In this guest post, theologian, author and speaker Eve Poole shares a summary of her book Buying God: Consumerism and Theology.
Buying God unites theoretical work on theology, capitalism and consumerism with a scheme of detailed practical action. It examines both theological and secular insights on the logic of consumerism, and explores how Christians should behave in the marketplace, both individually and collectively. The book argues that, while desire is fundamentally human, consumerism can only ever offer illusory satisfaction. Only a yearning for God can truly fulfil our heart’s desire. Christianity happens to be unusually well-equipped to lead the fight against Mammon’s most alluring secular narratives. Consumerism is human action, so it can as easily be redemptive as it can be parasitical. We just need to consume for God instead.
It’s easy to feel utterly overwhelmed by the gleeful global triumph of consumerism, at the sight of the queues for yet another Apple launch, or when the latest Disney film character completely possesses your child’s every waking moment, or when you simply must upgrade your phone immediately, while still the loan sharks circle to keep the purchasing cycle in perpetual motion. Enough. We’ve all had enough of it.
But if we can come to terms with the essence of consumerism, we can loose its power over us. And all the sound and fury is fundamentally about the same thing: our search for self-identity. Consumerism can only ever fail, because it cannot satisfy. It lies, because the latest ‘thing’ soon becomes old news, dooming us to spiralling dissatisfaction in our relentless quest to stay on top. But if we accept that we cannot win, and that we are already immeasurably loved, we can start to ask ourselves searching questions about our Pavlovian response to consumer signals. Do we really need that thing? What do we really think it will do for us, deep down, and could it ever?
Easier said than done. But easier perhaps than we’d thought. We don’t need to fight consumerism. Or hide from it. We just need to see it aright, as a false promise, that is not good enough for us. As a child of God, we are worth far more than that. Of course we will yearn, and we will consume, but that is God’s destiny for us, not Mammon’s. Ours is the gift of free will, to guide our choices heavenwards, to school our desire towards God.
Drawing on the Church’s rich traditions of Social Liturgy, the book calls on the Christian community to renew its confidence and strength in proclaiming this good news. It explains how we can wean ourselves off the material and on to the eternal, through prayer, example, and vibrant social action. It includes a Consumer’s Prayer, a Lent Course, a Consumption Audit, an exercise for a Month of Virtue, and useful resource websites, all packaged in an accessible style.
For more from Eve Poole, see her books on capitalism, consumerism and on leadership. Follow Eve Poole on Twitter.
One Reply to “Buying God: Eve Poole on theology and consumerism”
I have read Buying God and I do recommend it. It’s a very interesting read, very relevant to our Joy in Enough programme. But I do think there is one weakness in Eve’s analysis: there is very little discussion of how the powerful modern consumer marketing actually works.
One thing I have learned over the years is the importance of the processes of market segmentation and product differentiation, vital tools of the commercial marketing man. Some examples (from my experience researching car marketing a decade or so ago):
• The Ford Fiesta sold to younger women, those who are very security conscious – esp. young mums wanting to ensure their kids are brought safely to school. One ad even showed the mum driving into the school playground. (This category of young women is the segment here, the Fiesta is the product.)
• Relatedly, this or other car models are sold to the mum who sees a drive to work as a sort of haven of peace between the stress of getting the family out to work, and then arriving into her own work where the floodgates of work demands open up as she puts her key in the office door.
• By contrast certain the high-powered car models are sold to those men (mainly young men) into the thrill of speed.
Of course other people outside the particular segments or niches may buy the product in question. But the marketing messaging for the Fiesta or whatever targets the media that people in the particular niche are most likely to view or listen to.
As Wolfgang Sachs summarised it: no longer a car for everyone (referring to the old VW beetle, ‘the peoples’ car), but for everyone a car. (Sachs, Wolfgang: For Love of the Automobile: Looking Back into the History of Our Desires. – Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1992)
Furthermore these processes have become much more powerful since the advent of social media and the smart phone. If you indicate your ‘likes’ on your Facebook or other social media, such data can be ‘scraped’ off and ‘harvested’ by the various agencies involved in consumer marketing, so that you receive messages about products salient to you – and receive them straight away
An interesting feature of this marketing process is that people like us who are at least trying to live ‘good lives’ (in the sense of living sustainably or living according to Christian values) are probably the least aware of the marketing processes! We tend to buy relatively little and what we buy is fairly predictable, therefore we receive relatively little marketing ‘information’. We spend relatively little time in shopping malls, real or virtual. We don’t tend to commune with hundreds of Friends on Facebook or whatever you do with Instagram on your smart phone. Some of us don’t even have smart phones! These are the media par excellence of transmitting the marketing message.
In the last paragraph of Eve’s post she says: ‘It (her book) explains how we can wean ourselves off the material and on to the eternal, through prayer, example, and vibrant social action.’ Maybe those of us who are already committed Christians and/or environmentalists can. But we are a tiny minority of the population. As the Extinction Rebellion activists vividly remind us this Easter we need urgent action if life on earth is to continue – action that needs to include measures to effectively curtail the manipulatory consumer demand creation processes.
The French government are leading the way by outlawing planned obsolescence. Let’s get a debate going about how we can ensure that firms abide by clear ethically standards in both production and marketing.