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.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

DT at Redeemer Pres in NYC + 2 radio interviews

(A work in progress: Laity Lodge, March 2010)

The good folks at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City have invited me to be a part of their Inter Arts Fellowship this fall. I'll be there the weekend of October 15. It also looks like I'll be double-billed with Dr. Gordon Fee, which totally rocks. He was one of my favorite New Testament professors in seminary.

The purpose of the Redeemer arts event is to bring artists (and others) together to think carefully about the intersection of life, faith and art. I'm excited to be there, especially as it will give me a chance see Luann Jennings, Kenyon Adams, Maria Fee and other quite wonderful people. I think the event is taking place in a "beautiful sacred space" yet to be determined. Other artists may be performing as well. To see further info, go here.

This Friday, March 26, I'll be on air with Paul Edwards, the host of WLQV, the Salem Radio Network talk radio station in Detroit, MI. It'll all happen at 5:05 pm EST, running for about half an hour, here.

This coming Monday, March 29, I'll be interviewed about the book on ABQ Connect in Albuquerque, NM. I'm guessing, by the looks of modern technology, that you can hear the interview from anywhere on the planet. See, er, hear here. It'll take place from 1-1:30 pm MST.

Speaking of listening, here is a fabulous statement by Karl Barth on the (lost art) of listening. I think every counselor should post this on the wall behind their desk, especially in their pre-marital counseling sessions.

“Most of our words, spoken or heard, are an inhuman and barbaric affair, because we will not speak or listen to one another. We speak them without wanting to seek or help. And we listen to them without letting ourselves be found or helped. This is the case not only in private conversation, but in sermons, lectures and discussions, in books and articles. This is how we both hear and read. What we speak and write and hear and read is propaganda….It is not the words that are really empty. It is men themselves when they speak and hear empty words. It is the I which is emptied in relation to the Thou, one empty subject confronting another” (CD III.2 260).

(A sign outside the airline gate at Burbank Airport. As I boarded my AA flight, I thought, "That's the strangest sign I've ever seen at an airport.")

(A little bit of golf in LA with my good friend Jeffrey Travis.)

(Sign at the entrance to Biola University on the day I spoke. I had a fabulous time there, by the way. I'll post a note shortly. But the question is: Which "one" on art? Where exactly can I find the "David Taylor Gym"? And was there only one "Commuter" in chapel that day? You could probably write an impressive dissertation on the cultural dynamics of marquee signs.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

FAQs: For the Beauty of the Church

As this book moves out into the public, I will discover things that I wish I would have done differently. This entry is a chance to redress some of those concerns. I'll start with something that would have been quite easy to include in the book, but which very regrettably escaped my mind.

But quick note: I've added to my links page a video. In it I talk briefly about the church's relationship to the city's art community.

Now then, the first FAQ.

1. Who are the artists whose work accompanies each chapter?

Here they are, in the order in which they appear in the book. If you click on their name, you'll be taken to their personal website.


I chose Jim's annunciation piece because it nicely captured the feel of my introductory chapter. I've known Jim for a while, enjoying both his Fourth of July parties and his art. I've especially loved the vibrant, pungent quality of his subject matter. That quality became something the congregation at Hope Chapel tasted one season of Easter and still to this day. We had commissioned Jim to create a wall banner for the back of the sanctuary. With a generous zeal, Jim made a massively large banner depicting the resurrected Christ hovering over the landscape of Jim's childhood neighborhood. The irradiating Christ made (and indeed makes) all things new: barbecue grills, stars, guitars, trees, swing sets, wine, etc. The work is at one and the same time terrifying and playful. Jim attends Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Elgin, TX.

Katherine was an invaluable ally when I first arrived at Hope Chapel. In the summer of 1996 I gathered artists into a room for my first time. I remember Katherine sitting in the right corner of the room. She introduced herself as a printmaker and curator. Without her, quite honestly, I would not have known a thing about the successful organization of a visual art exhibit. She's a master printer who also creates gorgeous prints. She's a delightful, elegant woman, excellently connected to the art scene in Austin, and she helps lead CIVA's printmaking efforts. Katherine attends Hope Chapel.

Andy, aka "Ebbesen," is a latter-day Leonardo da Vinci. It would be cute of me to say this if I were exaggerating. But I am not. He's one of those people who can work in any media: metal, stone, wood, clay, wax, glass, fiber, canvas, electrical, photographic, and so on (and I mean the "so on" literally). He's like a one-man Mister Magorium, with an astonishing ability to create work that is as magical as it is thought-provoking. The photograph at left captures much better than the B&W version in the book the warmth of the woods which he worked into this "chorus." Andy attends Christ Church Anglican in Austin.

Baker's work is sly and you could easily be deceived if you walked by it too quickly. You'd think it was only cartoons. While it resembles the cartoon craft, it operates in the tradition of satire. But Baker's satire lacks the petty, mean-spirited and ultimately selfish quality that marks so much that goes by satire these days. Baker's work is--dare I say it?--sincere. And that's what makes his work truly powerful. I had a chance last summer to hang out with him and his Orthodox artist friends, and I am so grateful for our friendship within the shared space of a Great Tradition Christian faith. Baker attends St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Church in Austin.

I met Laura in the summer of 1991. I've known her the longest of any artist in Austin. I so earnestly wanted her to succeed as an artist that I joined a few others in supporting her financially through her MFA. At the end of her program Hope Chapel hosted a solo exhibit of her work. One of the things I loved most about her work, especially in the context of Hope, was how it re-taught us how to see. Her subject matter included Dalits and refugees, the least of these, to use Jesus' language. These were the ones, left to our own devices, that we might not "see." Her abstract and conceptual style forced our congregation to slow down and look, and look again, and look yet again. This kind of careful looking became not simply an artistic experience, it became a spiritual discipline, and for that service to the church I am deeply grateful. She worships at St. Mark's Episcopal in Austin.

Samantha's work tends to make me simultaneously very, very melancholy and very, very happy. She creates these poignant figures that capture so much in such little space. I met Samantha while she was a college student at UT Austin. Her German background endeared her to me, since I'd studied in an Austrian school as a kid. She frequently humored my crude attempts at carrying a conversation in the mother tongue of Luther and Goethe. But her work is some of my all-time favorite. Additionally, she did this sketch-an-artpiece-at-least-once-a-day for, well, was it thirty days or fifty days or one hundred days? I can't remember. All I remember is that it inspired me to launch my own thirty-day writing challenge. Samantha attends All Angels Episcopal Church in NYC.

ANITA HORTONI met Anita at a Trinity Arts Conference in Dallas. Katherine Brimberry was there with me and I remember she pulled me aside to tell me that we should bring Anita down to be a guest artist for one of our arts festivals. So we did. Ever since, we have remained fast friends. In August of 2003 she was diagnosed with advanced osteoporosis. Out of that experience of intense pain she created work that explored, with bone-like shapes and material, the fragility that lies beneath the surface. Some of this artwork is positively bone un-nerving. Compounding the disease she suffered family tragedy, and it was only by the grace of God, mediated through the steady, gentle love of friends, that she emerged not bitter but brave to name the diseases that had afflicted her. Anita attends Restoration Anglican Church in Addison, TX.


In 1999 I wrote an essay for Regeneration Quarterly. Its title was "Are Bananas Christian?" In it I argued, perhaps simplistically, that if we cannot reasonably call a banana "Christian" but rather only a good banana or a bad banana according to its kind, then we cannot reasonably, easily, lazily, naively, or hastily call a work of art "Christian." We can only call it good or bad according to its kind (medium) and to its purpose (intention, subject, context, reception). A few years ago Shaun made me supremely happy by designing a poster. In it he had placed a large and garishly colored banana. Along the curved line of the peel Shaun included the text: "This is not another Christian banana." That is the kind of witty, sharp-eyed design that Shaun has been producing over the years. He's a fabulously talented young designer, whom I'm very pleased to know. Shaun attends Austin Stone Church in Austin.

The advantage of living with a real artist is that you get to see what a real artist really looks like. And mostly, it looks like a really difficult life. It's one thing to observe the artist as a "final product." When filmmaker Scott Derrickson appears in photographs surrounded by famous, smart people like Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson for the premier of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he appears as a "final product." And meanwhile, out in the land of fledgling filmmakers, the struggle against jealousy and insecurity only intensifies when (false) comparisons are made with Scott "the final product" filmmaker. But then Scott disappears for years from the public eye. He vanishes off the pages of Entertainment Weekly and He then turns into an artist "in process" and my guess is that it's often anything but glamorous. My point is this. I get to see the hundreds of little decisions Phaedra makes day after day to choose her artwork. Every time she chooses art, she chooses against every allure to not make art. She doesn't always choose her art, of course. Some days she gives herself fully to allure of avoidance. But more often than not these days she chooses to do something instead of nothing, and that makes me very proud of her. Phaedra attends All Saints Anglican in Durham, NC.


If John Michael Talbot had been born half a generation later and had been a visual artist instead of a musician, with enough funk to dress in hoodies instead of monk cowls, well, he could have been Jeff Guy. I first met him at last year's Laity Lodge retreat for ministers to artists. Jeff had that unsettling quiet manner about him that could make you fidgety if you didn't like silence for too long. But he's also mischievous. And when he laughs, it makes you love him even more. If you listen carefully, Jeff is very specific in how he answers the question, "What do you do?" He'll say, I work in the craft of painting. I love how he's resurrecting an old noun and re-introducing it into the world of fine art. I am so pleased that his work accompanies the final chapter. The art excellently and allusively captures my "hope and prayer" for the church. Jeff attends Trinity Anglican Church in Atlanta, GA.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

DT & David Crowder's Fantastical Church Music Conference

I thought I'd go ahead and mention this now since the registration fee is at a good deal. David Crowder has kindly invited me to be a part of his "Fantastical Church Music Conference." He asked if I would address the question of the church's music from a specifically theological perspective. I am sincerely honored to be given this opportunity.

I've cared about the church's worship since I was a kid in high school. My senior year I worshiped at a non-denom on Sunday mornings, a Baptist church Sunday evening and an Assembly of God on Wednesday night, and I was always fascinated by how Christians "played out" their ideas of worship. In college I attended, at one time or another, a Vineyard church (Evanston, Il.), a Bible Church (in Austin), a Lutheran church (St. Martin's in Wuerzburg, Germany), and an Episcopal (St. Matt's) and charismatic (Hope Chapel) church.

I also--in a galaxy far, far away--used to lead worship when campus groups got together at the University of Texas. At the moment my doctoral work at Duke involves a primary and secondary concentration in theology and liturgy.

Oh--and in high school I was a total Keith Green fan. And I loved John Michael Talbot's bushy, monkish beard and monkish music.

All this to say, I'm excited to be a part of the conversation that will take place in Waco, TX, in the fall of this year. I'm especially thankful I get the entire summer to think about what I'll say. I'll need it.

Here is the rest of the information about speakers and artist participants. It's a great lineup.

Dates: September 30 - October 1-2, 2010.

Speakers: Rob Bell, Louie Giglio, Bob Kauflin, the delightfully mischievous David Dark, and myself.

Musicians: Derek Webb, Matt Redman, Hillsong London, Jars of Clay, The Welcome Wagon, Israel Houghton, Matt Maher, Leeland, Gungor, and other folk I don't yet know.

Registration fee: up till May 1 it is $179 for general, $159 for students. See here for rest of prices.

Crowder's FAQs page: see here for some funny answers.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Off to Laity, Austin and LA

Tomorrow morning we fly off to the motherland: Texas. We are such suckers for good Tex Mex. Thank God for the co-inherent relationship between Texan and Mexican cuisine.

Here is a little bit of what will be happening over the next week.

First Stop: Laity Lodge Retreat (Mar. 4-7)

We are bursting with excitement about this retreat. Such wonderful people are coming down for it. Folks like: Luci Shaw, Charlie Peacock and his wife Andi from Nashville, Cherith Nordling from Michigan, Terri Fisher, Ahna Phillips and Erik and Shannon Newby from Vancouver BC (and Rosie Perera too), Tamara Murphy from upstate NY, my Regent College pal Brian Williams from Kansas, Matt and Geinene Carson from Atlanta, Jeff Guy (who has fantastic artwork in my book--last chapter), Bryan Brown from Christ Church in Austin, Brie and Kate and Adam, Ceallaign Anderson from Minnesota. Jez and Miriam Carr are coming in from England. My dear friend Jo-Anne White flies in from New Zealand. And other really good folks.

I'll be speaking about mentoring as naming. Luci will talk about mentoring as the art of paying attention. The Welcome Wagon, aka Vito and Monique Aiuto, will play music. Steven Purcell will offer us superb hosting. And the Laity Lodge will minister beauty and rest to our tired souls. Yum yum.

Second Stop: Austin (Mar. 7-9)

We'll drive to Austin on Sunday. There we will get our hearts nourished as we spend time with family. We'll go to Arandas and Chuy's to experience TexMex ecstasy (you can tell we love it, can't you?). We'll also get to celebrate my brother-in-law Cliff Warner's 40th birthday. He is the fabulous rector of Christ Church Anglican, which we miss sorely.

Third Stop: Biola University near LA (Mar. 9-12)

I'm praying for a sweet, divine, pastoral connection with about 100 art students that I'll be addressing Tuesday evening. I'm also praying for God's grace and wisdom as I preach in chapel to around 2000 students on Wednesday morning. My topic is beauty. Beauty in 30 minutes. It'll be great. It'll also be nice to connect with the community there. Afterwards I'll get to hang out with Jeffrey Travis, my filmmaker friend from Argentina. And maybe play golf!

My book is now, according to Amazon, officially "in stock." Hallelujah.

I also just found out that I have a radio interview with a Canadian radio station: AM930 CJCA Edmonton “Positive Talk." It's happening at 7AM (MST) on April 19. Stay tuned. And three of my books will be given away. How fun.

Lastly, I just had the most amazing "class" discussion this afternoon. Three fellow theology and art grad students here at Duke--Bo Hemlich, Brian Curry, Tanner Capps--and I are doing an independent study with Jeremy Begbie. Our topic is the doctrine of creation. Our primary conversation partner is Karl Barth. Today's three-hour conversation is the kind of conversation I dreamed of while a pastor. I'm so grateful for these good men.