I Shop Therefore I Am
Every culture has a story of redemption, a way of fixing what is broken deep inside, a way of finding hope for the future, meaning in the present, and covering the shame of the past. To understand a culture and its story of redemption, David F. Wells, the Christian theologian and cultural pundit, says you must first find its healers.
Who are the healers of 21st Century Post-Christian-Man? According to Wells, there are two: The Advertiser and the Therapist. The first bombards us with an endless collage of images, opportunities to purchase what is missing, to appear significant, to cover the uncomfortable sense that we are all naked.
Ad Men are skilled at this redemptive role, connecting their product with the dolce vita. Even advertisements for products as seemingly innocuous as dishwashing soap. With the passing years, have you noticed how these adverts have changed? When I was a lad, adverts for dishwashing soap tended to compare one brand of soap with its leading competitor. At the end of the sales pitch, you were left in no doubt which brand was scientifically proven to wash more dishes faster.
Now the sales pitch has changed. What the modern advert sells is not so much the product, but the life that goes along with it. The message is clear: beautiful people who live beautiful lives use this product. It’s all part of the package deal. If you want the one, you must buy the other. If you don’t there will always be something missing about your American Dream.
The images used intensify for the premium products. The luxury car is never stuck in a traffic jam, it’s never full of angry, whining children, all wanting to go home NOW! No, those who drive this kind of car never have to bother with those kinds of things. At speed, the car moves silently, effortlessly, mesmerizingly down the open road. Inside all is calm. At the wheel sits a svelte, tanned, mature man. By his side sits the picture-perfect woman, her body angled towards his, her eyes locked on his chiseled jaw line, she is hungry for him, all of him. And you are left in absolutely no doubt: it’s all the car’s fault! If you want his life, you must buy his car. The message is clear: buying is the way to life. You feel naked because you are. Cover yourself with these possessions, trust us, you’ll feel much better.
The second healer of our culture, the therapist, works on a deeper problem. The sense of shame that haunts us all. That we are not just naked on the outside as others look at us, but we are also empty on the inside as we look at ourselves-- empty of real goodness, of true substance, of deep virtue. The Therapist offers hope. He will listen as we talk, as we express ourselves. In response, he will nod understandingly, perhaps even approvingly. He will absolve us of shame, tell us such feelings are normal, everyone has them, give us some technique to practice, some mantra to recite when the nightmares return, and we will leave feeling better. But feeling better is very different from being better, just as feeling good is different from being good. The shame will return, and we will have to return for more talking. All of this, of course, is little more than confession without repentance and redemption without a redeemer. It’s a circle of lies in a desert of death.
To such a culture, the church must beware lest she peddles the same worthless shtick, of trying to become the place where all the cool people flock in their nice SUV’s and their beautiful families for a little spiritual therapy – self-help messages designed to help them feel better by doing better – better in their marriages, better in their parenting, better in their bible-reading, better in their out-reaching, better in their gospel sharing. Redemption is offered, but it is salvation from being unimportant
Consider one advertisement for a megachurch in Arizona,
Stronger family relationships . . . Greater satisfaction at work . . . And even better sex . . . and you can get all these things through Church. . . . Hey, we’re not making this stuff up. It’s happening every day, every week, all across America. Don’t get us wrong — you don’t walk through the doors of a church and suddenly your family likes you better and your allergies clear up. There are no magic potions to happiness. But a good church gives you a place to explore what God has to say about the kinds of everyday problems we all face: family relationships, stress, sex, ethics, work, health, romance, kids . . . well, you’re human — you know the list. Church should make a difference in your life Monday through Saturday, too . . . not just for an hour on Sunday.
In his book, The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, David Wells gives this timely warning to Churches who follow this model, and attempt to draw people to church by marketing the felt needs of a particular “target” audience.
“(The Marketing model, when followed consistently) empties the truth out of the gospel. First, the needs consumers have are needs they identify for themselves. The needs sinners have are needs God identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them. We suppress the truth about God, holding it down in "unrighteousness" (Rom. 1:18). We are not subject to his moral law and in our fallenness are incapable of being obedient to it (Rom. 8:7), so how likely is it, outside of the intervention of God through the Holy Spirit, that we will identify our needs as those arising from our rebellion against God? No, the product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel. It will be a therapy of some kind, a technique for life, perhaps a way of connecting more deeply with our own spiritual selves on our own terms, terms that require no repentance and no redemption. It will not be the gospel. The gospel cannot be a product that the church sells because there are no consumers for it. When we find consumers, we will find that what they are interested in buying, on their own terms, is not the gospel. Furthermore, when we buy a product, we buy it for our use. When we accept Christ, he is not there for our use but we are there for his service. We commit ourselves to him in a way that we do not commit ourselves selves to any product. There is a world of difference between the Lord of Glory, the incarnate second person of the Godhead, and a Lexus, a vacation home, or a trip to the Bahamas. The marketing analogy blurs all of this, reducing Christ simply to a product we buy to satisfy our needs. What is destroyed along the way are the biblical doctrines of sin, of the incarnation, and of redemption. The marketing analogy is the wrong analogy. It is deeply harmful to Christian faith. This harm is immediately apparent when we see that it has produced a kind of spirituality that is indistinguishable from the spirituality in the culture. That spirituality is predominantly non-Christian. This cultural spirituality, to which I will return in a later chapter, is hostile to Christian faith. Christian faith is about revealed truth, doctrine trine that is to be believed, moral norms that should be followed, and church life in which participation is expected. Our cultural spirituality wants none of this…
As we press on together as a congregation through these halcyon days of encouraging growth, may we all remember to offer what God is offering. Most of all, may God help us be the kind of Church where God is God, where the gospel is our only hope, and where sinners worship before an audience of One. At this point the marketers are spot on: “The consumer is always right!” But when it comes to worship the consumer is not man, it is the Lord of glory. His presence in our midst is always what matters most of all. It matters not if all the world comes to our church if He doesn’t. Nothing can atone for His absence. May God keep us from such a fate, and meet with us this Lord’s Day. To that end, let us pray. Sunday is coming!