Monday, May 08, 2006

Consumer Culture & the Catechumenate

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Dell deChant's Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture. Part of why I read this book is for a class project, doing a cultural comparison between our own time and the 2nd- 4th centuries of the common era (see previous post here).

Against those who suggest that America is becoming more and more secular, deChant argues -- persuasively, I think -- that it is, in fact, more and more religious. But not in the traditional sense of religion as we understand it. We think of religion as a system that locates the ground of being in the transcendent realm. America's religion, deChant argues, is cosmological; the great force that must be understood through myth and appeased through ritual is not Nature, but the Economy. Yes, that's right. When you go buy something, especially to do your part as an American to buoy the economy, you are pouring out an oblation to the gods.

DeChant expertly (and humorously) identifies the "sacred" stories that are conveyed through film, TV, and mass media advertising; and the ritual activities we perform, i.e. watching sports on TV, going shopping at the mall, etc.

The field of religious studies always looks at the way communities of faith shape time. DeChant suggests that the primary way in which our culture shapes time is not the agrarian calendar (born of an ancient cosmological religiosity), nor the Christian calendar. Rather, he says, we have an entire economic calendar organized around economic festivals -- holy days where we are "liberated from the profane realm of work and production" and are ushered into the "sacred times and climes of uninhibited acquisition-consumption-disposal." As you might guess, the "Santa" holiday is the primary festival in this calendar (lasting for an entire month). The rest of the calendar, based on consumer spending rates throughout the year, includes the Major Holy Days of Valentine's Day and Easter, the Secondary Holy Days of Super Bowl Sunday, President's Day, the "Back-to-School" festival, and numerous minor holy days and feast days such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Halloween.

DeChant argues that our current society is much more like ancient urban/pagan societies where the sacred manifests itself "through diversity rather than uniformity, with rituals related to many gods and spirits that influence every apsect of daily life. Religion is not a separate realm within society, but an aspect of every cultural activity. To participate in culture is to be religious."

So whether we like it or not, aware of it or not, we are part of this culture and its explicitly religious dimension. A dimension, need we say it, that is decidedly un-Christian. The question then, for those who follow Jesus, is this: to what extent are we called to separate ourselves from this culture and its permeating pagan economic religiousity? To what extent must we reject these ritual activities that affirm trust in a god other than the One true God? To what extent must we as the Church form our communities through practices, stories, and understandings of time that are counter-cultural?

In the back of my head as I'm reading this book is a list of professions that the early church saw as incompatible with the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ. This list is found in the early 3rd century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. These professions include many that were just part of everyday culture -- but because that everyday culture was thoroughly imbued with religious meaning, these occupations were seen as infected with idolatry: prostitutes and pimps, idol sculptors and painters, actors, teachers, gladiators, athletic trainers, musicians and dancers, magicians, hairdressers, fortune-tellers, soldiers, those in authority (wearing purple).

So after all this what I'm wondering is this: If the Church had a genuinely counter-cultural catechumenate process in place today, what sorts of professions would we deem incompatible with the life of discipleship to Jesus? If DeChant is right about the economic/cultural religion of America, what occupations are infected with the idolatry of the system? I've got some ideas. What are yours?

(By the way, do a click on the picture of the book to see it up close. Worth the paperback price by itself.)


Mary said...

Fascinating post, RR. You're really getting smart there in grad school!

As to incompatible jobs: I was sitting in my doc's waiting room today and saw three drug reps plying their trade. Boxes of pills, plus the free band-aids, post-it notes, and magnets that promote said pill. Yes, some will arguge that drugs are helpful in many ways, etc, etc, but the drug industry has an 18% profit margin--more than just about every other industry. And they guard their patents jealously, in some cases preventing the poor and sickly of other countries from having access to necessary meds. I have a friend from UI who's writing his thesis on this.

I realize as a Lilly-funded person (though in a very small way) that I may be biting the hand that feeds me. C'est la vie.

Another job incompatible with the faith: homiletics prof. We become so sanctified by listening to sermon after sermon that it creates envy in others; we begin to literally glow with holiness. After 80+ sermons, John R and I are radioactive.

Ron Rienstra said...


Some good suggestions. I was thinking specifically about those occuptions that are the modern equivalent of those musicians and dancers and gladiators (entertainers?), and others who are the high priests of the consumer religion (high-finance folk?). Of course, this is WAY too simplistic, but it does make me wonder...