consumerism and idolatry (i)

It’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. And that means not only is present-buying on the agenda. So too is the obligatory Christmas critique of consumerism.

While Christians aren’t alone in mounting the Christmas consumerist critique, it is something many of us like to indulge in. And given the way Wikipedia defines consumerism, it’s not hard to see why:

Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.

Certainly, a set of social and economic dynamics that make acquisitiveness part of the air we breathe — either by pandering to our existing anxieties or by eroding whatever sense of contentment we’ve managed to scrape together — seems ripe for critique.

But I’m not sure I want to go there. At least not just yet.

So I’d like your help thinking it through. In that spirit, let me share 10 thoughts about consumerism and idolatry — taken one or two at a time…

1. That consumerism is (a form of) idolatry is an equation so often made that it’s could be axiomatic. At least, that’s true in the Christian circles I’m familiar with. So I guess it’s either axiomatic or an unsubstantiated rumour that we’re hoping will be rendered more certain by constant repetition.

2. It’s worth pausing to ask why — or in what sense — we consider consumerism to be idolatry. Is it simply because we think that everything that can co-opt or, as James K.A. Smith would have it, ‘enlist’ us apart from the gospel is idolatry (whether it’s the nation or materialism or whatever)? Or is there something distinctive about the phenomenon of consumerism that merits our identification of it with idolatry?


  1. And further, if it is idolatry, why do we continue so gleefully in it?
    If you want to say Westfield is a cathedral of consumerism, well, take up your sledgehammer and go knock it down.
    Could we more correctly say that consumerism is the result of idolatry?
    You may go here later, but I love Cavanughs line that consumerism happens because we don’t love stuff enough. If we knew how to cherish and enjoy material things to their full extent then the machine of contant desire would grind to a halt.

    1. Thanks, Mike. I was having similar dark thoughts myself — fuelled by a fantastic sermon I heard on 1 Corinthians 10 yesterday. Although, Paul’s advice has less to do with taking sledgehammers to the venue of idolatry than with physically absenting ourselves (lest we be participants with demons).

      Where does Cavanaughwrite/talk about this? I’m mostly going by gut instinct right now — so some more carefully considered material would probably be worth interacting with.

    2. “Being Consumed:Economics and Christian Desire” Chapter 2 is a lovely one called ‘Detachment and Attachment’. It is a fine book, but his solutions get a bit repetitious. (The eucharist is the answer to everything. Though I guess, it is the same as us saying ‘the gospel’ is the answer to everything)

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