Capitulation to the Gospel of Consumption

A friend I well respect recommended James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation as a thought-provoking book on worship, our most basic motivators, and cultural liturgies. Smith’s thesis is that we are not fundamentally thinking creatures, but desiring creatures. That is, our primary motivation does not come from a top-down model (head informing heart, knowledge preceding desire), but from a bottom-up model, with the heart or gut informing and motivating the mind. Thus, to Smith, emphasizing worldview and doctrinal training rather than focusing on worship and practice is backwards and hopelessly rational. Smith argues that our doctrine and belief should flow from our worship and practice, and not vice versa. One ironic example of this is that amid Reformed circles’ criticism of neo-Gnosticism, we often employ a “bobble-head Christianity” whose focus is all on the head at the expense of fully realizing our embodied existence while neglecting the importance of the body’s role in forming belief and practice.

I’m not sure I’m convinced of his premise just yet, for one reason or another. One reason is that the premise was fully founded on philosophy and anthropology (weighing heavily on existentialists) rather than also using Scripture. There are false dichotomies present and I have had a nagging feeling that I have been reading a veiled postmodern anti-intellectualist book (though he claims he is not advocating for such). I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise, I was just hoping for a little more to convince me. When it comes down to it, I don’t think the relationship between head/heart is an either/or but a synergistic both/and relationship. That said, I’m enjoying the book as a thought provoking and engaging read. His analysis of cultural/secular liturgies like the mall, sporting events, and the university is excellent, as is his discussion of the importance of having thoughtful, well-rounded corporate worship practices.

At the risk of posting something out of context and without the dozens of pages leading up to this point, here’s a passage I enjoyed on the evangelical church’s inadequate response to the “liturgies” of consumerism:

“Unfortunately, the Christian response to the liturgies of consumerism is often woefully inadequate, even a sort of parody of the mall. Rather than properly countering the liturgy of consumption, the church ends up mimicking it, merely substituting Christian commodities – “Jesufied” versions of worldly products, which are acquired, accumulated, and disposed of to make room for the new and the novel. This happens, I think, mainly because we fail to see the practices of consumption as liturgies. Typical Christian analysis of the situation, including the critique of materialism (where that still happens), tends to focus on what is being purchased, rather than calling into question the gospel of consumption – the sense that acquisition brings happiness and fulfillment. So instead, the evangelical community simply replays the gospel of consumption but with “Jesus” stuff (a quick visit to any local Christian bookstore – more likely now described as a “gift shop” – will confirm this point). We even end up reconfiguring “church” by this strange “other” gospel where God can be reduced to a commodity. The wisdom of historical liturgy offers a very different sort of response.”

-James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), p. 103

An application of this capitulation to consumerism in the church is music. Pop music is the soundtrack of consumerism with its transience; emphasis on charts, sales, and celebrity; domination of the new and novel at the expense of quality and depth; manipulation of emotions but with shallow lyrics and music, and radical individualism. It’s no different with Christian pop music, which has infiltrated the church by way of celebrities and radio. In the church, the adoption of church-pop music that is essentially sub-par mimicry of secular pop music further adds to the commodification of Christianity and consumerism in the church. After hearing some of this church-pop after being removed from it for several years, it is jarring how much of it is poorly mimicked pop music that employs formulaic manipulation with rising choruses and catchy riffs that mask shallow lyrics and poor musicianship. Because of the nature of pop music (and popular culture in general), churches that have adopted this music style are left with trying to keep up with the latest trends and catchy hooks of church-pop under the guise of being “relevant,” or find themselves unable to keep up and stuck in 1994. But as Gordon notes (or maybe it was Myers?), church-pop is actually not relevant because if the unchurched or young were looking for good pop music (oxymoron?), they would do better to look outside church-pop.

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