Tuesday, September 23, 2008

George Fox Q&A: "Consuming Christianly" or "being consumed by Christ"?

Here's another George Fox student question. This is from Josh: "On page 76, you ask, "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" While I agree that Christians, by and large, fail to live by Christian standards in the marketplace and global economy is this really the question that we need to be asking? I agreed with many of your conclusions regarding suburbia and how it shapes and defines how we understand and define spiritual vitality; yet, is it not the suburban mindset that would lead us to ask, "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" It seems that a more pertinent question that we should be asking is: How can we be consumed by Christ? In your opinion, what can we do to help people move from consuming to fully surrendering themselves to God, and thereby be consumed by Him?"

Good question and good point, Josh. You're of course quite right, that we should be asking, "How can we be consumed by Christ?" I think you can ask both questions side-by-side. One is more practical, one is more spiritual. My question "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" was in the context of the discussion of consumption. Because consumption is unavoidable, we can't simply say, "Don't consume." We have to consume. So we have to ask how we can do it most Christianly.

And, as Andy Crouch points out in Culture Making, some cultural goods are meant to be consumed and received with gratitude. He writes, "There are many cultural goods for which by far the most appropriate response is to consume. When I make a pot of tea or bake a loaf of bread, I do not condemn it as a worldly distraction from spiritual things, nor do I examine it for its worldview and assumptions about reality. I drink the tea and eat the bread, enjoying them in their ephemeral goodness, knowing that tomorrow the tea will be bitter and the bread will be stale" (p. 92). But he goes on to say that Christians consume far more than we ought, and that consumption should not be our default posture. Consumption is an occasional gesture to be used appropriately, but it is not our fundamental stance toward all of life.

So consumption should not be the center of the Christian's identity, and I think you're getting at the question of whether even using the framework of consumption is in some way capitulation to consumer culture's values and worldview. That's a very good point - Christians should subvert and transform consumer language and find more thoroughly Christian language and vocabulary.

As far as the specifics of your question, "What can we do to help people move from consuming to fully surrendering themselves to God?" I think a starting point is a fundamental reorientation of rooting our identity as citizens of the kingdom of God as opposed to as consumers in this consumer culture. Our primary identity should be as followers of Jesus and heralds of his good news. Once that reorientation takes place, we can begin to resist the idolatry and competing allegiances of our consumer culture. We can employ any number of spiritual disciplines and practices to cultivate a deeper commitment to God, which of course can vary depending on your theological tradition and ecclesial background. (I point to disciplines of creativity, generosity and simplicity, but of course there's much more that could be said than just these.) We can affirm the theological truths that God truly is shepherd and that he is our fundamental source of provision. Trusting God as shepherd is a theological orientation that runs counter to our cultural consumer narratives that we need to provide for ourselves via our own consumption.

One quibble, though, with the language of "being consumed by Christ." Sometimes this comes across as an overspiritualization, that we are so caught up in adoration of Christ that it's all we think about, that he consumes our every waking thought and whatnot. The language of "being consumed" can imply that we're consumed in the sense of something being consumed in a fire - used up, extinguished. I'm not sure that's the most helpful metaphor or image for Christian devotion or ministry. Better, I think, to talk in terms of being equipped, mobilized and deployed for God's good works, not just to be consumed up in some private act of devotion.

When we eat food, we consume it, but not just for the sake of consumption - the food fuels our bodies for activity and good work. When we fill up a car with gas, we consume the gas, but for a purpose, of transportation and getting us somewhere. Likewise, if we are consumed by Christ, it shouldn't be just exercising energy for our own personal spiritual benefit. It ought to be deployed outward, with some sort of missional purpose, that God is using us and our resources for some good ends. Ideally, we should all be fully devoted to Jesus, to "be consumed by him," but in the sense of living actively for the sake of the kingdom, in whatever ways he has called us and gifted us to live.

Well, that's what comes to mind this morning. What do you think? Are there other ways to counter consumer culture and to be consumed by God in positive, constructive ways?


Unknown said...

You wrote,

"I think you're getting at the question of whether even using the framework of consumption is in some way capitulation to consumer culture's values and worldview."

That was exactly the point that I was trying to get at. It seems as if the church continually capitulates to the prevailing culture (the framework of consumption just being one of the most recent examples).

I live in rural Pennsylvania. Just a few minutes away from where I live and worship is a large Amish community. While there are both good and bad aspects to the Amish way of life (the tendency toward legalism and works righteousness being the most commonly cited "bad" aspects), the Amish are undeniably a "peculiar people."

Yet, there is something rather beautiful about the simplicity with which they live. Many of the Amish are extremely wealthy, yet they choose to live in such a way that they go against the prevailing current of our culture.

Don't misunderstand me, I am not advocating that we become Amish. I am simply saying that, by not capitulating to the prevailing consumerist culture, they are vividly showing forth to the world the counter-cultural nature of the Christian faith.

When it comes to how you responded to my question, I would simply like to say two things. First, you suggest that what is required is a "reorientation of rooting our identity as citizens of the kingdom of God as opposed to as consumers of this consumer culture." I could not agree more. Moreover, I greatly appreciate your practical suggestions as to what this might involve.

Secondly, your "quibble," as you refer to it, is spot on. Human language has its limitations to be sure, and my phrase of choice is a wonderful example. It can lead to a gross overspiritualization, to be sure. Your language of being equipped, mobilized, and deployed is far more accurate; and it better conveys the thrust of what I was initially thinking.

Yet, even as I write that, something within me feels compelled to assert that there are many in our churches for whom it might be rather profitable to "be consumed by God." While that phrase can lead to an overspiritualized understanding of life, it seems that for the vast majority of the natural tendency is toward underspiritualization.

In the end, I think we are talking about the same thing. What I am attempting to explain, you summarized this way, "Ideally, we should all be fully devoted to Jesus, to 'be consumed by him,' but in the sense of living actively for the sake of the kingdom, in whatever ways he has called us and gifted us to live."

I have really enjoyed the book. I felt that it was well-written and incredibly thought-provoking. Also, thank you for taking the time to answer some of the questions that have surfaced over the course of our reading and discussions.

Al Hsu said...

Josh - Thanks for your comment! Very helpful thoughts. I'm also big on the church being a counterculture (ever since reading Rodney Clapp's A Peculiar People some years ago), and I mention later on in the book that the church must be both contextualized and countercultural. This is a tension that we all walk, because we have to resemble our context in many ways in order to be incarnational in our ministry, but we also need to resist the negative aspects of our culture and point people to the countercultural reality of the kingdom.

One of your comments makes me think that some churches/Christians are too overspiritual, and others are underspiritual, and each local community (and pastoral leadership) needs to be a good diagnostician in understanding what corrective is needed! Yes, both poles are dangerous - on the one hand some Christians are too privatized and narcissistic in their overly spiritualized faith, and on the other hand many Christians are just co-opted by secular culture at large.

Thanks for your kind words about the book - I'm glad you're finding it helpful! Peace -


Anonymous said...

I understand the idea of countering consumer culture, but without the "what for" part of the equation we can get stuck in being against something instead of being for something. One thing I find helpful in countering consumer culture is being for Kingdom culture. Now I know, this is broad and vague, but an example of this arose this morning as my 14 year old was reviewing her vocabulary and testing my knowledge of words. She read her schoolbook definition of frugal: economical, avoiding waste and luxury. My husband and I would consider ourselves frugal - but our motivation for being frugal is so that we can be a blessing to others. We discussed this a bit this morning, reviewing the pictures of the kids we support through World Vision in Africa. We are not just against consumerism, we are for something - we have a reason to resist the temptations. Without a reason to resist, I fear too many Christians succumb to the overpowering influence of our consumer culture.

Al Hsu said...

Spot on, chickchaotic. It's not enough to be against consumer culture (or any negative force or phenomenon). We need to be promoting a better way. As many have said, it's not enough to curse the darkness; we need to light candles.

I'm big on Andy Crouch's model of Culture Making. It's not enough to condemn culture or critique it. We don't change culture by condemning it or critiquing it or copying it or consuming it. The only way we change culture is to create culture, to make new and better alternatives. When the church creates a countercultural community that looks different from the world as usual, we introduce the possibility that life can be lived differently.

To use Andy Crouch's phrase, culture making "moves the horizons of the possible." Many of our suburban neighbors can't imagine anything other than consumerism - it's just the default setting. But if we build communities where people practice simplicity and generosity and are characterized by contentment, that moves the horizons of the possible and makes such a life more possible to them.

Unknown said...

chickchaotic, i whole-heartedly agree with your assessment. if we are only against consumer culture and not for something, we only trade in one culture (that of the consumer) for another.

until we begin to live for something (I agree that it should be for the kingdom of God) we still end up consuming. countless christians consume sermons, christian books and music, etc. which are counter to and present ideas counter to the prevailing culture. what good does it do, however, without these christians taking what they have consumed and applying it in their lives so that they can begin to live in such a way as to see God's kingdom come and His will be done.