Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wor(l)d and Sacrament

In this morning's NY Times there is a terrific article in the business section titled Warning: Habits May be Good For You. (You'll need a subscription--which is free--to be able to view the article.)

What the article does is essentially express what many of us
concerned with church and culture have been saying for a long time, namely, that the world, like the church, is in the business of formation, spiritual formation. And when you're in the business of spiritual formation, liturgy and sacrament--i.e., concrete practices-- are two very powerful means of creating, cultivating and cementing desired dispositions or characters.

In the church, it is virtues or the fruit of the spirit that we aim to form within us by cultivating various sorts of practices or disciplines. In the world, where the bottom economic line is the measure of success, it is an insatiable appetite for consumables that the prophets and priests wish to form within us.

For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed,” said Dr. Berning, the P.& G. psychologist. “But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.

This is a fascinating article. It tells the story, a good story, of an anthropologist with a desire to end the unnecessary spread of disease (especially in children) by getting people in certain parts of the world to wash their hands with soap. In Ghana, for example, they found that most homes have soap, but that only 4% of people used it after toilet use. After many unsuccessful educational campaigns to change the sanitary practices of the people in Ghana, the anthropologist turned to the prophets of our culture, multinational corporations, together with their priests, i.e., social psychologists and the advertising industry who consult them. The goal? To produce in the Ghana people an emotion or feeling (in this case the emotion of disgust), and then move them to cultivate a practice--handwashing--that would address the emotion and, in so doing, contribute enormously to ending or at least significantly diminishing the spread of certain diseases. And guess what? It's working.

Advertising is ubiquitous in our consumer culture. As Christ-followers, we are not immune to it or its effects. It could be argued in fact that the liturgy and sacraments of our consumer culture have more impact on our spiritual formation than the liturgy and sacraments of our churches. (Of course, part of the explanation of this fact, if it is a fact, might just be that most evangelical churches have abdicated the practice of meaningful liturgy and sacraments to our culture.)

In any case, we ought not fool ourselves. The life of consumption is, at bottom, a spiritual quest. It emerges out of the same restlessness and longing that are part of our created nature, and that drive us toward others, and God.
Consuming may be a misguided quest, but it is a spiritual quest all the same.

My question is this: how can we, the church, be the counter-cultural community of Jesus that we are called to be
(a community primarily of formation) in a culture whose sacraments and liturgy are more formative for us than the very society to which we claim primary allegiance?


Ted M. Gossard said...

Interesting post, as always.

I think we have to stop and examine just what we're all about. Why do we think and act in the ways we do? What consumes our time, and why?

If it's too much, or at all the value systems of this world, such as "get more and spend more", then we need to confess it as sin. And seek to get our value system in line with the Way of Jesus and in communion with the Body.

And we need to seek to do so as in process, since it will be an unlearning as well as relearning, for us. And we need to be well aware that this is a need for all of us. Even for those of us who are substantially living by the Word and Sacrament. We still have the world rubbing off on us, and its sacraments, as well. The two seem ordinarily to me, quite contrary.

Stephen Krogh said...


Help me with a word. What is the definition of consumerism? I know it is a word thrown around Calvin often and I know the SJC crowd sure doesn't like it, but I am not really sure what it is and I suspect a lot of people who decry it don't really know what it is either. I ask, because I think it is related to your post. I think you may have defined it, or touched upon it, when you wrote,

'In any case, we ought not fool ourselves. The life of consumption is, at bottom, a spiritual quest. It emerges out of the same restlessness and longing that are part of our created nature, and that drive us toward others, and God. Consuming may be a misguided quest, but it is a spiritual quest all the same.'

I think that is probably close to what we could call consumerism, making one's life meaningful by filling it with material things. I wonder; if this is true, do we decry the desire for material possessions, or do we decry the view that those material possessions are meaningful in their own right, are religious? While I would certainly condemn the latter, I (and most, I think) am not so quick to condemn the former. As Aquinas would say, so long as our desires are rightly ordered, with the highest and truest desire being friendship with God, we are allowed to desire things, physical things. In fact, sometimes our humanity is preserved by our things. In the first chapter of Rob Bell's, 'Sex God,' he recounts a story from World War II. British troops had liberated a concentration camp and were waiting for food stuffs to arrive in order to feed the prisoners. As the first trucks came to drop off supplies the only items found within the crates were vials of lipstick. Initially outraged, the British troops soon saw the genius of the delivery. The women in the camp were allowed to be beautiful again. They were allowed to make themselves up. They were allowed to be human, something which had been withheld from them from the moment they stepped foot inside the death camp. No compassionate human being, I think, should condemn these women for wanting to feel beautiful, something which is profoundly physical, material.

This last school year I taught a certain student whose life was in shambles. Without going into too much detail, his life was made a bit more comfortable every day because of his iPod. Amidst the turmoil of his home life, he could put his headphones on and leave the mess behind him for 20 minutes. He did not worship his iPod (perhaps the poster child product of consumerism), but he needed it to make sense in chaos, to protect himself from the world, and I can't imagine that God sees this as misplaced.

Why do I write this? Because, I think the easy answer to your question (the one many would be tempted to use) is that we as the church need to rise above the temptation to fall for such things. We must disavow the religion of culture. While I don't entirely disagree with that claim, I think it is largely both naive and harmful. Our society thinks and acts in the way that it does, because it is sick, hurting, and longing. When a sick man medicates himself with the wrong medication, you don't preach to him or shun his actions, you love him, and help him to proper recovery. I am not sure how we as the church can do this, but I don't think that an immediate reaction to contemporary culture is the answer. Of course, I don't think you are supposing that we ought to react in this way, but I was around Calvin long enough to know that this is the answer many would offer and it has always struck me as misguided.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Ted and Stephen,

Thanks for the input! To start, Stephen, I think we begin w/what Ted says about self-examination, what consumes our time, energy, thought-life? And, as Ted suggests, the practices/sacraments of the world are "ordinarily" quite contrary to those of the kingdom.

So, to speak to your worries, Stephen, I think it is fundamentally an issue having to do with the right ordering of our affections. There's nothing wrong w/an ipod (I have one b/c, as you know, I LOVE music) or a car or a television or what have you. So, the issue is not the stuff as such. The issue is the rituals and liturgies built around them by the economic empire, if you will. Consumerism, as I understand it, is the entire system of stuff and the practices the empire uses to enslave us to them, to move us to find our identity in possession, in consumption.

And they do this by manipulating, massaging and exaggerating very human emotions, like fear, longing, loneliness, emptiness, desires for connection, happiness, etc. The machine, I believe, functions a lot like the old time tent revivals where the preacher manipulated the emotions of the attendees, eliciting feelings of guilt, fear, emptiness etc. and then presented the solution, the answer, the balm to heal their empty souls. The machinery of consumerism functions the very same way, I think. Nothing wrong with those very human emotions; but, as Augustine taught us so long ago, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

My thinking is that even those of us who take seriously our identity in Christ but who live under a regime of consumerism can find ourselves, quite against our wills btw, having our characters formed more by the alien rituals of the regime than by the rituals and sacraments of Gods kingdom.