For the last four years I have extensively taught, spoken and written about the effects of consumerism on our culture and our faith. I have found that one of the main questions that people ask me is “Is consumerism evil?”. My answer is no. Taken at its most basic definition, a consumer is someone who buys goods or services.
If I were to start a business selling hammers, I obviously would need to communicate to the public as to why my hammers are worth buying. I would need to extol my products virtues. I would need to communicate that they are well made and that they perform the function for which they were designed. This type of basic consumerism sells products on the basis of the merits of their function.
However today most of the advertising that we encounter sells products not on the basis of their function but rather applies various layers of meanings that appeal to human needs, wants and desires; we are now dealing with what I term hyper-consumerism.
Advertising today, uses sex, maternal instincts, our need for community, our desire for power and status, our need for meaning, and even our religious desires in order to coerce us to buy. Many of these messages are placed in advertising without the consumer ever being aware. To me this is the kind of hyper consumerism that I abhor.
One of the reasons that we have arrived at this point is that our secular culture no longer has a greater authority to appeal to in order to bring restraint upon our consumer desires. Fascinatingly throughout history Christians have developed various checks and balances in order to keep consumerism from running wild.
During the middle ages the Northern city states of Italy began to prosper immensely. This new found wealth created a problem of conspicuous consumption. In order to deal with this problem a lay lead movement begun called the Humilitari, in which ordinary people took on various vows of poverty in order to avoid the spiritual negatives that came with economic growth.
A similar movement began in The Netherlands as the spice trade brought incredible wealth to the Dutch in the 17th century. The Dutch Puritans encouraged enterprise and trade, yet also instigated various practices in order to ensure that their wealth did not erode their spirituality.
However today in our secular culture, there are no bigger stories that point to a reality beyond consuming goods and experiences. We are even encouraged to construct our identities from the things that we consume. In the past faith shaped consumerism, today consumerism shapes faith.
Faith gives us resources that point beyond a reality that is only shaped by consumption. As believers we can offer messages of meaning that are not just ruses to sell more stuff. Therefore it essential that we as Christians again need to explore creative ways to live faithful lives in a culture of consumerism.