The Divine Commodity
Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity
Zondervan, 2009, 189 pp.,
Jethani is managing editor for Leadership Magazine. Skye's father is Indian and his mother American. Skye is a nickname for his real name (Akash) that means "sky." I found the book entertaining and disturbing. Skye is a natural story teller. He works from Scripture and the life and paintings of Van Gogh, a man who fled the church but not Christianity more than a century ago.
Jethani shows that consumerism is our dominant worldview, the framework from which we understand everything including the gospel, the church and God himself. In each chapter he shows how consumerism has distorted some aspect of our faith. He stimulates our imagination to something better and prescribes corrective actions. The Christian imagination must be free to sing a new song before the world can hear our music. [Page numbers refer to an advance reader copy, and may differ from the published book.]
"Rather than visiting the church, van Gogh said, 'When I have a terrible need of--shall I say the word--religion, then I go out and paint the stars.' Like Vincent a century earlier, I fear the contemporary church is losing its ability to inspire." "This church is a corporation, its outreach is marketing, its worship is entertainment, and its god is a commodity. It is the church of Consumer Christianity." (10-11)
'Has the contemporary church been so captivated by the images and methods of the consumer culture that it has forfeited its sacred vocation to be a countercultural agent of God's kingdom in the world? And if it has, what are we to do about it?" (11)
Living in a consumer society is not the same as adopting a consumer worldview. We must learn to exist in a consumer empire but not forfeit our souls. (12)
1. Slumber of the Imagination
Christianity has climbed to the pinnacle of cultural influence in America but Jesus' power over the hearts and minds of the people is far less evident. (17)
"The challenge facing Christianity today is not a lack of motivation or resources, but a failure of imagination." (18) "Without imagination any solution we conceive will be rooted to the very system we must transcend." (19)
"The emergence of a Christian subculture that parallels the secular culture in every way reveals the captivity of our imaginations." "Whether a new music genre, diet program, or fashion trend, you are sure to find a Jesus version in your local Christian store in time for Christmas." (19) "We have abandoned the vision that Christianity is an alternative way." (20)
Van Gogh's paintings were more than a presentation of reality, a mixture of what the eye saw and what his imagination perceived. (23) "He didn't merely present the world as it is; he represented it as one full of God's presence and love. But to see this world a person needs more than eyes. He or she needs a ray from on high, an imagination awakened and illuminated by God." "He saw the world through an illuminated imagination… (24) "What most people call 'real' is only a piece of reality because the real-real remains hidden to them." "Learning to see the world as it truly is--saturated with the presence and love of God--should be the essence of Christian discipleship…." (25) "We need a childish faith that surrenders wholly to the grace of God and awaits his illuminating touch." (27)
2. The Canvas of Silence
"Like Job and his companions, our words about God are too often definitive, absolute, and proclaimed with an authority greater than their source. We have a certainty about God and his ways that leads us to replace the mystery of faith with manageable spiritual formulas." "…this definitive God usually conforms nicely to our personal desires and politics." (35)
"What makes a consumer society possible is the belief that anything can be assigned an economic value and exchanged…. The act of assigning an exchange value to something converts it into a commodity. As a result, an object's value is not linked directly to what it is but what it can be exchanged for." (36)
"In a commodity culture we have been conditioned to believe nothing carries intrinsic value. Instead, value is found only in a thing's usefulness to us, and tragically this belief has been applied to people as well. Divorce rates have skyrocketed…." Abortion, pornography, prostitution, and child sex trafficking are examples of the commodification of human beings. (37)
"The reduction of even sacred things into commodities also explains why we exhibit so little reverence for God. In a consumer worldview he has no intrinsic value apart from his usefulness to us." "We ascribe value to him…based not on who he is, but on what he can do for us." (37) "Commodification has led most people to view God as a device to be used rather than an all-powerful Creator to be revered." (38)
"In the past, everything had a story, and the context of an item contributed to its value…." "Alienation has conditioned consumers, including the religious variety, to believe context is irrelevant." "As a result, we have alienated God from the larger story of Scripture that informs us of his character and attributes." "Why bother reading what happened long ago in a land far away? Instead, just boil the story down to three applications on a PowerPoint slide." (41-2)
"Our imaginations can throw off the shackles of consumerism if we start to feel the infinite once again….with the silent contemplation of what God himself has created. In a culture that insists on making God small, we can counteract the trend by focusing our imaginations on what is big." "It is recognizing god's eternality that liberates our minds from their consumer inclination to reduce him to a commodity." (44) "Humble silence offers us liberation from our digital cocoons to experience wonder once again." 'Silence can shatter the trivialized deity that has occupied our imaginations and provide God the canvas to begin a new work in our souls." (46)
3. Branding of the Heart
A brand is a collection of perceptions and the goal of branding is to manipulate people's minds to have good feelings when they encounter the brand. A three-pointed (Mercedes) star feels like status. Image is everything. (49) Companies focus more on the brand and less on the product. Consumers value style over substance and increasingly find meaning for life in the brands we consume. (50)
Children know more brands than verses and they didn't have to be taught. (52) Shopping is now the #1 leisure activity. (53) Brands are the new religion and religions have been reduced to brands. (54) Christianity is becoming more a faith of perception than of substance. (55) However, Christ's true disciples are branded not with products but with love, kindness, humility, meekness…." (58)
4. At Eternity's Gate
Church consultants promote secular marketing techniques, but Jim Gilmore, author of The Experience Economy says the church should not try to "stage a God experience." Worship isn't primarily for the people. God is the audience. Aside from offering experiences, "the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel." People long for authenticity. "To the extent that the church stages worldly experiences, it will lose its effectiveness." (73)
We have come to think that transformation is attained through external experience. But this kind of transformation doesn't last. Instead we hide behind a façade of Christian piety until the next experience. (78) We lose the ability to have a vibrant, self-generating relationship with Christ. Our communion with God is made possible by the indwelling presence of his Holy Spirit working from the inside out. (79)
True corporate worship is an external display of an internal reality--the glory of Christ that abides within, events where Christians gather for a worship that may be celebratory, reflective, or even repentant. (80)
5. Wind in a Bottle
Pragmatic church leaders have made church comfortable, entertaining, relevant, and unthreatening, viewing the church as an end rather than a means to an end. The church has become the destination rather than the vehicle. Larger churches can offer consumers more choices and so growth has moved from a by-product to the core of the mission. Size became success. Churches keep adding new features to attract more religious consumers.
Discipleship is no longer individual and personal but programs and curricula. The pastor's task is to mange programs. "This is salvation via institution, paradise via programs." (92)
An unpredictable God is being exchanged for controllable principles. Growing churches publish books and create conferences to help other leaders succeed. The right curricula, principles, and programs will produce the right outcomes. "This plug-and-play approach to the Christian life makes God a cosmic vending machine…." (97)
"Rather than reproducing a leader's ministry methodology, we ought to focus on reproducing his or her devotion to God…." "Real love is something that can only exist between persons." "Unlike idols which can be confined and controlled, God describes himself as a consuming fire--unquenchable, uncontrollable, and untamable. That is what highly institutional Consumer Christianity fails to grasp." (98)
Christian disciplines through the ages have been relationship-focused. The church is not an institution but a community of followers. This kind of church is essential to spiritual formation and to God's mission in the world. Our goal is not to change structures but to foster meaningful relationships in which real ministry happens. What we need is Christ-centered relationships with real people. (102-104)
6. The Land of Desire
"The consumer is schooled in insatiability." (108) Our economic system is based on a lack of self control. The fulfillment of desire has become the highest good. Although this contradicts traditional Christianity churches use similar desire-inducing marketing. Consumer capitalism promotes children making family spending decisions and keeps adults behaving like children. We are lifelong juveniles because maturity means the ability to delay gratification. If the church has adopted the methods of consumerism we should not be surprised at so much spiritual immaturity in the church. "Spiritual maturity is not achieved by always getting what we want." (112)
"Self-denial, the surrendering of immediate desires, is a prerequisite of the Christian life." "But this invitation is noticeably absent in the gospel of Consumer Christianity." "For people fully formed by consumerism, any God that expects personal sacrifice on the level that Jesus does cannot be seen as benevolent." (118) The trials of existence are divine curricula. Beyond that we require doses of the suffering of spiritual disciplines. "Disciplines help us see that our immediate 'felt needs' are not the most important. We are more than our base desires…" (120) "The gospel calls us to embrace the paradox of pain by taking up the cross, and under its heavy beam discover the object of our greatest desire--God himself." (121)
7. A Refuge for Many
The tension in a consumer society is between choice and commitment, between comfort and community. The values of consumerism, such as the demand for choices, always leak into the church. Customization has replaced community. The inspiration is the mall. People choose a church that is comfortable. If it becomes uncomfortable, they can choose another. "Rather than challenging the social divisions of our culture, the church has capitulated to them." (129)
"The idea of community always appears more beautiful than the reality. Real people are difficult, and real arguments erupt. This is the dilemma of community--we desire it, we need it, but we seem ill equipped to create it." (132) "Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives." (135, quoting Henri Nouwen) "Consumerism has focused us so fully on the individual, that we've lost the corporate and social dimension of the gospel." (136)
8. Around the Table
Suburbs promised the convenience of the city with the space of the country but it confines people to their houses and cars. "The suburb is the last word in privatization, perhaps even its lethal consummation, and it spells the end of authentic civic life." "The country has suffered a bitter harvest of individualized trauma, family distress, and civic decay." (142) "Everything about the suburban home design communicates to the passerby, 'Leave me alone!'" (143)
"John Kavanaugh argues that our lifestyle of guarded isolation is the result of grounding our identities in external possessions." (143) We are no longer able to relate meaningfully to others and all that is left is consumption. "We construct a sense of self-identity through the purchases we make and the brands we display." (144)
Social networking sites foster pseudo-relationships by showing a photo façade and identifying our consumer preferences for music, movies, books, and TV shows. We can have hundreds of isolated "friends" without risking any emotional investment.
"Unlike our suburban homes, the door to God's kingdom has no peephole. Unlike our Facebook profiles, God's kingdom has no filter. And unlike our consumer churches, God's kingdom has no target audience." (146)
Real hospitality, the kind that accepts and loves people as they are, is personal, human, and beyond the power of seeker sensitivity and church growth strategy. Only Christ and his community can be hospitable like this. When we lower our defenses and remove our facades, we can begin to be truly present with one another and the gospel can begin to heal.
9. Teaching the World to Sing
By 1990, 80 percent of adolescents around the world recognized the Coke logo. Coke is more accessible and affordable in most developing countries than clean drinking water. Since its beginning the Coca-Cola Company has used messianic zeal and evangelistic strategies to reach its goals. And now evangelicals are returning the compliment. Growth and impact are the products evangelical churches are selling.
Phil Vischer, studying what went wrong after the collapse of Big Idea Productions said, "I had grown up drinking a dangerous cocktail--a mix of the gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream…. The Savior I was following seemed, in hindsight, equal parts Jesus, Ben Franklin, and Henry Ford. My eternal value was rooted in what I could accomplish." (161) He concluded that the Christian life wasn't about impact but obedience.
Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey was more about humility and obedience than impact. This does not mean he wasn't thinking about impact but while the mission was grand, the strategy was humble. "In God's economy the smallest things have the biggest impact. Crowds are often wrong, donkeys are often blessed, and a rejected King conquers the world." (164)
In the parable of the sower, "the sower is neither the central player in this act of creation, nor is he the cause of the growth. The primary agent is God, and all that we sow and reap occurs under his sovereign eye. The sower cannot take responsibility for the results of his efforts; he can only play his part and abandon the outcomes to God." (165) "We work, and the world is changed, but exactly how this spiritual impact occurs remains a mystery." (166)
"This is a perspective largely lost today. Rather than abandoning the outcomes to God, we've been formed to judge a ministry's legitimacy, and our own, based on measurable outcomes." (166)
"Jesus has given his students an enormous task, 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.' It's a mission that matches the scope of his own cosmic agenda. When Christians with a consumer consciousness try to wrap their imaginations around such a large undertaking, they will automatically think about the products or corporations that have impacted the world and emulate the same methodologies. So we ask, How does Coca-Cola impact the world? How does Disney impact the world? How does Starbucks impact the world? And we forget to ask the only question that really matters: How does Jesus impact the world? We have incorrectly made the scale of our methods conform to the scale of our mission." (168)
"Today the church emulates the methods of corporations and business, and many of us never pause to ask whether such tactics are consistent with the ways of Christ." "The overwhelming message of Jesus' life and teaching is that small begets big." (169)
"I have proposed that we respond to the overwhelming influence of consumerism by sowing seeds--silence, prayer, love, friendship, fasting, hospitality." "These are tiny and seemingly inconsequential mustard sees that, when fully grown, become the largest plant in the garden." "The premise of this book has been that the Christian imagination must be free to sing a new song before the world can hear our music." (170)
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