Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review of Vincent Miller's *Consuming Religion*


Miller's 2008 book is one of the best diagnoses I've read of our contemporary culture. I don't normally post academicky stuff, but so be it. I want people to read Miller's work, because I think it's an important for one for Christians. The short version of his thesis is this: the problem with a so-called consumer culture does not, ultimately, lie at the level of beliefs. It lies at the level of practices and behaviors.

As pastors, for example, we can preach the most soul-stirring, heathen-upturning, slacker-rousing, truth-bearing, society-renovating sermons in the world. Great. Good for us. But there's one problem. Those of us sitting in the pews a) cannot hear it or b) cannot properly process the gospel coming through. Our software is messed up. The way we think, feel, imagine and behave have been undergoing a decades' long formation by the practices of our consumerist culture. We are consumerbots. If we as pastors want to see our people live the gospel, then, we need to help them not only believe truly but live truly. And that's matter of a very detailed and comprehensive exercise in daily, individual and communal practices.

But I'm stealing my own thunder. Here is the review. It may be thick going at some points, but hang in there. Or if the middle parts feel too heavy, read my introduction and conclusion and that'll be sufficient to whet your appetite for the real thing, Miller's own book. It's a book that believer artists should pay close attention to. It's also a book that might explain why, at this time of the year, we more easily "crave" Cadbury chocolates than "crave," well, the passion of the Christ.

[Book Note: John Wilson, editor at Books & Culture, did a nice podcast of my book, here. Stan Guthrie asked the questions. I was encouraged.]


Review of Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2008)

“People have a habit of saying, ‘What is the theme of your story?’ and they expect you to give them a statement: ‘The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class’—or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story. Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners


“This is not a book about religion against consumer culture; it is a book about the fate of religion in consumer culture” (1). With these words Vincent Miller summarizes the basic thrust of his book, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. In a dense study of the fate of religious beliefs and practices in advanced capitalist societies, Miller argues that the problem is not consumer culture per se. Nor is the chief problem, he states, a false belief which consumerism breeds in people, though, granted, it often does. The problem for Miller does not lie at the level of beliefs. It lies at the level of practices. The problem concerns the manner in which the structures and practices of a consumer culture domesticate religious beliefs and practices. Consumerism may fight against religion. But it is commodification that disarms it. As he puts it, “When consumption becomes the dominant cultural practice, belief is systematically misdirected from traditional religious practices into consumption…. Traditional practices of self-transformation are subordinated to consumer choice” (225).

Miller identifies two specific results of the commodification of religion: abstraction and fragmentation. The “use” of Mother Theresa illustrates these dynamics. Her indelible image—the cracked outline of her face, a preternatural smile, tenderly touching an untouchable—gets printed on t-shirts. These t-shirts get mass-produced and worn by young Americans “inspired” by her life. They recite her words. They appeal to her work to denounce, say, two-car-garage lifestyles and the war in Iraq. And they do this while drinking Kenyan coffee and listening to “World Music” on their iPods. According to Miller, they’ve lifted Mother Theresa out of the concrete circumstances of her life—that is, her Roman Catholic tradition with its religious and lifestyle demands, some of them rigidly exclusive—and re-appropriated them to different ends. Whether it is Che Guevara or Zen Buddhism, a consumer culture inclines people to abstract beliefs, symbols and practices from their traditional contexts and to engage them as free-floating signifiers. Religious materials, in short, are “thrown into a cultural marketplace where they can be embraced enthusiastically but not put into practice” (28).


I particularly appreciated the way Miller employs the insights of sociological studies to build his argument. In Miller’s account, the story begins with Karl Marx. Marx showed how laborers were alienated from the fruits of their labors. This, in turn, led to an increased “de-skilling” of workers, who then more easily “employed” by engineers to perform tasks for which they received “wages.” In time a shift ensued in the mode of human existence from being to having. The suburban single-family home epitomized this shift. Here we had a family supported almost entirely by wages. The family, under this rubric, shifted from managing production to managing consumption. Such a family, for example, now collects “devices” in order to make their lives easier. But for Miller the result leads to increasing isolation from neighbors, who are no longer felt to be needed. Wages and benefits replace “extended family and community relationships as the source of security” (48).

With sociologist Guy Debord, Miller introduces the phenomenon of spectacle. The spectacle, according to Debord, is “not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (59). With Jean Baudrillard human agency “is reduced to choosing between the fulfillments proffered by the system” (61). With Fredric Jameson we encounter the “depthless liquidity of postmodern cultural symbols” (72). The result of all this in a post-Fordist society, according to Miller, is that our “countless acts of consumption and evaluation of commodities large and small train us daily to value things out of their contexts” (71). More sharply, they train us to believe that any problem we experience can be resolved by consumption. Whereas Christianity historically proposes the mortification of the flesh, engaged through a systematic practice of disciplines, and a participation in Christ’s sufferings born up amidst a community of fellow pilgrims, advertising exploits “the dislocations suffered by modern persons and systematically [proposes] consumption as the remedy” (88).


Miller resists pessimism. He is not a dystopian. He believes it is possible to live “a more authentically Christian life in a culture that is neither entirely Christian in its logic nor entirely alien” (15). He also believes it is possible to accomplish politically significant things in a consumer culture. In his discussion of Bourdieu’s notion of “distinction,” he points to the communal practices of the Amish as an example of holding the line against consumerism. In Michel de Certeau’s notion of “bricolage,” he finds a fruitful apparatus by which to observe anti-commodification behavior. Bricolage refers to the way “ordinary women and men, those whose voices are heard only as the background ‘murmur of official history, live their lives from day to day” (155). Certeau also supplies Miller with the idea of a “tactic.” A Tactic in this context refers to the “art of the weak” to oppose the dominant structures of culture (156). An example of a tactic in the religious sphere would include the devotion to St. Jude. In turning to St. Jude, many Christians, particularly women, refused to let doctors give scientific medicine the last word on whether a patient was “hopeless” or not (167).


What advice does Miller offer the reader looking to resist assimilation to consumerism? The first task, he argues, is to name commodification as a problem. After this one can choose a number of creative activities. One can find out where their food comes—Chiquita bananas or breast of chicken. One can take up a craft and gain an appreciation for the labor costs that are involved. The liturgy, at least of the more “high” churches, can serve to reinforce the interconnections between doctrine and symbols and thus aid in the stabilization of their meanings. One of his more bold recommendations is to practice “negative rituals.” If consumerism is based on the logic of instant availability to all, to satisfy every desire, then Miller believes that the church can counter this dysfunctional habit by the practices of abstinence, silence and, in the case of Eastern Orthodoxy, iconostases! A final piece of advice is to help the laity understand the living character of tradition and the role that they play in shaping it. They are not the passive recipients of the decisions of those in authority. The laity plays, and in fact has always played, a decisive role in shaping the Christian tradition.

While Miller demonstrates an adroit handling of sociological and cultural studies, one wonders
if he has made too much of them. It is not always clear how Marx, Gramsci, Lefebvre, Debord, Baudrillard, Jameson, Bourdieu and de Certeau logically relate to each other within the context of Miller’s argument. It is one thing to map the landscape of consumer culture with the tools of sociology; that is, the theories of sociologists can help make sense of general dynamics within a culture. But the theories alone cannot be confused with quantitative data. At times Miller asserts the problem—say, of Pope John Paul’s commodification by media technology—and moves on. Yet he supplies us with no data, except one anecdote of a child in Bogota, Columbia, to verify the range and intensity of the so-called problem.


At a personal level I found curious his case for bad art. I sympathize with his concern. I do not see the choice of mass-produced art over the work of local craftsmen as a positive development. The result often is art that suffers from excessive generalization and a lack of “care.” Miller’s point is that this decision reinforces “the clerical pattern of limiting expression to elites.” He argues that art should be seen like the liturgy or preaching. Few Christians produce masterworks. Most produce second-rate material, but it is good enough for the church to continue its work faithfully. “That this is more easily accepted in homilies than in art suggests that the decoration of church interiors is heavily influenced by the logic of conspicuous display (223). I find this statement odd and careless. While I wish to see an increase in the participation of local artists in the production of liturgical art, not merely for the “decoration” but for the theological formation of the church, his comment is too hastily made to be taken seriously. At worst it is misleading. To my mind it is yet another example of a well-meaning Christian sounding off on the problem of art without serious consideration of the history and of the present condition of the church’s relationship to art.

In the end, however, I was very encouraged by Miller’s book. He offered an acute picture of the dynamics of a consumerist culture. The problem is not simply that our culture produces narcissistic individuals who increasingly find themselves isolated from neighbor and nature. The problem is the way that the dynamics of commodification make it easy for us to “consume” religion. The way of holy resistance lies at the level of practices. For only actual practices, embedded within the strange and demanding logics of a religious tradition, will help us to counter an individualized, consumerist religion. Miller issues a grave warning, one that Christians will do well to heed. But it is a warning that comes with a great sense of hope and a refreshingly un-histrionic sensibility.

7 comments:

livingpalm said...

David, you continue to encourage me in my quest to learn and discern. Thank you for the time you took on this review and for posting it here.
I have recently been grappling with the process of a "renewed liturgy" in a non-denominational community -- a community that is formed aside from any other church context. I've learned enough to realize what it seems Miller has diagnosed about Christians in this culture is true across denominational lines. At the same time, I am beginning to believe that non-denominational churches are especially prone to the practices of a "consumer culture inclines people to abstract beliefs, symbols and practices from their traditional contexts and to engage them as free-floating signifiers."
What I don't understand (and maybe I'd need to read the book to get clarification)is how one can totally separate the level of beliefs and the level of behaviors? Eventually, aren't the practices making us instead of us making them? And, then again, maybe that's exactly the point you are trying to make here.

w. david o. taylor said...

Tamara, *great* observation. Yes, beliefs and practices have a much more dynamic relationship between them than is often granted. Beliefs inform and shape practices, and often arise out of practices, while practices embed beliefs and in turn strengthen or distort beliefs.

For example, I can say that I believe in a Trinitarian God. But if my church life and my personal life are so oriented towards an individualistic experience of God, then my practice a) embeds an un-Trinitarian idea of God and b) fights against the work of the Spirit to form in me a Trinitarian image of God.

A paper I wrote last semester explored the function of the visual art exhibits at Hope Chapel. We had arranged the exhibits to correspond to the church calendar. This was something that was new for many in our non-denom congregation. I wrestled then and much more so after with the "free wily" way in which we employed the liturgical calendar without, what seemed to me, any accountability for our actions.

But gosh darnit, with a little help from both Vincent Miller and Alisdair Macintyre, I was able to see a good deal of hope (no pun intended) in Hope Chapel's practice of the art exhibits, in particular in light of the church's broad-ranging history.

I do think non-denom churches face very serious challenges in their self-understanding and practice as an ecclesial body. But while serious, they're not woeful. Much good has, does and will continue to come from such communities. So please be encouraged in your work as a worship and arts pastor. You're doing good work. And you're asking very good questions.

livingpalm said...

Thank you, David. I realize as I re-read my comment that no church is truly "formed aside from any other church context." We are either formed alongside or in reaction to other church communities. It seems, though, that we are loathe to be "pinned down" in any definitions. And in that "unnamed" margin all sorts of abstract beliefs, symbols and practices" attempt to flourish.
Thank you for your encouragement! I'll add Miller's book to my reading list. (p.s., I'd love to read the paper you wrote re: the visual exhibits at Hope Chapel)

Jim Janknegt said...

I have recently been reading Wendell Berry's novels. Hannah Coulter is a beautiful portrait of a women living in a non-consumeristic, farming culture in the '30s, 40's and beyond. It also vividly shows how those communities changed post war and began their slide into the consumerism we all dwell in. It is a very poignant book. I know you probably don't have time to read anything beyond what you are doing for school but I highly recommend the work of Wendell Berry.

w. david o. taylor said...

Jim, that's a great suggestion. How could you go wrong by reading, feasting, meditating and ruminating on Wendell Berry's work. I'm reading Jayber Crow at the moment. There's always a wee bit of time at night to read novels. What would be the fun of reading only academic work for four years without the aid of novelists who, in their own way, do theology via the imagination?

kathleenborkowski said...

Seems to me that consuming religious items: jewelry, candles, books, Xmas cards, hot cross buns, whatever - can become a substitute for having an actual relationship with God and a faith community or doing any real thinking about what we believe. The items become the tradition and the tradition is the belief. Unfortunately, I think a great deal of Christian collectibles ARE "free-floating signifiers" that provide shopping-therapy. But, hey, we're Americans, it's our duty to consume and support the economy....
ps Love the funny saints, but I don't get the goofy spelling? I truly LOLed at the pope photo!! Thanks, David - Peace & Blessings

Juli said...

Hi David,
There is such a strong tension between belief/faith and practice/works. I'm interested to read Miller's book to see exactly how he handles that as my first response seemed to be that the relationship is too complicated to easily blame one or the other for either...

I'm curious to hear more about your thought: "I wrestled then and much more so after with the "free wily" way in which we employed the liturgical calendar without, what seemed to me, any accountability for our actions." Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by the 'free wily' way you used the calendar as well what accountability would have looked like?

Thanks! Peace.