Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Being kingdom citizens in a consumer culture

My wife sent me a link to this column on urbana.org by Carolyn Carney, who asks, "Are we citizens of God's kingdom, striving for that kingdom, or merely consumers?" Good stuff, so here's an excerpt:

Last year, I was frequently jarred by the television commercials CNN ran during breaks in the Tsunami coverage. While watching horrendous pictures of Indonesia’s poor fighting tooth and nail just to survive, it seemed so frivolous to hawk things such as dishwashers, new cars, beer, and every pharmaceutical product you could name from acne creams to wart removers, and depression medication to ED pills. How could anyone be convinced at this moment in time that the proper use of money was to indulge in something to meet a personal need? But we often go shopping to feel better, don’t we? When we do so, we retreat into our personal world of consumerism and forsake the call of God to be a citizen.

Do we see ourselves as autonomous, free, unattached beings who of course, as Christians, seek obedience in matters of piety, but see little connection or calling to serve brothers/sisters/neighbors around the corner or around the world? We have failed to understand the gospel’s message when we sacrifice becoming a Godly Citizen seeking to bring restoration to all the world for the cheap substitute of being a Morally Good Consumer.

So the next time you are seeking to upgrade your computer or cell phone or iPod or house or car, first ask “Can I live without this?” Then ask, “Why am I seeking an upgrade? Is there something missing in who I view myself to be that I believe will be filled if I have this?”


Consumer culture may well be our generation's biggest challenge to Christian faith. The late Pope John Paul II said that consumerism was an ideology "no less pernicious" than other ideologies like Marxism, Nazism and fascism.

It's interesting how much consumer culture shapes our vocabulary and mental categories. At a publishing consultation a few weeks ago, one of the participants mentioned how Christian publishers have fallen into the habit of talking in terms of "consumers" and "products" rather than "readers" and "books." I'm an editor working with authors, not someone who does "product development" with "content providers." So maybe one way of countering our consumer culture is to recover a sense of personhood - we are not merely consumers, we are people. And our fellow human beings are not merely consumers or target markets or demographic audiences - they are our neighbors, whom God has called us to love.

4 comments:

2e said...

"one of the participants mentioned how Christian publishers have fallen into the habit of talking in terms of 'consumers' and 'products' rather than 'readers' and 'books.'"

In my own work, it sounds funny to think of "book managers" instead of "product managers." But I agree with you: we should repersonate publishing, and most other industries for that matter.

Craver VII said...

“…fallen into the habit of talking in terms of 'consumers' and 'products'…”??

(Sheesh, Al! Were you and Dave Z. in the same meeting?)

“Sales” is not a dirty word. I believe it is beneficial to see publishing in terms of people and books, but also in terms of consumers and products.

At one time, I sold books to a particular market segment: small bookstores. As I developed relationships, it saddened me to see people who were all business-minded with no vision for ministry. It was just as grievous to encounter the ministers with no business acumen. When a little store has one person calling all the shots, it can be fatal to lean too much to either side of the business/ministry equation.

Many of my stores had to close their doors. And I believe the biggest reason is that they did not have a grasp of sales and business administration. Their passion for ministry was not balanced with the practical tools it takes to get the job done, and then to be there to do it again tomorrow.

The body of Christ is made up of a lot of unbalanced folks. The strict numbers people and gregarious clerks need each other. If some people like to say, “consumers and products,” I say let them. Thank the Lord for the Marys AND Marthas.

Al Hsu said...

I didn't mean to imply that sound business practices are not an essential part of Christian publishing. I just find that "consumer" language reinforces the depersonalized sense that people are only defined in terms of what they purchase. It's a transactional view of the human, not a relational one. Indeed, I much prefer the word "customer" over "consumer," in that a customer ostenstibly has a relationship with the vendor. That's why we talk in terms of "customer service," not "consumer service."

When I was in publicity, I developed a theology of publicity that anchored our work in theological notions of witness and kerygma rather than secular categories of marketing and business - we publicized our books in the sense of the old King James phrase "to publish good news," that is, to make something public, heralding the kingdom. That's quite a different model than publicity for the sake of publicizing product. Likewise, when we talk to our authors about having a "platform," we need to anchor our understanding of platform in theological categories of vocation and calling, rather than secular categories of self-promotion or whatever.

All this to say that I'm not against sound business practices. But doing business Christianly means that we do so with our worldview perspective and vocabulary shaped by biblical notions of incarnation, personhood, human dignity, vocation, calling, etc., not secular categories of commodification drawn from consumerist ideology.

Craver VII said...

I also prefer the word “customer” over “consumer.” I just don’t think it is necessary or prudent to completely eradicate “consumer” language from the Christian’s workplace.

If I come across a book concept that I disagree with, I will address it with the appropriate person (and I have), but still do my job to the best of my ability. It would be unethical to sabotage* the company, but impossible to muster sincere enthusiasm for each and every idea we print. The reason I say that is because in those cases it may be beneficial to temporarily adjust my perspective and depersonalize a little bit. (If I didn't occasionally depersonalize, I'd go insane.) Realizing that my personal convictions are not the same as everyone else's and that I’m not always the final authority for some decisions, sometimes I just need to obey the folks God put over me. If I were in publicity, I would be “doing publicity for publicity’s sake,” --just not all the time.

[* Sabotage is a strong word, but just like wandering eyes can be called adultery and harsh words are murder, doing less than our best could be called sabotage.]

I like the direction you’re going; I’m just not feeling like it’s an absolute, and that exceptions should not be condemned.

By the way, I got a brief chance to sit next to Elijah. When he looked at the person to his right, he began to cry, but when he turned left (towards me) he stopped crying. He’s so cool!