Friday, November 28, 2008

Christmas Consumption

My friend Scott Gunn has a very interesting and timely post at his blog, Seven Whole Days. The post points to the rampant commercialism and consumption that have become part of Christmas. He offers the option of the “buy nothing Christmas”. This will no doubt be an appealing option to some, especially given the uncertainty about the state of the global economy. The critique, an accurate one, is that we seem to have an insatiable appetite for cheap goods. Christmas is the time, it is most visible and even celebrated.

However, our Christmas buying habits are only a symptom of a much more pervasive issue. Our relationship with currency and commerce needs to be examined. I want to understand the core issues that lead us astray.

We have seen huge shifts in economic activity over time. In a relatively short period, we have transitioned through various economic cultures. We started hunting and gathering, then we became an agrarian society. We learned to barter as a means of exchanging produce. We shifted into small-scale production of useful tools, only to explode into bigger manufacturing. A tech revolution occurred. We have seen a shift to a more service-based economy.

Credit developed as a convenience first, then became part of the speculative process of business and procurement. Capital became more available. Money flowed. Some became rich, and some did not. Land was critical in the beginning, but is less so now. Now, we look toward the next big idea.

What has happened to our thinking about money and goods? I suspect few think intentionally about this. It is easier to just roll along with the trends and expansion. Sure, some develop business plans. Others plan budgets. Some set long-term goals. Others only hope to pay the next bill. There is little philosophical conversation about money. Most conversation is about acquiring more to have more. Commerce is a religion, and we all bow down at the altar.

Short of packing it in and moving to the woods, we all have to participate in economic culture. Can we find ways to participate that reflect our faith, and honor our values? I would say yes. However, I also recognize that Jesus spent a good deal of time addressing money and property. He eschewed placing faith in wealth and property, and criticized abuse as a result of economic inequality. The Apostles, we are told, held all things in common, and gave to anyone that had need. I think it safe to say that Jesus’ criticism of wealth had more to do with the obsessive and abusive behavior of people, than material wealth itself. Yet, it is perfectly clear that Jesus was aware of the stumbling block the material world poses.

Some of the problem is garden variety idolatry, whereby we grant ultimacy to objects, and not God. It is also more complex and difficult to understand than that. We fail to se the consequences of our consumption. I want to pay x for a suit of a certain quality. The company that makes the suit can only mach my desire to pay x, if they manufacture it in Poland using underpaid workers. I feel better driving a Land Rover, than a Prius, despite the ecological implications. I want the newest MacBook Pro, even though my current MacBook Pro is a little over a year old, and meets my needs. Why these feelings, appetites and desires? They are not rational.

I think they stem from our feelings of existential despair. We attempt to fill the voids in our lives with stuff. A tangible bobble is something that can be held and, for whatever reason, it makes me feel just a little more in control and less desolate. The trouble is that that feeling is transitory. When I go that route, it is like the cycle of addictive behavior. I need more and better things, than the last time, to make me feel as good.

We are chasing something that we will never apprehend through more and better stuff. The hard part is that we do need certain things. The addict can put a drug down and stay away from it, but we have material needs. There is nothing wrong with the material world; the problem is how we have adapted to it. We are in over our heads, and the use of credit, not as a convenience, but to finance our lifestyles is a symptom. There is little differentiation between needs and wants. Our thinking needs to catch up to the economic transitions, we have experienced as people.

Ultimately, our hope resides in Christmas. We recognize and remember that our hope, against despair, became flesh. Jesus came, not to free us from the world, but to enable us to live abundant life in it, and beyond it. A new bobble need not be another graven image, threatening to replace God in our lives. A new bobble will not “make” Christmas. What if gifts were selected and given with a sacramental kind of reverence? What if gifts were not mass quantities of cheap plastic junk, but were given as real signs of affection and love in light of God’s gift to us? Gifts could be more than anesthesia, if we sought to be thoughtful, deliberate and sensible. What if gift giving weren’t a melee, but the celebration of God’s ultimate gift of God’s self, celebrated intentionally, with an exchange of tokens of love, not hinging on quantity or dollar value, but meaning?

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