How Consumer Culture Fuels Change

by

Discussion of culture has become a virtual shibboleth in contemporary evangelicalism, left and right. Whether this is itself a biblical imperative or merely a cultural reaction to a time when fundamentalism ruled the roost is a matter for debate. Indeed, one of the perplexing things about the trendy Christian culture vultures is that, generally speaking, when they talk about “culture” they are usually referring to what we might call popular culture, particularly movies, internet, and music, with, more often than not, a youth orientation. “Culture” as the traditions, institutions, and mechanisms by which a society transmits a way of life across the generations is often not what is in view. No, “culture” today means pop culture, and, ironically, that reduces the concept to a function of the marketplace. Music, movies, and the like are not so much reflections of the broader culture under terms of the second definition above; rather, they represent what is and is not marketable in terms of contemporary taste, and, indeed, they do not simply reflect taste but influence it as well.

I would suggest that, if we keep this in mind as we reflect on the issue of culture and the rapidity of change, we will need to reject one of the most common modern clichés: the idea that modern culture is always changing. I am going to suggest that this is not the case. In fact, the culture is not always changing, rapidly or otherwise; rather, rapid change is modern culture. The phenomena of modern culture — the fashions, the music, the celebrities — are changing all the time, but this is a function of the underlying cultural foundation — namely, consumerism. For societies that are built upon consumption, change is an essential component. Intentional obsolescence, the need for markets to be constantly reinventing products, the voracious appetites of us all for the new and the novel — these are the things driving the culture of rapid change. If it were not so, we would all only ever need to buy one television, one dishwasher, one car, have one smart suit, and so on. In fact, however, our dishwashers break down every five to ten years — just as they are designed to do — and while that’s a bit of a pain, it also allows us to replace them with models that, frankly, do the job no better than the old model but which look so much more appropriate for today’s world. Even those transnational aspects of popular culture — youth culture and sport — are subject to the same rapidity of change. After all, what kid wants to wear last year’s fashion? And many sports teams seem to change their shirt designs so often these days that one feels lucky if the shirt you bought at the souvenir shop at the start of the game is still the team’s current design when the full-time whistle blows.

All of this change is, as I have hinted above, a trick of the light. The world may appear to be in a state of permanent flux as an endless parade of dizzying and kaleidoscopic images flashes before our eyes, but this is merely an optical illusion and one that feeds the myth that every generation likes to believe about itself — that this time, here and now, is unique and special, and the rules of yesteryear can no longer be applied with any credibility. Not at all. We may appear to be living in a world of change and flux, but under it all there is a constant culture that changes little, if at all, from year to year — the culture of consumerism that creates the cult of constant change. It is that underlying bedrock with which the church must engage.

How can the church do this? There is only one way so to do: by being counter-cultural. The church, both at the local level and at the level of its denominations, must be the agent of the counter-culture. The “culture wars,” so often considered by the church in terms of cultural phenomena such as political legislation, TV programs, and so on, must be understood at a much deeper level. The church needs to stand against the culture at its very foundations. Indeed, in this the church has no choice, for surely among the most unfortunate consequences of this consumerist mentality are the following, both of which are antithetical to orthodoxy: First, in a world where nothing seems to be solid or secure, when everything is constantly on the move, or dissolving, or breaking down, or morphing into something else, or even changing into its opposite, the very notion of stability ceases to have meaning or significance, and, one might add, the very concept of meaning itself ceases to have meaning. The connection between the way the world is in terms of material consumption and the way the world thinks about truth is complex, but there is a very definite connection. When the aesthetic of constant change is seen to be just part of how the world is, then it inevitably comes to impact more than just how we choose what pair of jeans to buy; it comes to shape our very view of the world as a whole.

Second, in a world driven by consumerism, everything is a product or commodity, and the game becomes that of finding out what the market will tolerate and shaping and targeting your product as necessary. While one cannot be sure that orthodoxy will never “sell’ in such circumstances, one can be sure that it will not sell for very long before it becomes necessary to change it, repackage it, make it more attractive, and help it compete with the new products that are always hitting the shelves.

In short, Christianity, with its claim that truth does not change, that the Jesus of Paul is the Jesus of today, and that God is the great subject before whom we are all objects — this Christianity by its very existence protests the culture both at the phenomenal level, where change, not stability, is truth, and at a foundational level, where the negotiation between supplier and consumer is the constant driving force, whether we are talking ideas or brands of coffee machine.

This is where we need to be careful. In their fascinating book, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter demonstrate in sobering terms how the counter-culture of the sixties ended up not only being co-opted by consumerism but even came to capture a significant part of the market share, with catchphrases such as “No Logo” becoming designer logos. The lesson of the book is that consumerism is one of the most powerful cultural forces ever unleashed, and its ability to change anything into a commodity, even that which stands in opposition to it, is stunning. And what became true for the hippies of the sixties is surely even more of a danger for an American evangelicalism that has always been closer to the American way of life than were the crowds who gathered at Woodstock.

Thus, it is not enough for the church simply to challenge change as change; she needs to think very carefully about how she relates to the engines that drive this culture: commercial marketing, greed, worldly conceptions of power and success, the need to find satisfaction in things other than the gospel. How this is to be done, it is not easy to see, but, to borrow a phrase from contemporary politics, maybe we need to act local and plan global. The local church is surely the most basic unit of counter-cultural resistance. Saying the Apostles’ Creed each Sunday, for example, makes a clear statement to the church and the world that Christianity is not being reinvented during the service. Ministers staying in their charges for more than a couple of years sends a signal that the pastorate is not a career ladder to be climbed at speed, as does (dare I say it?) prioritizing the preaching of the gospel over against offering empty insights into the latest Hollywood blockbusters or Bono lyrics or the political platforms of this or that politician. These latter are at best superficial symptoms of a consumer culture that needs to be resisted, not co-opted.

The rapidly changing culture around us is a sign of the power of the consumer markets to make truth, remake it, repackage it, change it again, and keep on selling it to the punters whose appetites seem indefinitely malleable and insatiable. As a church we need not be so worried by the fact of change, however, as the dark forces that underlie that change. Like the tip of an iceberg, change is not the real threat, which threat really lies below the surface. The church needs to understand that it is not simply called to resist a culture of change that makes everything negotiable; it needs to resist the driving force behind those changes, and that is the consumerism that, worryingly enough, drives our whole economic outlook and thus shapes our lives in ways that many of us are completely unaware.

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