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Consumerism Print E-mail

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Written by Kerby Anderson

Introduction

Consumerism is a concern within society and within the church. So I would like to analyze both of these areas of concern by citing books that address this issue. The classic secular book on this subject is Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.{1} An excellent Christian book that deals with the topic of consumerism (in one of its chapters) is Michael Craven’s book Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity.{2}

What is consumerism? Many people use the terms materialism and consumerism interchangeably. But there is a difference. Consumerism is much more than mere materialism. It is a way of perceiving the world that has affected all of us (especially Americans)—young and old, rich and poor, believer and non-believer—in significant ways. Essentially it is a never-ending desire to possess material goods and to achieve personal success.

Others have defined consumerism as having rather than being.{3} Your worth and value are measured by what you have rather than by who you are. It is buying into a particular lifestyle in order to find your value, worth, and dignity. As Christians we should be defined by the fact that we are created in God’s image and have intrinsic worth and dignity.

Even secular writers see the problems with consumerism. The writers of Affluenza say that it is a virus that “is not confined to the upper classes but has found it way throughout our society. Its symptoms affect the poor as well as the rich . . . Affluenza infects all of us, though in different ways.”{4}

The authors go on to say that “the Affluenza epidemic is rooted in the obsessive, almost religious quest for economic expansion that has become the core principle of what is called the American dream.”{5}

Affluenza is rooted in a number of key concepts. First, it is rooted in the belief that the measure of national progress can be measured by the gross domestic product. Second, it is rooted in the idea that each generation must do better economically than the previous generation.

The consequences of this are devastating to both the nation and individuals. We are living in a time when the economic realities should be restraining spending (both as a nation and as individuals). Instead, we have corporately and individually pursued a lifestyle of “buy now and pay later” in order to expand economically. As we have discussed in previous articles, this philosophy has not served us well.

In an attempt to find happiness and contentment by pursuing “the good life,” Americans have instead found it empty. Consumerism seems to promise fulfillment, but alas, it is merely an illusion. Consumerism does not satisfy.

Inverted Values and Changing Attitudes

Anyone looking at some of the social statistics for the U.S. might conclude that our priorities are out of whack. For example, we spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches than on higher education. We spend much more on auto maintenance than on religious and welfare activities. And three times as many Americans buy Christmas presents for their pets than buy a present for their neighbors.{6}

Debt and waste also show skewed priorities. More Americans have declared personal bankruptcy than graduated from college. Our annual production of solid waste would fill a convoy of garbage trucks stretching halfway to the moon. We have twice as many shopping centers as high schools.{7}

Americans seem to be working themselves to death in order to pay for everything they own or want to buy. We now work more hours each year than do the citizens of any other industrial country, including Japan. And according to Department of Labor statistics, full-time American workers are putting in one hundred sixty hours more (essentially one month more) than they did in 1969.{8} And ninety-five percent of our workers say the wish they could spend more time with their families.{9}

Americans do recognize the problem and are trying to simplify their lives. A poll by the Center for a New American Dream showed a change in attitudes and action. The poll revealed that eighty-five percent of Americans think our priorities are out of whack. For example, nearly nine in ten (eighty-eight percent) said American society is too materialistic. They also found that most Americans (ninety-three percent) feel we are too focused on working and making money. They also believed (ninety-one percent) that we buy and consume more than we need. More than half of Americans (fifty-two percent) said they have too much debt.{10}

The poll found that many Americans were taking steps to work less, even if that meant reducing their consuming. Nearly half of Americans (forty-eight percent) say they voluntarily made changes in their life in order to get more time and have a less stressful life. This increase in the number of self-proclaimed “down-shifters” suggests the beginning of a national change in priorities.

Perhaps Americans are coming to the realization that more consumer goods don’t make them happy. Think back to the year 1957. That was the year that the program Leave it to Beaver premiered on television. It was also the year that the Russians shot Sputnik into space. That was a long time ago.

But 1957 is significant for another reason. It was that year that Americans described themselves as “very happy” reached a plateau.{11} Since then there has been an ever declining percentage of Americans who describe themselves that way even though the size of the average home today is twice what it was in the 1950s and these homes are filled with consumer electronics someone back then could only dream about.

Undermining the Family and Church

What has been the impact of consumerism? Michael Craven talks about how consumerism has undermined the family and the church.

The family has been adversely affected by the time pressures created by a consumer mentality. Family time used to be insulated to a degree from employment demands. That is no longer true. “We no longer hesitate to work weekends and evenings or to travel Sundays, for example, in order to make the Monday-morning meeting.”{12} As we have already mentioned, Americans are working more hours than ever before. The signal that is being sent throughout the corporate world is that you must be willing to sacrifice time with your family in order to get ahead. And that is exactly what is taking place.

Sociologists have concluded that “since 1969 the time American parents spend with their children has declined by 22 hours per week.”{13} Some have questioned this study because its estimate of the decline came from subtracting increased employment hours of parents from total waking hours. But I believe it makes the point that families are suffering from consumerism and this study parallels other studies that have looked at the decline in quality parent-child interaction at home.

The bottom line is this: Americans may talk about family values and quality time with their kids but their behavior demonstrates that they don’t live those values. Frequently children and their needs are sacrificed on the altar of career success. The marketplace trumps family time more than we would like to think that is does.

The church has also been undermined by consumerism. Busy lifestyles and time pressures crowd out church attendance. Weekly church attendance has reached an all-time low in America. And even for those who try to regularly attend church, attendance is sometimes hit-or-miss. Years ago I realized how difficult it was to teach a series in a Sunday School class because there was so little continuity in attendance from one week to the next.

Craven points out that those who are dissatisfied with a consumerist-created lifestyle turn to church for meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, they think that “by integrating a ‘little religion’ into their lives they will balance and perfect the lifestyle. Tragically, they do not realize it is not their lifestyle that is in need of salvation, it is their very souls.”{14}

Consumerism also affects the way we go about the Christian life. Religious consumerists add spiritual disciplines to their life in the same way they approach work (as a task to be fulfilled with measurable goals). In the end, spiritual activity becomes one more item on a to-do list.

Craven reminds us that Jesus Christ is not to be treated as one good among many. Jesus Christ should be the supreme Good and the source of all life.

Undermining the Community and Character

What has been the impact of consumerism? Craven talks about how consumerism has undermined community and how it has also undermined virtue and character. “With the increased priority given to the marketplace, there follows a decreased commitment to neighbors, community, and connections to extended family; children are displaced in pursuit of opportunities, and familial priorities become subverted to company demands.”{15}

This has an adverse impact on citizenship. People are no longer citizens but consumers. Citizens have duties and responsibilities to their fellow citizens. Consumers do not. They are merely partaking of what the consumer economy provides for them. Citizens care about others and their community. Consumers only care about what the society can provide to them.

Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer predicted that as society moved from the “death of God” to what today we can call the “death of truth” there would only be two things left: “personal peace and personal prosperity.” Schaeffer argued that once Americans accepted these values, they would sacrifice everything to protect their personal peace and affluence.{16}

Consumerism also undermines virtue and character. It “shifts the objective of human life away from cultivating virtue and character, knowing truth, and being content to an artificially constructed, idealized lifestyle that is continually reinforced through media, entertainment, and advertising.”{17}

With this view of life, things become more important than people. Having is more important than being. And it is a lifestyle that pursues distraction (sports, entertainment, hobbies, etc.) almost in an effort to keep from thinking about the real world and its circumstances.

As we have already noted, consumerism does not satisfy. In fact, it can be argued that a consumerist mentality puts us in an emotional place where we are perpetually discontent. We are unable to rest in that which is good because we always want more. This is made even more difficult in our world where advertising images provide a seemingly endless series of choices that are promoted to us as necessary in order to achieve the perfect life.

Michael Craven points out that when Christians talk about being content, this is often ridiculed as being willing to “settle for less” and even condemned as “lazy, defeatist, and even irresponsible.”{18} Instead we are spurred on by talk of “doing all things to the glory of God” which can be used to justify a consumerist mentality.

A Biblical Perspective on Materialism and Consumerism

We live in a culture that encourages us to buy more and more. No longer are we encouraged to live within our means. We are tempted to buy more than just the necessities and tempted to spend more on luxuries. The Bible warns us about this. Proverbs 21:17 says, “He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; He who loves wine and oil will not become rich.”

In our lifetimes we have lots of money that flows through our hands, and we need to make wiser choices. Consider that a person who makes just $25,000 a year will in his lifetime have a million dollars pass through his hands. The median family income in America is twice that. That means that two million dollars will pass through the average American family’s hands.

A tragic aspect of consumerism is that there is never enough. There is always the desire for more because each purchase only satisfies for short while. Then there is the need for more and more. Essentially, it is the law of diminishing returns. Economists use a more technical term—the law of diminishing marginal return. Simply put, the more we get, the less it satisfies and the more we want.

Once again the Bible warns us about this. Haggai 1:5-6 says, “Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Consider your ways! You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.’”

We should also be responsible citizens. A tragic consequence of consumerism is what it does to the average citizen. James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, believes we have “mutated from citizens to consumers.” He says that “consumers have no duties or responsibilities or obligations to their fellow consumers. Citizens do. They have the obligation to care about their fellow citizens and about the integrity of the town’s environment and history.”{19}

America was once a nation of joiners. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this in his book Democracy in America. Americans would join in all sorts of voluntary associations. But we seem to no longer be joiners but loners. Sure, there are still many people volunteering and giving their time. But much of this is “on the run” as we shuffle from place to place in our busy lives.

Christians are called to be the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) and the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16). We are also called to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). We must resist the temptations of consumerism that encourage us to focus on ourselves and withdraw from active involvement in society.

Notes

1. John DeGraaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005).
2. Michael Craven, Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2009).
3. Richard John Neuhaus, Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 52-53.
4. Affluenza, xviii.
5. Ibid., 3.
6. U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004-2005).
7. Affluenza, 4.
8. Ibid, 42.
9. Ibid., 4.
10. Center for a New American Dream, 2004 survey, www.newdream.org/about/pdfs/PollRelease.pdf.
11. David Myers, The American Paradox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 136. 12. Craven, Uncompromised Faith, 79.
13. L.C. Sayer, et. All, "Are Parents Investing Less in Children?", paper presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting, August 2000.
14. Affluenza, 80.
15. Ibid.
16. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan: NJ: Fleming Revell, 1976), 205.
17. Affluenza, 81.
18. Ibid., 83.
19. James Kunstler in discussion with David Wann, March 1997, quoted in Affluenza, 65.

© 2009 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Kerby AndersonKerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet (www.pointofview.net) and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.

 

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