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?