First of all, thanks to Robert, one of this blog’s best readers and a friend of mine, for tracking this essay down and linking to it on his own blog. It’s a classic in my mind, and I’m glad to revisit it for this blog.
Rodney Clapp has been, for many of us who are somehow descended intellectually from George Lindbeck and John Howard Yoder, one of the great popularizers of those streams of Christian theology. While neither Lindbeck nor Yoder is terribly difficult to read, nonetheless, for a weary first year seminary student, sailing through Clapp’s treatment of narrative and theology in terms of jazz music, X Files, and Winnie the Pooh was a welcome respite from Hebrew paradigms and historical-critical Bible study.
At any rate, this 1996 article rehearses some of the history behind the rise of consumerism and ends with a clear call to Christians for resistance:
Our language is one significant indication that consumption is a way of life. We are encouraged to see and interpret more and more of our activities in terms of consumption. In the language of marketers, people who go to movies are not “audiences,” but “consumers”; those who go to school are no longer “students,” but “educational consumers.” People who visit a physician are no longer “patients,” those who go to church are no longer “worshipers,” those who go to libraries and bookstores are no longer “readers,” those who go to restaurants are no longer “diners.” All are as frequently designated “consumers.”
The church must examine and challenge consumerism at exactly this point. What sort of people does consumer capitalism want us to be? What are the key character traits of the consumer par excellence? And how do these stack up against the standards and aims of Christian character?
His answers come, in good Yoder-and-Lindbeck fashion, from the resources of earlier Christians. He notes that Augustine condemned unlimited and unfocused desire as a species of idolatry and points out the obviousu plural grammar of classical Christian prayers and creeds as evidence that modern individualism at the very least changes something important in the thought-patterns of the faithful. He wraps up with examinations of a couple resistance movements to consumerism, ways of life that put family and faithfulness above consumption.
To close he offers the phrase “priestly stewardship” as an alternative to “consumerism”:
Priestly stewardship suggests that creation is not just for us, that it has purpose independent of the uses we can make of it. All of creation-human and nonhuman alike-exists ultimately for God and to the praise of God. Significantly, God in Genesis 1 pronounces the rest of creation “good” before humanity is created. The psalmist and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel can speak of mountains, trees, sun, and moon praising God. Unlike an office complex or gymnasium, which have no value if people do not inhabit them, creation can glorify and bring God delight apart from human presence. Plants, animals-and the Calders’ mountain lake that “talks” to its Creator-exist first and foremost not for human use or enjoyment, but for God’s pleasure. Christians can affirm much of the environmentalist agenda in its effort to preserve creation for its own sake.
Priestly stewardship is quick to admit and encourage appreciation of God’s wonder and delight in his creation. After all, it emphasizes that the right end and ordering of all creation is doxological, oriented toward the praise of God.
Obviously this little summary is inadequate to the article, so I encourage folks to take a look and enjoy some good and readable Christian theology.