Thursday, May 18, 2006

The All-Consuming Nature of Consuming

I've been reading some of the essays in Rodney Clapp's Border Crossings. Clapp works at Brazos Press; the subtitle of this collection (published byBrazos in 2000) is "Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs." Lots of interesting things here, but one of the most interesting is the essay I'm working through at the moment, entitled "The Theology of Consumption and the Consumption of Theology."

Early in the essay, Clapp shares a fascinating and troubling anecdote. The story was told to him by a Christian historian who had written a dissertation on consumerism. The historian told him about an experience he'd had with some college age folks at a Christian camp. The gathering included people from a number of different countries, and during the ice-breaker time, the groups were divided up according to their nationalities and asked to discuss and agree on a song that they could perform for the rest of the gathering -- a song that all felt represented their culture. According to this man, most of the groups had relatively little trouble agreeing on a song -- within a few minutes, they'd chosen and rehearsed it -- and nearly all of them chose what he termed "indigenous folk songs."

Except, of course, for the group from the United States. They couldn't agree. They discussed for an hour, rejecting various suggestions of rock and country songs. And then, as Clapp reports: "At last they settled -- on Coca-Cola's 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing.' The jingle ringing in his ears, Lendol {the historian} realized that commercial culture was what finally and ultimately bound these Americans -- these American Christians -- together."

I've been thinking about why this troubles me so much. There are several layers to my response, and I won't try to unpack all of them here. But at least a couple of things feel worth noting.

One is that we no longer seem to have a shared story in our culture. No real news there -- the enlightenment souned a death knell for an emphasis on "meta-narrative" in the West. But what I think I mean is that our national culture is so divided and subdivided that there doesn't even really seem to be one overarching cultural narrative anymore, if there ever was. You might be able to have people from a certain region or state come to some agreement about a song that expressed regional cultural attitudes and values, but trying to get a large group of US Americans to agree on something that represents our country to others sounds nigh unto impossible. Maybe that's not so unsettling -- maybe it's all part and parcel of our stubborn, rugged individualism (ugh) but what DOES seem troubling is when you move from the nationalist level to the community of faith level. What does it mean when American Christians (and I repeat Clapp's emphasis) find their deepest connections not in the overarching Christian Story, or not even in cultural songs that allude to some deeply cherished communal values, but in an advetising jingle that was designed in the first place to get us to buy something we didn't need that wasn't even good for us!?

Maybe it's because the narratives we all know are the small narratives told through t.v., movies, and advertising...they're the ones we hear over and over again, the ones we hold in common with lots of other people. Think about how many advertising jingles and t.v. theme songs you can sing. My own head is stuffed full of them, especially from childhood and adolescence. I have clear memories of sitting in a dorm lounge in college and singing through these kinds of things with friends. Thankfully, I also have memories of at least one "hymn-sing" in college, but that was an exceptionally unusual evening, even on the campus of the small Christian college I attended my freshman year (where the hymn-sing occurred). As for "indigenous folk songs" -- which ones did we all know? Maybe a few peans to primarily civil religion like "America the Beautiful" or "My Country Tis' of Thee" or possibly a few folk songs we'd all learned in school such as "This Land Was Made for You and Me."

If you and I were in a room full of other Christians from the U.S. today, what songs would we likely come up with to suggest who we are and what we value? What stories, themes, ideas shape us? Are we more shaped by what we buy, own and use than by the truly greatest Story ever told and known?

I need to think more about the dangers of consumerism, especially, as Clapp says, " an ethos, a character-cultivating way of life that seduces and insinuates and acclimates. This, too often, is consumption that militates against all sorts of Christian virtues, such as patience and contentedness and self-denial, but almost always with a velvet glove rather than an iron fist. It speaks in tones sweet and sexy rather than dictatorial, and it conquers by promises rather than by threats."

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