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Cultural consumption as Christian witness

Brett McCracken

“Consumer” is a four-letter word to many in the world today, mostly because of its association with the concept of “consumerism,” the great bogeyman of capitalistic society, which leaves a trail of trash, credit-card debt, grease and candy wrappers wherever it goes. The word connotes something indulgent, reckless and altogether unseemly.

But at its most basic level, the word “consumer” is a neutral thing. We are all consumers. Almost daily we participate in transactions for cultural goods and experiences that we consume (usually) for a price. When done well, “consuming” culture can be a healthy, wonderful activity that contributes to personal growth as well as broader human flourishing.

I believe Christians should lead the charge in rehabilitating the concept of being a “consumer of culture.” For too long we’ve been complicit in the broader culture’s cheapening of consumption. We’ve been bad consumers. We’ve been reckless in both the scale (overindulging) and the selectivity (undiscerning) of our consumer habits. We’ve been too prone to fall for glossy advertising, too undisciplined to resist what we know isn’t good for us and too willing to make consumer choices based mostly on questions like, “Will it make me look cool?”

But now, of all times, Christians must not be haphazard in how they consume. Why? Because consumerism is now irrevocably bound up with identity. Technology has made our consumption all the more conspicuous. Our consumer lives are fully on display on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Amazon (and other sites yet to come) where we willingly, deliberately identify ourselves by the brands, books, bands and products we like. On our “profiles,” we are defined by our “likes,” so that who we are to the world appears mostly as an ingredient listing of consumer tastes and preferences. Consumerism has become the front line of our witness, the outer layer of identity.

Therefore, in this fast-paced, consumerism-as-social-media-identity world, Christians must be more intentional about being present, active and critical in our consumer choices. People are watching. We are observed, processed, known through our consumptive habits. What message are we sending?

Consumerism has become the front line of our witness, the outer layer of identity.

But we should also be passionate about engaging and consuming culture well because we want to know God more through His creation. We should live our consumer lives with the overarching goal of wanting to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” understanding that God speaks to us everywhere - in food and drink, in melodies and rhythms, in the multiplex and the church sanctuary, on the beach or atop a mountain. Indeed, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

We should be better consumers because at the end of the day, the very activity of consuming culture is an extravagant gift of God. We don’t deserve it. But we have it nonetheless. We should make the most of it.

In contrast to the prevailing understanding of “consumer” in our culture, for Christians it should not primarily be about us; it should be about God.

Christians cannot be good consumers unless they are first, foremost and passionately consumed by Christ. He must be at the center of our lives: the Giver of all good things who gave Himself up for us so that we would have life and have it abundantly.

If we are utterly consumed by Him, oh how our perspective as consumers should change! We will no longer consume primarily for immediate gratification or to satisfy some desire to communicate superior status - because we’ll realize that the pleasures go deeper than that. We will no longer consume on binges or in excess, because we’ll see that the short-lived thrills of “me”-centered consumption pale in comparison to the joys of a more careful consumption, one that is focused on Christ and community. We will start to enjoy things more profoundly as we see them in a context far greater than the iConsume model of a billion little islands of cultural intake.

This is a modified excerpt from Brett McCracken’s recently released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, which addresses the need for a healthier, more nuanced approach to consuming culture as Christians. The book focuses on four “genres” of consuming culture - eating, drinking, listening and watching - while also laying out general principles of healthy approaches to culture from a Christian perspective.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment, Theology & The Church, Faith