Jesus and the Consumerist Culture
Tyler Wigg Stevenson is a preacher and writer. He graduated from Swarthmore College and received his M.Div. summa cum laude from Yale Divinity School.
Tyler served in the chapel at Yale and as Associate Minister at Christian Tabernacle Baptist Church in Hamden, Connecticut, where he was licensed and ordained. He also spent a year in London, England, as Study Assistant to the Rev. Dr. John Stott. Since 2001 he has served on the Board of Directors of the Global Security Institute, an organization he helped establish under the late U.S. Senator Alan Cranston. He and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee.
His book, Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age, was published only months ago (May 2007). In it, Wigg Stevenson argues that American Christianity, especially evangelicalism, has been corrupted by the dominance of consumerism in modern life. The church’s mostly uncritical adoption of this secular condition has resulted in an idolatrous morphing of the message of Christ into just another brand. With Brand Jesus, the author names the growing concern felt by many Christians at the commodification of their faith.
We met with Wigg Stevenson at Yale Divinity School where he was presiding at Holy Communion, Marquand Chapel, and his wife was the preacher. After a lunch at the Refectory, we repaired to a small office where we started the conversation with a discussion about clothing.
HOMILETICS: After reading Brand Jesus, I must say I was very nervous about what I should wear today for this interview because my Oleg Cassini white shirt with the jade cuff links and Versace jacket, imported Italian shoes, Prada — thought it might be a bit over the top, so instead I went with this off-the-rack T-shirt and jacket. [laughter all around]
WIGG STEVENSON: It’s just fine.
HOMILETICS: I bring this up because in your book consumerism takes a huge hit. It’s like the old saw about the weather: Everyone complains about it, but no one does anything about it. Is this book your attempt to do something about it?
WIGG STEVENSON: To continue to the metaphor: Honestly, I think we can do about as much with consumerism as we can do with the weather. It’s raining. The question is whether or not we’re going to go indoors.
The book began with the idea that I would conclude with some sort of one, two practical punch. Here’s the consumerist culture, here’s what the church looks like in it, so therefore we need to take these steps. And I had some initial ideas about where we could go with that.
As I did the research for the book and continued to think about this for almost two years, I came to the conclusion that we couldn’t do anything about consumerism. It’s not a force to be combated, for example. The most significant question for the church in a consumerist age is to ask what our situation means. What does it mean to be the church in an era that’s so saturated by consumerism that it defines itself by consumption: We buy to be; we are what we buy; we are what we consume.
The most important thing that the church can do is to recognize this about our society so as not to follow the consumerist impulse.
HOMILETICS: To be a consumer can’t be an inherently bad thing because we all have to be consumers to survive. So where is the line which when crossed means we’re not only consumers but sinful consumers, or bad consumers?
WIGG STEVENSON: I guess I wouldn’t think there is such a line. It’s more about one’s disposition. The premise of the book is that the modern West, in particular the United States, responded to an existential crisis during the postwar era. There was this huge void of meaning; people had no idea of what their place was in the world because the “old order had passed away,” to poach a biblical text. The culture is not going to tell you who you are, where you come from and where you’re going, so the burden is passed on to the individual.
My thesis, then, is that we responded by defining ourselves in terms of the consumer goods we purchased. So the question is not so much about not being consumers. This is not about Christians boycotting brand-name goods, and so on. It’s impossible. You cannot do it. There’s nothing that’s sold that’s unbranded. There’s no way to get around it. But the question is, how much are we going to buy into the idea that what we consume defines who we are? How much attention are we going to pay to that? How much energy are we going to give it?
That’s the question that’s facing all of us.
HOMILETICS: I get the sense that when you and Ron Sider, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, look at the religious landscape and particularly those who self-identify as Christians, you don’t see how their Christian faith makes any real difference in the way they live their lives. Is that a fair statement?
WIGG STEVENSON: I’d back away from making a statement like that about individuals. It’s not my place to judge. But I do think it’s safe to speak about the church; that it’s hard in many places to see how the church is making any difference in the way disciples are living. And again, this ties into the notion that we’ve essentially made a commodity of belief. You go to church and get a spiritual service, a service is rendered to you instead of to God.
HOMILETICS: Yet the church is comprised of individuals. You’ve got to wonder, how does their faith make them any different from people who don’t identify as Christians? As consumers they look alike. Should their faith make a difference in the way they are consumers in the culture?
WIGG STEVENSON: It absolutely should.
HOMILETICS: But you don’t think it does?
WIGG STEVENSON: This raises theological issues I don’t discuss in the book because it would have been off-point to do so. But it’s clear that we’re missing the connection between what it means to be a Christian and what it means to live as a Christian in the culture. We’re not doing an adequate job teaching this in the local church. And there’s an eschatological dimension here as well. What does it mean that the kingdom of God is breaking in upon us, and that we’re moving toward this, that there’s a new creation coming? How are we called to live in light of this reality? So our ethics ought to have an eschatological underpinning: I am living in tune with the kingdom of God not the “principalities and powers.” And if I am living in that former reality, I am going to look rather strange to people who are living in the latter reality. In the kingdom of God, there is no reason to seek my own gain; there is no reason for me to be defined by any rule or system other than that kingdom.
It’s this vision that I don’t see in the church, and the result is that we’ve been corrupted by consumerism.
HOMILETICS: The book is Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age. Obviously, you’re not in favor of what’s been called the prosperity gospel. Are you advocating a sort of “poverty gospel”? Let me add on to that question: Jesus said that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven. It sounds a little bit like Tyler Wigg Stevenson is saying, “It’s impossible for a rich man to inherit the kingdom of God.”
WIGG STEVENSON: No, I’m not saying that. Not advocating a poverty gospel. I have dear friends who are relatively wealthy and also immensely generous with their wealth. Any time I feel I’m getting on a high horse, I remind myself that I’m not better, just poorer! [laughter] But it does seem to me that we haven’t been obedient to what Jesus says about money. His teachings are unequivocal. In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke and the corresponding blessings and woes, there’s nothing metaphorical or spiritual about it. It’s “Woe to you who are rich!” And I have to count myself in that group. I don’t feel rich, but I have a very comfortable life.
Look, I’m just not willing to edit Jesus on this point. If he uses the comparative form, I won’t use the superlative. I’m not going to say “impossible” when Jesus clearly allows some wiggle room, however miniscule. But I do think we tend to delude ourselves about the money question.
HOMILETICS: Well, there’s not much in this book I disagree with, but of course it applies to everyone else. Not me.
WIGG STEVENSON: Right. Well, I had to laugh at myself when I was writing this. I can’t think of anyone who really says consumerism is a good thing, yet we’re all so subject to it.
HOMILETICS: Most of us say, “Yeah, consumerism is a bad thing; we should own our possessions and not let our possessions own us,” and so forth, and we see the problem everyone else is having with consumerism, and it’s all a way of saying that “I’m not willing to give up what I think is important to me.”
WIGG STEVENSON: That’s right. It’s probably a version of the speck in someone’s eye and the plank in our own. James Twitchell is an author whom I cite frequently in the book. He’s a secular writer, professor of English Literature and Advertising at Florida State. He wrote an excellent book. He’s a very clear-eyed analyst of consumerism, and if one isn’t coming from a certain religious perspective, his analysis is dead on. What’s wrong with consumerism? We call these things “goods” and that’s not an accident. What’s wrong with having things?
What Twitchell says is that most of our contempt of consumerism is about someone else’s consumption. It’s usually based on social class. For example, Twitchell points out that many think nothing of spending thousands of dollars to go hiking in Provence, but would look down on someone going to Vegas to gamble even if the expenditure was less.
HOMILETICS: I appreciate your insight about our love of choice. We love to have choice and options in our culture. We can have individualized jackets for our Razr phones, for example. You talk about what choices we weren’t able to make.
WIGG STEVENSON: Most of the important things in our lives we’re not able to choose at all. Our parents, the year of our birth, where we’re born, what kind of family we’re born into, how we spend the first 20 years of our lives — having decisions made for us, we don’t choose how we’re going to grow old, we don’t choose medically what’s going to go wrong with us, we don’t choose where we’re going to die and when.
But there’s this total preoccupation with choice in a consumer society. It makes sense. The underlying principle of a consumer society is “You are what you buy,” and you need to make choices for that. So our understanding of self is totally wedded to choice, which is a distortion of a true theological anthropology. We are not choosers, but we are chosen.
HOMILETICS: So, being able to consume things, and to make choices allows us to personalize our self-hood in the same way that we can personalize our cell phones. There’s a sense then that we’re able to purchase our identity.
WIGG STEVENSON: By personalizing your cell phone you personalize your self, because your self is tied up with what you consume. The cell phone is an interesting case. It’s the first item or commodity that’s mass produced and which is also utterly unique to each owner, providing a unique digital identity.
The direction that we’re going is one where customization and personalization and the ability to manipulate our environment are going to increasingly affect our view of the world. The result is a distortion of our humanity.
HOMILETICS: You take us back to Genesis to the Eden story where you suggest that this idea of wanting to define ourselves first surfaces.
WIGG STEVENSON: Adam and Eve wanted to be autonomous beings; they wanted to be “judgers.” They wanted to be able to choose between good and evil. They wanted to have the world spread before them, rather than remain recipients of God’s gift. The tragedy or perhaps irony of this move is that God sustained them in it: God made the fruit on the tree, God supported the ground under their feet, gave them the air in their lungs. They’re totally dependent upon God, but their actions moved in a direction away from God and toward greater independence. But even this attempt to be independent from God was utterly dependent upon God. And that’s the great lie of sin.
HOMILETICS: So if I read this story right, the serpent is the seller, Eve is the buyer, and Adam pays the bills.
WIGG STEVENSON: [Laughs] I think I’d need a little extra time to parse that one out!
HOMILETICS: Okay. Hope we don’t get too many letters! Jesus isn’t any easier on this topic, as you point out, when he talks about not being able to serve two masters, God and Mammon. That’s an intriguing word.
WIGG STEVENSON: The interesting thing is that usually the word is translated, in the NRSV and NIV, for example, as wealth or riches. “Mammon” is an Aramaicism. Luke leaves it untranslated. He’s writing in Greek and then suddenly there’s this Aramaic word, Mammon. He leaves it alone. This is a clue to me that Luke thought that Jesus was saying something that was fundamentally untranslatable. So it wasn’t simply a generic term for money; if that was what he wanted to say, there are plenty of Greek words he could have used. The fact that he leaves in the Aramaic “Mammon” says to me that Luke and Matthew both believe that Jesus is teaching something very, very specific. It has the connotation of a proper noun, a meta-idol. There is a force, the force that is in opposition to God, that seeks to oppose God. I see Mammon as the lord of the fallen order.
I’m not trying to sent up a dualism here. I’m not speaking of cosmic warfare or that God has any viable opponents. That’s not what I am trying to say. I am saying that when we sinned, we established an order in the world that was patterned after our own sin, and the “idol” that lords over that order is Mammon. When we think about wealth, it’s not about how much money we have; it’s that we possess something of value. The very fact that I can distinguish between a gold nugget and an apple in terms of its value is telling. One makes me wealthy, the other makes me healthy, but push comes to shove, I want what makes me wealthy. They are both the gifts of God — where’s the intrinsic value of the gold over the apple? But we have put in place an order governed by wealth where some are rich and some are not.
HOMILETICS: How do we know when we’re worshiping consumer goods? How do we know when we’ve fallen into idolatry?
WIGG STEVENSON: It’s a continuum, marked by one’s disposition rather than a line drawn between the idolaters and non-idolaters. I think we are all subject to it; and we can be complicit and guilty for things that we don’t personally choose. So to simply exist in our culture means that one is participating to some extent in the idolatry of consumerism. It has such a total grasp of the space in which we live; there is no real way to step outside of it, there is no pure space to occupy, there’s no righteous place to go. There’s no cultural group that’s going to be pure in this regard.
It’s not to say it’s “this or that” but rather: “What’s your relationship to the thing you’re buying?” My experience with Christians has been that there’s often very little consciousness about this. We don’t place car-shopping within the context of our faith. But even if we want to rebel against the consumerist system we are still caught in the same game. Even our way out is commodified. “I don’t care what kind of car I buy, so I am going to buy a car that shows that I don’t care what kind of car I drive.” Our purchase is still defining who we are.
On one level this is quite banal: This is the world we live in. It is what it is, and we’re all in it, so what can we do? I don’t want to demonize people. But on a religious/cultural scale, the collective exercise of our choices which follow this pattern that what I buy defines who I am, has created a reality that is idolatrous.
HOMILETICS: You reference Galatians where Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Are you saying that the American church has turned to a different gospel — the gospel of consumerism? And if so, how do you see this happening?
WIGG STEVENSON: It’s not that Christian bookstores need to shut down —
HOMILETICS: Well, that’s a relief! Where else would I get my Baby Jesus New Testament?
WIGG STEVENSON: Right. Exactly! There are indicators, consumption indicators, that Christians have bought into these consumerist patterns. For example, the Christian Booksellers Association changed its name in the mid-’90s to the CBA. It’s now known just by its acronym; they can’t plausibly say that they are booksellers anymore because of the sales of non-book items which include a long list of so-called “Christ-honoring resources” which can include a unicorn at the foot of the cross or something. Sales of those items outstrip the sales of books. Christians are buying more things. We don’t seem to be better Christians for it, and there aren’t more Christians in American today. The only conclusion I am left with is that our consumption patterns simply indicate that Christians are buying more “Christian” things.
All of which points to a much deeper theological reality: the way we think about salvation, what we think the church is, who we think we are as Christians. The solution is not, “Oh, well all we need to do is change our buying patterns.” But if there is going to be an internal change, there’s also got to be the external change of our habits. So I suppose I am looking for two things at once: an internal reformation of how we understand who we are as Christians and how we understand what the church is. And I do believe this would have an effect on our behavior.
HOMILETICS: So this is where you get into the stuff about “Brand Jesus.” We still commodify Jesus. Jesus is a product we can purchase on the face of a clock or on our dinner plates, or placemats. Jesus sells!
WIGG STEVENSON: Jesus does sell. But the Jesus that we’re buying isn’t the Lord! It’s the brand. I have to resist the urge to come up with a practical solution. I am not trying to be a class critic, i.e., that Jesus placemats are a bad thing and stained- glass windows are a good thing. The way we engage the church smacks of consumerism as well.
At the heart of the reason we’re buying so many material things that convey our religious identity, is because we think of Jesus as “something” to be bought. How do we conceive of discipleship? We have a long life to live as Christians. Do we see Jesus as a commodity that we’ve bought that brings us some spiritual security, and then we can live as we please? Or are we conceiving of discipleship as a lifelong imitation of Christ? And if we’re to imitate Christ, then Christ is not a brand to be bought, not an object to be consumed. We seem to insist, however, on treating Jesus like we treat the other consumer goods that give us our identity.
To summarize, if who we are is largely defined by what we consume, Christians think they’re Christians because they’ve bought into, consumed a version of Jesus. But the Lord cannot be consumed; the Lord is consuming. It’s an inversion of the proper relationship.
We talk about “receiving Christ,” taking Christ. That’s not the way Paul talks about it. He speaks of those who “are in Christ Jesus.” We go into Christ and not the other way around. The reason our discipleship is in such a sad state is because we’ve got an understanding of Jesus that is dominated by the way we see the world rather than an understanding of the world based on how we conceive of Jesus.
HOMILETICS: “If anyone be in Christ, he or she is a new creation,” as Paul puts it.
WIGG STEVENSON: Consumerism offers a deeply individualistic existence. There’s a “you” and whoever that is is defined by what you take into yourself. That’s the way we are when Jesus finds us. I don’t mean to disparage the conversion experiences people may have had. People may “invite Jesus into their hearts” — that is, take Jesus in like any other consumable object — and Jesus comes because God is gracious. But to persist in that understanding, is less than what we’re called to be. We are called to maturity. A mature Christian knows that we are not at the center of the universe. There is an old order of things, and a new order in Christ. A new kingdom is breaking in.
The question is, “Where am I going to be?” Am I going to be “in Jesus” or am I going to be in and of this world?
HOMILETICS: There might be a conceptual difficulty. There is a scriptural metaphor in Revelation for Jesus “coming into our hearts” when Jesus stands at the door and knocks and says, “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in ….” But conceptually it might be more difficult to understand how one is “in Christ.” What does that look like?
WIGG STEVENSON: Our soteriology needs to move from an anthropocentric focus to a Christocentric one. Rather than my salvation being something that’s fundamentally about me, salvation is something that’s fundamentally about Christ. The fact that it’s hard to imagine what it means to be “in Christ” is a deep, deep, implicit condemnation of the church. What it ought to mean to be in Christ is to be in the body of Christ, which is the church. And if the church looked like Christ, we’d have no trouble imagining what it was like to be in Christ. We would understand ourselves to be a part of Christ, of his family. But, because the church is not living up to its mandate, we have a hard time understanding the concept of being in Christ because we’re not sure where Christ is.
HOMILETICS: What is “witness wear”?
WIGG STEVENSON: Witness wear is a whole set of consumer goods that makes it easier to share your faith with people, or so it is claimed. Witness wear is, for example, T- shirts with Christian slogans on them, things which are designed to provoke a conversation in which you can share your faith and evangelize.
HOMILETICS: Yeah, I saw one the other day, a T-shirt that says on the front “LOSER,” and on the back it has a reference to losing your life and saving it. This is great stuff!
WIGG STEVENSON: The witness wear?
WIGG STEVENSON: I’m going to get myself in trouble with the “Witness Wear” section in the book. I just know it. The contention in the book is that witness wear basically proclaims the wearer; it doesn’t proclaim Christ. We have put ourselves at the center of our faith, and although we have a personal relationship with Jesus, it’s one where I am at the center of it and Jesus comes to me.
HOMILETICS: But there can’t be anything really bad about wearing this “Christian” T-shirt rather than wearing another T-shirt that says, “My Mom Went to Hawaii and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” Surely a “witness” T-shirt is at the very least not worse than some other T-shirt. So what? So no one gets “saved” because of the “witness wear”? It does identify you as someone who embraces a certain set of values.
WIGG STEVENSON: The trouble is that in that very move we are conforming to the understanding of the consumerist culture: We are what we wear.
HOMILETICS: But there’s no way to escape that. Is there? No matter what we put on, no matter what we wear, it’s going to identify us in some way. So if that’s the case, then perhaps we should make some choices as to what that identity is going to be. I wear a T-shirt that says, “Jesus is the Real Thing.” I’m suggesting that I am someone who values forgiveness, honesty, redemption and so forth.
WIGG STEVENSON: I can understand that. Yes, we inevitably tell people who we are by what we wear. The question is, are we going to embrace that and celebrate it? If so, you are buying into consumerist thinking, and if you give yourself over to that line of thinking, then you’ve got to wonder what other parts of your life you’re going to surrender to that sort of thinking. The moment you say that you can express your identity as a Christian by what you wear, you’ve ceded the ground to the consumerist advocate. Christianity is just one consumerist identity along with hippie, punk, grunge, Goth, yuppie and what have you.
HOMILETICS: You are arguing that it would be better for a Christian to wear culturally neutral clothing so that his identity as a person who is committed to Jesus Christ would be expressed in other non-consumerist ways?
WIGG STEVENSON: I don’t even know if you can wear culturally neutral clothing. You have to just say, “Yeah, what I wear is going to define me, but it doesn’t define my faith.”
HOMILETICS: Not define it, but it can express it. The nun wears a habit, the Mennonites, the priest wears the collar.
WIGG STEVENSON: James raises the clothing issue, concerned as he was about how people reacted to those in fine clothing as opposed to those whose clothes were shabby.
HOMILETICS: Toward the end of your book you have some very strong analysis, and even you call it a “dour” analysis. How do you propose that the situation you describe be fixed? When people get to the end of your book, your reader is going to ask, “Well, what does Mr. Wigg Stevenson expect from me as a response?”
WIGG STEVENSON: I don’t want to be simplistic, but there has been and always will be a sinful order of things. It will take different forms. This book tries to capture what systemic sin looks like in our day, time and place. The solution is always the same. It’s not new; it’s not novel. The solution is to follow Jesus and grow to be more like him. That’s it. We do this as individuals, but I would argue that individuals can only do this within the church, and then only when the body is willing to take the hard, narrow road of discipleship which leads to looking like Christ over time.
We have to be careful about what we do. If we say that it’s Christ vs. consumerism, we’ve belittled Christ. Christ doesn’t have competitors and we can’t live as if we’re his bodyguards. So we can’t say that we’re going to “beat” consumerism. The sinful world is bigger than we are; we are not equipped to take it on, nor are we called to destroy any sinful orders. We’re called to be more like Christ. If the church could live the way Paul describes the church in Romans 12-15 and if they got that right, then turn to the Sermon on the Mount and internalize that, then consumerism wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not a matter of battling consumerism; it’s a matter of being more like Jesus.
The reason I have a rather “dour” outlook is because at one time the crisis in the church was nationalism and we’ve seen where that went. So I think the church is going to buy into consumerism, but I am hoping there will be a “faithful remnant” who will live a life that’s a faithful witness to what God has done in Christ and the kingdom that’s coming, and live in a way that keeps this message alive in the world.
Yes, this is a “dour” outlook, but on the other hand I don’t have to save the world. I just have to serve the one who did. I don’t have to save the church. Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church.
I meant the book simply to be a call to faithfulness. There’s nothing more to it than that.
HOMILETICS: How has the writing of the book affected you or changed you personally?
WIGG STEVENSON: I was never much of a shopper, but any sort of inclination that I had has now been drummed right out of me. On a personal level, I try to buy fewer things. I don’t think that the answer is to simply buy fewer things, but it did change me internally. I thought, “My life doesn’t reflect the simplicity of a disciple of Jesus.” My wife and I just bought our first house. We tried to buy more simply than we could actually afford. When you buy a house you are buying into a way of living. We wrestled a lot with what it meant to own property.
Theologically, it has made me much more concerned with issues of money and the church body as a whole. When I talk about the church, I get funny looks. I’ve come to the conclusion that the church in America is not really making disciples. It’s a place where people gather, but not a place where disciples are made.