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Posted April 14, 2004

Book: Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture
Author: Vincent J. Miller
Continuum, New York, pp. 256

Excerpt from the Jacket:

The most profound problem with consumerism, argues Vincent Miller, is not the consumption of consumer goods, but the ways in which it trains us to treat everything, including religion., as an object of consumerism. “Consuming Religion” surveys almost a century of scholarly literature on consumerism, from the rise of a culture of commodities to the flowering of the commodification of culture, and charts the ways in which religious belief and practice have been transformed by the dominant consumer culture of the West. Befitting a work of theology that takes culture seriously, the range of reference is enormous, from hip-hop and “The Lion King” to Gallic social theorists such as Henri Lefebvre, Guy Dubord, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel de Certeau, not to mention a variety of modern and contemporary theological movements. Along the way are rifts on the cult of religious celebrity, whether Buddhist or Catholic, male or female. All is grist for Miller’s mill, which is to demonstrate the significance of this seismic culture shift for theological method, doctrine, belief, community, and theological anthropology. Like Pope John Paul II and other religious figures and commentators, “Consuming Religion” takes a critical stand against the deleterious effects of consumerism. However, in good dialectical fashion, it also strives to consider certain positive aspects of the transformation of religious faith and practice that have accompanied the rise of consumer culture, aspects such as the explosive growth of popular agency. The analytical complexity of “Consuming Religion” provides the basis for developing more sophisticated tactics for addressing these problems.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The Therapeutic Self

The terms of the critique are immediately familiar: contemporary religion has been transformed into a narcissistic, therapeutic enterprise by generations of rootless “seekers” who lack allegiance to religious institutions or communities. “So long as there is a consumer market to cater for, especially in its postmodern cultural form, spiritual Disneylands will thrive. Ignoring tradition-based limits to consumption, they cannot operate as religion. The payoff, however, lies with what can therefore be offered — provisions for those intent on ‘narcissistically pleasing themselves.’” Paul Heelas’s comments continue a criticism now (at least) four decades old. In the mid-1960s Philip Rieff spoke of the “Triumph of the Therapeutic, where, deprived of any transcendent good or even shared communal values, human existence is reduced to “an intensely private sense of well-being.” Focusing on the work of psychoanalytic writers such as C.G. Jung and D.H. Lawrence, he charted the reconfiguration of Western Christianity into a therapeutic enterprise. Christopher Lasch’s influential account “The Culture of Narcissism” contrasts this therapeutic sensibility with traditional religion. People no longer hunger for salvation or an era of justice, but for “the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” He attributes the genesis of this sensibility to the bureaucratic complexities of modern existence, which erode peoples’ “everyday competence.” The resulting dependence is manifested psychologically as narcissism, where a “grandiose, narcissistic, infantile, empty self” depends on others to validate its existence. Morality is replaced with a shallow ideal of psychic equilibrium. Shorn of its disruptive challenge, religion becomes a mere coping mechanism employed to smooth the contradictions of the middle-class status quo.

Table of Contents:

1. How to think about consumer culture
It’s about more than values
Culture and belief
Religion and culture
A working model of culture

2. The Commodification of Culture
Twentieth-Century capitalism
The commodification of culture

3. Consumer Religion
Gregorian Chant, Herman Melville’s nephew, and the Marquis de Sade
The dual dynamisms of commodification in religion
The consumer self and religious traditions
Religious leaders and media
Style and reception

4. Desire and the Kingdom of God
The origins of consumer desire
The nature of consumer desire
Consumer and religious desires

5. The Politics of Consumption
The seriousness of conspicuous consumption
Pierre Bourdieu and distinction
The agency of consumers

6. Popular Religion in Consumer Culture
Theology and popular religion
Robert Orsi and devotion to St. Jude
“Lived” religion and theology
Tradition and bricolage

7. Stewarding Religious Traditions in Consumer Culture
Countering commodification in general
Countering the commodification of culture
Countering the commodification of religion