In the movie Twelve Monkeys, Brad Pitt’s character gets worked up into a psychotic excitement and utters these prophetic words:
“There’s the television. It’s all right there, it’s all right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials. We’re not productive anymore; we’re not used to making things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff? If you don’t, what are you, I ask you? What?”
Is that just a delusional rant in a science fiction movie or an undeniable truth that haunts us?
It is fallacy to promote the idea that an ever-expanding consumption of goods is always advantageous. Is the economy entirely dependent upon our willingness to surrender pieces of our soul at the altar of consumerism?
“Look, listen, kneel, pray.” That phrase echoes Scripture, which isn’t accidental. Marketing gurus realize that zillions can be made by couching their appeals in religious imagery. Tapping into our spiritual dimension to stir the deepest waters of our soul has become the norm rather than the exception.
We have been wired by our Creator to be connected to him. We are free to accept or reject that reality. We are even free to play games with it, engaging in culturally respectable religiosity without experiencing the presence or peace of God.
However, the result of rejection or a superficial response is that we will need to fill the God-sized vacuum in our lives with one idol or another. And yes, despite protestations to the contrary, idolatry is alive and well in our society.
Fact is, advertisers succeed with their ploys because consumerism is the number one false god of our society. We regularly bow down to the glittering beast without recognizing the insidious ways it dominates our lives.
Our acquiescence has had a pervasive effect on our values, fostering self-absorbed patterns whereby we routinely indulge in recreational shopping. Many churches are half-empty, but the corridors of commerce are crowded with worshipers making the mecca-like pilgrimage from mall to mall.
We live in a world where people suffer deprivations impossible for affluent North Americans to comprehend, yet we exhaust our lives acquiring trinkets that will ultimately be discarded. Here today, gone and forgotten tomorrow.
At the altar of consumerism, our self-esteem becomes determined by our income; our self-worth is tied up in the vehicle that we drive, even though the final destiny of the flashiest model will be a scrapheap. Keeping up appearances has never gone out of style, so we willingly sacrifice relationships to maintain a debt-ridden lifestyle that inflates our ego and makes us feel important.
The false god of consumerism has no grace or mercy. It has a voracious hunger that requires more and more offerings. To satisfy its requirements, we accumulate possessions on top of possessions, seemingly unaware that we are collecting fodder for junkyards. Our landfills are overflowing with all the vital gadgets and baubles that at one time were deemed necessary or even indispensable.
Are we just consumers? Are we merely here to gleefully spend, spend, spend our way to that place where sixty second commercials assure us happiness resides? Are we nothing more than tools the government uses to track the consumer index and economic upswings? Are we mindless automatons responding to the slick fliers and snappy jiggles like a frenzied version of Pavlov’s dog?
Or are we relational beings designed to be in community with each other?
Not surprisingly, Jesus of Nazareth had something to say about consumerism:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What does it mean to store up treasures in heaven? Look, listen, kneel, pray; Jesus was speaking about centering our lives on what our Creator requires of us: To mirror justice, compassion and humility; to put people and relationships ahead of the dog eat dog imperatives of consumerism. That is a radical concept, but we must understand that temporal economic fluctuations matter not in eternity.
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