More than church shopping
“… the habits we learn as consumers in the market economy tend to carry over to other dimensions of life. Thus we are conditioned to approach religion as a commodity, as just another consumer good alongside toothpaste and vacation homes. Think, for instance, of the commonplace practice of ‘church shopping.’ This is to say, capitalism encouraged a shallow, decontextualized engagement with religious beliefs… These objections do not require anything of me; they entail no particular commitment or engagement. They do not bind me to any particular people or community. Rather, they function only to serve the end(s) or purpose(s) I choose, which, in the case of religious choices, might include shoring up my self-image as ‘spiritual,’ or provide meaning amid the stresses of my middle-class life or the right values of my children.” (p. 21)
In The Economy of Desire, Bell critiques capitalism using the theories of anticapitalistic philosophers (in this case, Deleuze and Foucault). Rather than merely siding with their Marxist philosophies, he presents a radical alternative to capitalism: the divine economy. Using the tools at his disposal, he manages to deconstruct capitalism and not just form another philosophical alternative. In fact, those alternatives (like socialism, anarchism, communism), Bell argues, are often still absorbed by the capitalist system, and subsequently repackaged and marketed for profit—consider the revolutionary work of Che Guevara, who is known more as an image plastered on T-shirts than as a revolutionary.
Can a Christian exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? Bell’s answer is decidedly “no.” Without Christians creating an alternative, we will all be subject to the will of capitalism. Truly, we cannot serve two masters. Whether that means we become church shoppers or we simply look for what we are getting out of worship, making sure it meets our needs (needs that perhaps aren’t actually ours, but are what the advertisers have told us are ours), it seems like the market often tempts us.
Undoing the script
One who has declared to follow Jesus, may need to resist the temptation to become a cog in the capitalist machine—that’s not so easy. We could make our own consideration of capitalism another product of the rat race—this time, rather than not being wealthy enough, we could not be pious enough, still caught in “not enough.” Grace, forgiveness, and understanding—especially of oneself—subverts the capitalist notion we are not good enough.
While resisting that temptation, you might find a script that the capitalists have sold you that you can undo. When you discover that script, rewrite it in a way that honors God and his endless love. For instance: “I am what I own” moves to “I belong to God.” Or, “I deserve what I work for” moves to “Grace is the free gift of God.”
I think the main script I want to undo here is about how we participate in the church. I think, like Bell notes, the church has been commoditized just like everything else in the capitalist system. Now it has packaging, marketing, and branding. I’m not sure that people need something else to consume. Consumption can rule us. We have endless appetites, stretched out proverbial stomachs, that can take a lot of material and content! For the “church service” to just be another show is a little banal. It lacks the competitive edge.
You are the church, not what you own
So, for me, I don’t have a commitment to making sure I’m more entertaining than Master of None, because I want to offer something that’s more than merely consumable. I want to offer an opportunity to connect to something bigger than who we are as individuals. You are not what you own. You are the church.
This “theology” is crucial, so I am going to be as redundant as possible. This isn’t a product you buy, it isn’t a company you work for, it’s a community, filled with the Spirit, that you are part of. That you are. You own the church. And not just a part of it, like a stockholder hoping for a great return on investment. You own all of it. And I think we are responsible for it.
We’re looking for partners in what we are doing. That’s a high demand. I want you to consider that partnership as you connect, knowing, honestly, however you are able to connect is OK. You may not be there yet, and you may never get there. That’s OK. I’m willing to meet you where you are. So is God.