The church: defender of theocapitalism?

Author:Beaudoin, Tom
 
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The church's mission to young adults today, if it really is the mission of the church, will always both presuppose and yield a theological interpretation of the situation in which young adults concretely live. That is to say, every program of ministry both presumes and funds theology of culture. Given this inescapable dimension of the church's relationship with young adults, it is the purpose of this lecture to introduce an approach to theologically interpreting one key aspect of young adult life, contemporary consumer capitalism, for the purposing of inquiring how the church might practice greater freedom in its mission to young adults circumscribed by this economic order.

Mission and consumer media capitalism

It is a commonplace to note the consumer character of the lives of all Americans, including young adults. At the same time, what this might mean for young adults or for the church often lacks specificity, if not rigor, and is hostage to a certain moralizing that expresses a humid mixture of condescension, guilt, and envy by pastors and academic theologians vis-a-vis the way that people that we teach or to whom we minister really live. This moralizing interpretation on the one hand and a celebration of consumer capitalism on the other are the Scylla and Charybdis of a theology of consumer capitalism.

There are indications that many young adults live deeply immersed within what we may provisionally call consumer media capitalism--a fusion of consumer capitalism and an extensive media culture. This immersion is a major theme of the book Generation on Hold by James Cote and Anton Allahar. They argue that consumer capitalism appropriates "practices that already exist" among youth, turning them to anti-intellectual ends that are exploitative of youth labor. From all sides, from sports to popular media, they argue, youth are immersed in a symbolic order that seems to endorse personal freedom yet ideologically educates for endorsement of consumer norms. For example, "if [youth] think that music, which criticizes the system, provides an outlet for their discontent and brings them satisfaction, that is fine. As long as their protests go nowhere, they are left alone; recording companies produce and sell their records, and everyone is happy." (1) They argue that consumer capitalism allows for the "meanings" that you ng adults attribute to their culture to glitter in endless variety, even spiritual variety, as long as young adults' actual behavior does not fundamentally upset the economic order. Thus is consumer culture fused and confused with young adults' freedom to find meaning within their young adult cultures.

Freedom, tolerance, individualism, and consumption are bound together also in William Finnegan's Cold New World, his report and analysis of his time with lower-class young adults in four areas of the United States. He became convinced of the power of mass culture over all classes of Americans. Despite the disparities in daily life in the young Mexican Americans, African Americans, and European Americans he studied, he concluded that they all shared a common culture, "liberal consumerism," a "tepid faith" in the fundamental goodness of individual consumption as a fundamental value. (2) In each place, he found a "savage tension between postindustrial capitalism's imperatives and the claims of family and community," leading young people to develop their own ways of "cross-cutting and satirizing the nonstop sales pitch that is the white noise of their lives." (3)

Moving from cultural criticism to economics, Juliet Schor has argued that "survey data show marked increases in materialist values among young people." (4) Schor herself cites the

high degree of knowledge [among middle-class teenagers surveyed] about the fashionableness of brands of clothes, athletic shoes,jeans, and makeup-particularly the more prestigious brands. [In one study,] teens not only knew what the popular brands were but preferred them. Among the girls, the brand ordering of clothing by how popular they believed it to be... correlated perfectly with the fraction choosing that brand as their favorite. For boys, [this study] found a high degree of consensus about athletic shoes. (5)

A widespread willingness to take on debt, or the simple necessity of it for "survival," is often cited as one prime characteristic of contemporary capitalism. Some of the data on young adults in this regard are striking. "The average monthly unpaid credit card balance for people between 25-34 is $2726--more than 10 percent above the national average, according to financial market research firm PSI Global." And further, "American Consumer credit service, a nonprofit that helps people negotiate lower interest rates and monthly payments to creditors, reports GenXers account for 43 percent of its clients, who carry an average debt load of $22,000." (6)

While such formal elements of young adult economic life as use of disposable income, brand loyalty, and debt accumulation are frequently mentioned in interpretations of consumer capitalist society, there is a remarkable conflict of interpretations about how these elements are related to each other and what the fundamental dynamics are of our consumer society itself--even whether there is such a thing as a "consumer society ." (This conflict of interpretations in economics may be as much a surprise to those of us who do theology as it might be for an economist to discover that the most basic reality at issue in Christian life, the person of Jesus Christ, is a fundamentally contested reality not only in his historical identity but in the very question of his centrality in Christian life and theology.) Interpretations of consumer capitalism of potential use to theology have come not only from economics but also from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines. Adjudicating this conflict is not my purpose here. In order to keep theology humble, however, it does bear noting economists Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold's conclusion that the very concept of a consumer society, in most academic usage, "lacks a coherent analytical content[,] a reasonably precise definition with an associated explanatory role.... In fact, precise and meaningful definitions of consumer society are ... as rare as the use of the term is common." (7)

Aware of their warning, and making the presumption for the purposes of this lecture that most young adults today are relatively immersed in popular media culture, I propose the following as a provisional brief definition: Consumer media capitalism is an historical configuration of two overlapping, mutually reinforcing and contesting networks of materio-symbolic production and consumption, strategically attempting to organize human self-transcendence into materio-symbolic practices that participate in the truths produced by this configuration. I shall unpack only one aspect of that definition here.

By referring to consumer capitalism as a strategic reality, I am using a distinction from Michel de Certeau. De Certeau distinguishes between strategies and tactics in his brilliant interpretation of everyday life. A strategy is a structural organization of reality, usually mediated by institutions, with the power to structure physical space, shape imagination, mold bodies, order expectations, and set the terms of cultural conversation and debate. A city's gridded urban plan, a university's or hospital's hierarchy, a corporation's ad campaign, an airport's design, and a book's layout all function as strategies designed to organize popular movement, thought, values, and spending patterns so as to render the cultural order benign toward the needs of the strategist. A strategy is "the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an 'environment."' (8)

Tactics, by contrast, are what people in everyday life actually do with these strategies: what they make of them; how they turn them to ends different than those intended by strategists; how they use them in ways unplanned, unmeasured, and even unmeasurable; how people exercise the margin of freedom that they do have to practice arts de faire so as to get through the innumerable hurdles of everyday life. Tactics are "ways of operating" in everyday life that have a logic expressed not in being thought but by being lived, "a way of thinking invested in a way of acting." (9) The resources of strategy are manipulated for enjoyment, getting by, making do in accord not with a theory or a rule but of the needs of the situation at hand. Everyday reading turns out to be a matter of "poaching" meaning from a text; everyday walking turns out to be a redefinition of the way city planners define public space; everyday prayer during worship turns out to be an appropriation of some liturgical material (the homily or scriptu re or hymn-or something even more banal, such as a glance from a neighbor or an announcement in the bulletin scanned during the sermon) that was never intended by the preacher, lector, or worship minister to be used in that way. A tactic is a "calculus which cannot count on a 'proper' (a spatial or institutional localization) ... [and] because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time--it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized 'on the wing.'" (10) Tactics are the everyday "internal manipulations of a system." (11)

Strategies may appropriate tactics for their own purposes. For example, a popular turn to thrift-store shopping that bears anticonsumerist meanings for young adults may be turned by a clothing manufacturer into the production of "retro" fashion styles. Or a band whose music expresses a forceful rejection of bourgeois Christianity may allow its music to be produced and distributed by a record label with investments or political alliances that undermine the political...

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