Culture At Large

A Gospel guide to Christmas shopping

Jordan J. Ballor

The Christmas shopping season is in full swing, and the early returns show a significant uptick in online purchases on Cyber Monday. For many, the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving are filled with alerts, newsletters, Tweets and Facebook posts highlighting the latest and greatest deals. Many sites offer tips about how to maximize your shopping experience through a variety of strategies. Most of us shop at this time of year, but a key question becomes how to do so most efficiently and prudently. How can we “hack” the shopping experience?

The Atlantic recently published a piece offering advice for overcoming the snap decision to buy, which can have serious consequences later on. Marketers are becoming savvier as research provides insights into how humans make decisions. In addition, the kinds of information that can be gathered from shopping online allows stores to gather a great amount of data related to an individual’s preferences, needs and habits and tailor their advertisement to maximize sales.

For Christians, there are a couple of key points to keep in mind. First, there is a basic reality at work in these market transactions that must be respected: the free choice of the human person. All of these techniques used by marketers and retailers are attempts to “nudge” shoppers into becoming buyers. There are methods that are increasingly sophisticated and seemingly invisible. We are influenced by things we don’t even recognize consciously. But at the point of sale, so to speak, each one of us exercises our free choice to buy something or not. This is the fundamental dynamic of exchange in a free economy.

A second point arises immediately out of this. We are called to exercise our free choice responsibly. We don’t simply shop in a vacuum; that’s what gives marketing and advertising its power. Each person’s intellect interacts with his or her will and is further influenced by appetites, dispositions and habits. Each Christian has a responsibility to cultivate habits that help us to exercise our free choice in a fashion that conforms to God’s will.

We don’t simply shop in a vacuum; that’s what gives marketing and advertising its power.

Cultivating this kind of character is something that occurs in a complex environment. We get advice, guidance and models for behavior at home. We receive instruction about God’s will and our responsibilities in church and school. Popular culture provides us with differing and often conflicting views about the connection between material wealth and human happiness.

The world often tells us that we will find happiness and the good life by buying more of the latest and greatest. Build up material goods, we are told, and you will enter into happiness. The danger in this message is that it includes a partial truth. God has provided a world full of grace and blessing for His creatures to use and enjoy. But the key for Christians is to properly value these material blessings relative to eternal goods. Such things are good, but they are not the ultimate Good. And when we confuse or conflate the two, we deny God the glory that He is due. This is what it means to commit idolatry and is the reason that the Bible so clearly and so often opposes the worship of wealth alongside the worship of God.

Jesus provides us with the clearest statement about the proper relationship between temporal goods and eternal happiness. Things like clothes and food are good and important, says Jesus, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” This is a critical insight to keep in mind as we try to properly relate our consumption and Christmas.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Economics, Theology & The Church, Christmas & Easter