Monday, July 30, 2007

Consumer Culture

Here is a thought-provoking article by freelance writer Dean Abbott concerning our consumer culture - which has spilled over from the secular world to the church.

I'd like to flesh out this idea more when (and if) I get time to ponder and research a little more, but I do think this is a crucial piece to the puzzle of what is happening to the American scene of Christianity - including our little microcosm known as The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

Commercialism is at the center of our culture, but isn't often addressed by the Church as something that is hostile to the Gospel.

In his novel Hammer of God, Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz tells the story of a small rural parish in Sweden from the early 19th century to the mid 20th century. Breaking the story into three novellas, Giertz captures three "snapshots" of the major cultural movements that challenged the church's proclamation and confession: modernism, liberalism, and pietism.

I believe that our own era is in many ways similar - and yet, these specific -isms have evolved into our own culturally unique landscape within which the church does battle. I believe modernism (the rejection of the supernatural) has developed into postmodernism (the rejection of the objective truth). I believe liberalism (a philosophy of change for change's sake) has refined and focused itself into feminism (a rejection of the traditional roles of gender and sex - which includes not only a challenge to tradition regarding women, but, I would argue, includes the homosexual/trans-gender movement as well). As far as pietism goes, it too has transformed. Today's religious emotionalism is in some ways similar to the heart-tugging of Spener and Wesley - and yet it is also different. Today's pietism is driven by a certain faddishness - a desire to be "cool" and accepted by one's peers. Hence the highly emotional and subjective nature of "contemporary worship" that seeks to co-opt a hip rock and roll ethos, of tattoos and body piercings, a youth culture of t-shirts and bumper stickers, of bobble-heads and trinkets that seek to rebel against tradition by an appeal to American sales jingles and slogans, the culture of the mall - in short: commercialism.

Salvation Army bands have been replaced by praise or rock bands. The mourner's bench has been replaced by the theater seat with cupholder. The 19th century Methodist minister's rejection of the cassock and surplice in favor of a coat and tie has moved on to either the American business uniform of Dockers and a golf shirt, or to a more niche market of t-shirts, jeans, leather jackets, and biker or cowboy attire for the "worship leader" of the 21st century non-denominational megachurch.

I think Mr. Abbott is spot on. Consumerism is a huge force in modern Western culture - and it has largely taken over conservative Christianity - even confessional Lutheranism which has its own form of t-shirt culture.

The only way to reject commercialism is a concerted movement toward traditionalism. Unless cassocks start having designer labels or rock bands on them, the best way for clergy to fight back against commercialism is to revert back to traditional attire, rubrics of worship, and churchmanship. His vocabulary and point of reference should be the church, not the mall. He should seek guidance from the Scriptures and confessions, not from the latest books about colored parachutes and moved cheese. He should be shaped by bishops, not CEOs. The Gospel of the Word of God as confessed through the ages ought to shape his mind and theology - as opposed to the science of marketing: how to get people to buy laundry soap and hamburgers. Using marketing to "sell" the faith inevitably leads back to the days and methods of Tetzel - which is not a very satisfying model of ministry to Lutherans (at least those Lutherans who actually have a clue who Tetzel was).

When asked if his church is Ablaze!(tm), the traditionalist LCMS pastor probably ought to be completely puzzled, scratch his head and say, "Well I hope not. We do try to keep the hot coals in the thurible."


Joe Greene said...

I agree with you and look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this subject. Not just commercialism as it affects the Church but it's affects on our culture as well.

Joe Greene said...

I followed the link at the original article to the author's blog. Great stuff there, including a series on public education and a post on Christian education.