In his wonderful book, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith encourages us to reflect on the religious nature of the shopping experience by describing the shopping mall as a place of worship:
The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that harken back to medieval cathedrals – mammoth religious spaces designed to absorb all kinds of religious activities […] As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within – invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms if we so choose. Sometimes we will enter cautiously, curiously, tentatively making our way through the labyrinth within the labyrinth, having a vague sense of need but unsure how it will be fulfilled, and so open to surprise, to that moment where the spirit leads us to an experience we couldn’t have anticipated […] And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. We are invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give; we are invited to take. We don’t leave this transformative experience with just good feeling or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible – with newly minted relics, as it were, which are themselves the means to the good life embodied in the icons who invited us into this participatory moment in the first place.You Are What You Love, p43-45
He argues that the liturgies, or practices, of consumerism are religious activities which shape us in ways that we don’t easily recognise. And they don’t only inform how we relate to things, but how we build relationships and how we approach our spiritual lives.
The pervasive nature of consumerism is challenging because it exists on a level that we are barely aware of. Let’s take an example outside of traditional religious institutions. Let’s say that one day I decide to be a minimalist. The idea of reducing my belongings and the good that would do to my mental disposition and the environment far outweighs the comfort of buying more stuff. So what do I do? I find some blogs which talk about minimalism. I go and buy a book about it. I start choosing which furniture I will buy in my new style of apartment (Muji, maybe?) You see, although I am now a minimalist, I am a minimalist through the overarching system of consumerism – I only really know how to do minimalism as a consumer.
Another example. I decide that I want to be a Christian; that’s my new tribe. so what do I do? I go out and buy books about it. I buy myself a Bible, and an introduction to reading it. I find a book about prayer. I start going to church. In fact, I realise it’s not that simple: I need to find a church that suits my tastes. Does it have music I like? How about the teaching? Does it align with my view on scripture?
Do you see what I’m getting at? Because I am a consumer without even being aware of it, it is the disposition with which I approach all of life.
There are products made to cater to this disposition in every type of consumer imaginable.
Salafists who want to be like the original followers of Muhammad can listen to halal music, or put their money in Islamic bank accounts even though neither of these were present during the Golden Age of Islam.
Vegetarians like myself can buy books about not eating meat, or t-shirts supporting the cause.
None of these things actually make a person more authentically Muslim, or a more serious vegetarian. Having seven Bibles and all the latest Christian pop music doesn’t make me a better follower of Jesus.
But all these things can give a person trained to be a consumer the feeling of authenticity. And the alternatives to consuming our way to the identities we want can be demanding. Being a devout Muslim takes discipline and perseverance. Being a vegetarian means giving up meat. Being a minimalist means letting go of distractions and clutter, not replacing them with (appropriately branded) new distractions and clutter.
So how do we move away from consumerism? Smith suggests that we do it by developing practices (liturgies) that train us to approach the world differently.
If consumerism trains us to see ourselves and our personal gratification as the most important thing, we take on practices that train us otherwise.
The challenge is recognising the formative practices that we already participate in and beginning to imagine counter-practices.