Some of you who have heard me speak about my book the Trouble with Paris will know that the book came out of me asking the question “What is a theology of Paris Hilton?”. I realised that Paris Hilton captured so much public attention because she was a cultural symbol, an icon of our age. But what was she was symbolizing? The answer is a number of things. But I want to focus on one of them. Paris Hilton is a symbol of the almost religious power of luxury in our culture.
Ever since civilization began, symbols of affluence and power have been sought by humans to make powerful statements about ourselves. But the last ten years of our history has seen luxury and luxury items elevated to a level never seen before in human history. This effect has been seen across the globe in democracies, capitalist economies, communist regimes, and Islamic Republics. What we have seen in the ten years of economic boom is if you like the democratization of of luxury. I am not saying that everyone has access to luxury goods but that rather the world, the rich, the middle class and the poor, have been exposed to the luxury bug and thus there has been a flattening of the desire for luxury goods.
I think of the missionary I spoke to who works and lives in a slum in South East Asia who tells me about the desire for luxury goods (albeit bootlegged) amongst his neighbours, I think of the African Pastor that I spoke to recently after one of my talks, who was asking me how can he protect his congregation from the corrupting desires of materialism, I think of the prayer letter I read this morning by a missionary secretly working in a communist state, who asked that supporters pray for the young people of the country that he is serving in who are growing up with no moral framework because their parents are too busy working to earn money for consumer goodies.
So what is behind this global desire for Luxury? I was recently listening to a forum on the BBC world service and one of the contributors noted that Luxury today operates as a kind of religion. Luxury items are items or services that have been overlayed with deep sociological, cultural and even mythological meanings. For example a signed copy of Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan will carry far more symbolic meaning that a signed copy of an album by the Huey Lewis and the News cover band that play Tuesday nights at your local sports bar. Why? Because our culture has deemed that Bob Dylan carries a tremendous amount of cultural currency. Therefore an album by him particularly with his signature, carries far more mythic symbolism. Thus you could say that a luxury item is a totemic symbol. It carries an almost magic quality. By adding a symbol such as the Louis Vuitton logo to a product all of a sudden its status changes. Fashion designers operate as modern day priests or alchemists turning ordinary objects into totemic luxury items.
There are some similarities between the cult of luxury and the mystery cults that existed in the Roman Empire during the time of the early church. The mystery cults were exclusive communities that required a knowledge of the secret rituals and beliefs to join. Naturally they became exclusive and sought after groups to join, they not only gave inititates access to a world of esoteric beliefs, they also created a social differentiation between believers and the rest of society. Thus the purchaser of luxury goods, hopes to join an elite group, they hope to prove their social power. The knowledge of what luxury goods to buy, becomes a kind of secret knowledge, that will differentiate to buyer from the rest of his or her peers. By possessing a luxury item we hope that it will act as a charm, that it will inform others of our standing in the world, and thus our passage through life will be hopefully be smooth and successful. We wish through purchasing and owning luxury items the same thing as the builders of the Tower of Babel wished for, we wish to make a name for ourselves without having to rely on God.
But now many are in a sense of panic; the economic gods of the luxury pantheon seem angry and depressed. They mystery cult of luxury has taken a hit. The luxury items that many have used as signifiers in our culture of symbols, may now be out of reach for many as we lurch towards global recession. Hopefully, many who have been caught up in the cult of luxury will now begin to ask the deeper questions and begin to look beyond the material.