Each day we’re exposed to hundreds of advertisements—TV, radio, magazine, billboard—most of which are telling us that we need more or need to be something other than what we are in order to appear successful. It’s the culture of hyperreal consumerism. Consumerism shapes our sense of identity because it informs us of the meaning of success; it tells us what to desire, what to love, and what to have hope in. It tells us we need clearer skin, whiter teeth, or better shoes and purses. We’re told that we’re just one purchase away from happiness. Consumerism causes us to continually think I need more and that somehow I am missing out.
Consumerism has taken the place of what sociologists call folk religion, which, in many times and places, has determined our identity, directed our actions, and given meaning and hope to our lives. In their article “The Culture of Consumerism,” Gregory Beabout and Eduardo Echeverria note, “Consumerism involves the false worship of another god, the god . . . of materialism.”
Consumer culture, using the emotional connectedness of modern media, has taken on the role of meeting the human need for meaning and order. Rather than simply elaborating on a sense of meaning, as in past ages, consumer culture is now presenting products as having the potential to fill great gaps of meaning in people’s lives. A new car is seen as a projection and extension of a person’s personality—its purchase is a form of self-expression. And, for many of us, the thought of being without a smartphone provokes horror akin to the prospect of having an arm amputated!
It isn’t just about possessions
Consumerism isn’t so much about how much we have—most of us in the Western world are all ridiculously wealthy—but about where we put our hopes and our desires. Some people who are quite well-off financially don’t buy in to the consumerist mind-set. They realize that what they have is from God and doesn’t actually belong to them. They understand that they are merely stewards, holding God’s property in trust. Their self-identity isn’t tied up in what they own.
Others, on the other hand, have relatively little, but their driving desire and hope is for what they don’t have—at least not yet. Like greyhounds racing after a fake rabbit, they run hard after the elusive promises of the consumer culture.
Consumerism tells me that things exist to make me happy, that I can have gratification now, and that products are disposable and are always being updated. Sadly, it’s not just products that we treat this way. We commodify people and often end up using people as products for our happiness. They meet our needs, but they’re disposable or need updating.
In consumerism I learn that I should have my “needs” met now, regardless of who’s hurt or mistreated along the way. Consumerism puts me at the center and makes me think that life is about my own little story, that everything is for my glory. I disengage from the wider stories of religion, history, and a world in desperate need so that I can pursue my own little empire of self-happiness.
The consequences of consumerism
Unfortunately, the sad fact is that a culture that scores high on consumer measurements also scores high on loneliness and dysfunction. Relationships with family, neighbors, and God take time, so in a consumer culture, where time equals money, relationships are secondary.
We can even start treating God and church as products to be consumed. Church becomes an event I watch rather than a community to be involved in. The main measurement of value becomes did I like it, not whether it’s true or necessary. The Bible becomes a book of consumable suggestions rather than the big story of God’s love for humanity. We view God as a cosmic prosperity vending machine to provide us with more rather than as a loving Being who desires a growing relationship.
Our rampant consumerism also has environmental and social implications. Today’s world is consuming nonrenewable resources at an alarming rate. We see the natural world as raw material to be gobbled up rather than as God’s creation to be cared for. We decide on our purchases solely because they’re a bargain, and in the process we forget about our stewardship of the natural world and the dignity of its people. We’re obsessed with economic growth at the expense of fairness and well-being. We care about caged chickens, but we’ve forgotten about the caged people who’ve been trampled in the production-consumer industry.
The spiritual implications
The apostle Paul warned in Romans 12 about conforming “to the patterns of this world.” He wasn’t writing about consumerism per se; he was talking about how the dominant values of a culture have a way of molding who we are. And consumerism is just a modern institutionalized expression of the same basic human selfishness that has always been a major human problem. Christians are called to live with a different hope and remember that we’re shaped for a higher purpose.
Jesus spoke often about the challenge of consumerism. To be sure, there weren’t all the advertisements, brands, cosmetics, and fashion magazines in first-century Palestine, but He explained how material things have a way of taking hold of our hearts and becoming our masters. He talked about how we so easily order our hearts according to the wrong grid, defining ourselves by our “treasures” and ending up slaves to our money.
For example, He told the story of a man who was doing really well by the consumerist “success” grid. His grain crop had yielded such a bountiful harvest that he decided he had to build more barns in which to store it all. Convinced that he had arrived, he prepared to eat, drink, and be merry for years to come. He was in control of everything, it seemed. Except his own heartbeat. The man died that night (Luke 12:16–20).
Death keeps getting in the way of consumerism! You don’t consume so well when you’ve stopped breathing! This is one of the reasons why consumerism puts so much focus on youth and seemingly avoids the idea of death. We might call the rich farmer “successful,” but Jesus called him a “fool.” He had oriented his life to the wrong grid; he had decided that life was all about him. His possessions existed solely for his benefit. Continuing on in Luke 12, Jesus said that life is really about avoiding anxiety about tomorrow, storing up treasure in heaven, and serving others.
The danger with consumerism and materialism is that we order our lives according to the wrong grid. We forget that one day we might be sitting in a retirement home with a bursting bank account but an empty heart. Too late, we might be reflecting on a world of desperate need in which we never made a difference, passionate prayers we never prayed, a marriage we never nurtured, spiritual gifts we never used, a church community we were never part of—simply a life we didn’t live. We sacrificed ourselves to the wrong grid.
How to avoid consumerism
So how can we escape the consumer grid? How can we live in a consumerist culture without being its product? The reality, of course, is that we all consume. We have to buy shoes, clothes, food, cars, and more. But consumerism isn’t so much that or what we buy. It’s the meaning we invest in our purchases.
The biblical story of Daniel highlights how we can live, and even thrive, in a secular consumerist society—in his case, Babylon, an ancient empire that the Bible uses to symbolize false worship. Daniel, a young Hebrew captive, determined in his heart that he belonged to a more significant empire. He prayed with and sought support from friends who had values that were similar to his (Daniel 2:17, 18). He recalibrated his life around God’s purpose for him by praying three times a day (Daniel 6:10). Daniel remembered that everything, including his intellect and his ability to interpret dreams, was from God, and therefore only God was worthy of ultimate glory (Daniel 2:20–23). Daniel reminds us that when we understand that we exist for God’s glory, we see life and the world differently.
Christians are called to give their lives to a different story. Rather than being conformed to this world we are challenged to be transformed (Romans 12:1–3). We will still consume, but we will see every purchase through different glasses. We will find our hope, desire, and identity in Jesus and, ironically, find our life by giving it away—shifting from our agenda to God’s agenda. We will value people, take time to grow, serve, share, and worship in ways that resist commodification. We will live to God’s glory in a world that focuses on the god of Me.
This is the starting point for a significant life that matters now and throughout eternity.