Sunday, October 26, 2008

Costco Culture and the Religion of Consumption

Today as we were touring the metropolis of Sam's Club, purchasing supplies for our upcoming Reformation Day celebration, I was struck by the massive quantities of all the various goods on the shelves. The sheer size of the inventory was a visually assaulting reminder of an article I read years ago. It lamented the growing integration of our faith in a personal God with our assumed right to a life of plenty. In a culture where food, electricity, heat, shelter, computing and fashion are so abundant, the availability of such resources has gotten confused with the blessing of God.

Why is this a problem? It separates modern believers from experiencing a continuity of faith with those believers that have suffered throughout history, or in developing countries in the present day. Psalm 37:25 is over-quoted ("I was once young, now I am old. I have never seen a godly man abandoned, or his children forced to search for food."), assuming that those beloved of God will not go without. Indeed I have been hungry before, and so have my children. The emotional-spiritual pain of lacking such provisions is immeasurably heightened by a well-meaning health-and-wealth gospel koolaid drinker (make that a two-fisted drinker) insinuating that God will provide such necessities if I only believe more. Or sometimes it's surely because of an unconfessed sin that I must embark on an internal excavation to unearth in some emotional manner to finally receive the redemption of Christ in that area. Among the worst ones, for which all readers of this would have my permission to punch the misguided advisor in the face, is the suggestion that I've wandered far from God and therefore his blessing. This supposes that some fasting, prayer, Bible study and confession (maybe throw in a little holy water for good measure) will make it all better. Instead of two aspirin, we're prescribed, "have two charismatic experiences and call me in the morning." I can only imagine how insulted our Savior must be my such petty attempts to unlock his favor.

This is not to say that the mountainous cache of energy drinks, breakfast cereals, candy bars or gallon cans of chili are evil in and of themselves. They are just raw materials that people will use either responsibly or gluttonously. The evil represented by the Sam's Club stacks is the unreasonable expectation developed by people that such indulgence is a right, a given, a guaranteed life of "as much as I want." This may be labeled as an American phenomenon, but certainly this unlovely set of assumptions are given fangs and claws by the added suit of Christian pious triumphalism. Many of those biblical promises concerning the coming kingdom of God (instituted when Christ returns) get over-realized for the present. The land of abundance and the material blessings of God, not to mention the unprecedented time of peace, start to get assumed as imminent. The treasures of Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart (insert any other favorite department store here) or the local mall, supposedly, belong to those who God favors. As a result, religion becomes a means not so much for training the human condition for devotion to God as it is a means for using God to improve the human condition.

The Costco culture is the not the cause of the religion of consumption, but it is related. Not unlike how the fever is related to the flu, so also is the assumption of plenty related to the god of our stomach. We sit in plush chairs in darkly lit rooms and tap our fingers on a table while a college sophomore or single mom retrieves our food for us from the back kitchen. We've erected temples to our appetites and claim that the God of the Bible is on the hook to put out for this strange deity of our invention. Far from setting aside the best for the worship of God (as the Old Testament prescribes), we demand the best be set aside for us (this is self-worship). May God deliver us from the religion of consumption, whose services are held daily at Sam's Club, Walmart and Costco. May he forgive us our attempts to garner his favor with Christianese platitudes, and for our instincts to fill ourselves anyway when he's slow on the draw.

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