God is not the Holy One any longer, the Great Mystery, but one who nicely fits in with our desires and politics. We value him for what he can do for us.

• It moves us to construct our Christian identity from the brands we consume rather than from what God has done for us in Christ. Christians buy Christian, and thus are Christian. Image is everything.

• It leads us to seek transformation through external “experiences” we consume. This has led to a whole new kind of church and ministry: “And the role of the pastor, once imagined as a shepherd tending a flock, now conjures images of a circus ringmaster shouting, ‘Come one, come all, to the greatest show on earth.’ In Consumer Christianity, the shepherd becomes a showman” (75).

• It has turned the church from an “ocean-liner” designed to move people from point A to point B (connecting people with God), to a “cruise ship” that is, in itself, the destination. One need never disembark because it contains everything the Christian life has to offer.

• It leads to a faith that is insatiable, unable to delay gratification, and averse to suffering.

• It causes us to segregate ourselves from others who are not like us, and to gather in homogeneous communities, causing us to miss the gospel call to a unity that rises above human divisions.

• It moves us to choose lifestyles of guarded isolation and individualism and miss out on the gospel call to practice hospitality, especially toward those we would never naturally associate with.

Is he right that we have become a homogeneous pleasure cruise ship? Have we converted God into a kitchen deity serving human needs? Has outreach and spirituality turned into a form of entertainment? What is the alternative to a fixed commodified faith?

7 responses to “Suburban Religion: The Divine Commodity-Skye Jethani

  1. A little rant: Whatever the sin of consumerism might be, it is not an essential feature of suburbia. Suburbs are these days are generally poorer than the center.
    The same level of expenditure look different depending on the frame and economic class. When people are in the early stages of assimilation and are nouveau riche, the consumption looks particularly conspicuous. There is something about face to face societies that aggravates this sort of complaint. Later in the acculturation cycle many attempt a “modest” shabby chic lifestyle. It takes even more money to make your garden/life look untended, and “natural.”
    One can see the class divisions and inequalities in income very clearly Pesach cruise time. One finds oneself next to some very heimish, simple guy that just put out $75000 to have his family together for Pesach. If he had spent the money on a Jaguar everyone would be shushing ” take a look at…” The complaint of too much gashmiyus is many times a complaint about inequality.
    The idea that the correct way is the monastic, ascetic way doesn’t travel well, because it frequently comes with the religious demand to give more money to the rabbinical class. But the Orthodox rich do support the rabbinical class, so somehow they are exempt. Besides, the majority of Orthodox Jews struggle to pay for tuition and basic necessities. Does R. Schwartz have any clever ideas?
    In short, the musar that “they” are consuming too much needs more context and elaboration.

  2. I don’t think anyone has consciously set out to convert a religion into a “cruise ship” model. But modern marketing techniques have been used in religious enterprises worldwide (sometimes consciously, some without realizing). And no surprise — religious enterprises utilizing concepts like demographic niche, social marketing, and multi-media experience — let’s say, the ilk of Rick Warren’s megachurch — have been very successful in gathering adherents.

    Religious institutions slower to adopt these practices — let’s say mainline Protestant denominations — have lost membership.

    Certainly there are some people who want their religion to be a search — and micro-marketers will serve that niche. But if the vast majority of people want religion-lite, they will gravitate towards the clergy and institutions providing it.

    Even those institutions providing a more sophisticated “religious product” to the niche that wants it, need to market themselves, and make sure their target audience knows where to purchase the product.

    • Howie,
      the vast majority of people want religion-lite,

      Is there any idea of needing to do anything? achieve anything? Is it Ok to confuse God and community? Is there anything one can do that would be not acceptable to do?
      Rick Warren asks for commitment as soon you attend one service. Or is religion just a lifestyle coach?

      Jonathan,
      Which one should be tackled first? Why?

  3. Jonathan Hirsch

    Has any Modern Orthodox leader /thinker attempted to address this issue in a meaningful way ?

  4. Personally, I would be unsatisfied with a religion that confuses God and community; excuses the moral lapses of the big donors; or sees its purpose as simply self-perpetuation. But in the long-term, those characteristcs don’t govern the triumph of one religious stream over another. Rather, Darwin governs (or, if you prefer, marketing governs).

    The more pluralistic our society becomes, the more people will view religions (to say nothing of streams within a religion) as interchangeable. That growing segment will not choose a religion on the basis of the substantive differences between the “religious products”; they discern few real distinctions. Flashiness wins, ease of adoption wins, and the power of brand association wins.

    As religious institutions represent a smaller portion of the educational background of Americans, more will choose a religion (or choose no religion) on the basis of non-religious values. Catholic school attendance, for example, has dropped by more than 50% over the last 30 years (see http://cara.georgetown.edu/bulletin/index.htm). So I would say yes, if people are taught that they need a life coach, many of those students will indeed want their religion to be a life coach.

    Whether this is “good,” and whether we can do anything about it, are entirely different questions.

  5. I think that the underlying issue is that when popular religion loses the ability to critique (or simply refuses to critique) capitalist/ consumerist culture then it will end up mirroring it.

    Above all else, consumerism has promoted the idea that you can buy a prefabricated identity by associating with a brand or a lifestyle. Modern religion has done something similar by mimicking the branding concept.

  6. Where do you suggest I find out more about Rav Dessler and Michtav Me’Eliyahu in English?
    For some reason I didn’t see the Feldheim Strive for Truth! translation when I first searched. I assume that is a good place to start. Others?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s