Tempted by Affluence?

“Buying stuff is not just our popular culture, it is how we understand the world.” One wonders, of course, exactly who James Twitchell (author of Lead Us into Temptation) thinks this “we” is. It is true, nonetheless, that of all the issues that provoke the most debate about the free economy, the question of the culture of consumerism invariably ignites heated debate. Do the plethora and variety of material goods that are the fruit of a dynamic entrepreneurial economy invariably lead us astray from the higher things in life? Or could it be that we are missing something—that the culture of consumerism, in fact, contains much that we should celebrate rather than denigrate?

Twitchell, who teaches English and advertising at the University of Florida, suggests that one should be careful about disparaging consumerism. Indeed, his book, with its careful study of the language and iconography of modern consumerism and advertising, portrays the never-ending process of buying and selling material goods as something that is, in itself, deeply meaningful. In fact, if all Twitchell’s claims are true, one would wonder why humans would bother to do anything else but constantly substitute their material possessions for more modern, faster, more colorful objects.

In one sense, Twitchell’s book functions as a necessary corrective to those texts that portray modern consumerism as little more than a necessary evil or, more worryingly, as reflective of a deep decline in Western culture. Bringing together expertise in advertising and literary studies, Twitchell begins by explaining his theory of the origins of modern commercialism during which he disposes—quite effectively—of the interpretations offered not only by feminist ideology but also by the contemporary cultural studies movement, especially that pioneered by the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school. The accusations of manipulation (either of the “patriarchal” or “class” variety) associated with these ideologies cannot, in Twitchell’s view, explain the avidness with which so many people in contemporary Western societies, regardless of gender or class, have embraced modern commercialism.

Instead, commercialism and consumerism are, according to Twitchell, reflective of deeper yearnings within human beings. He speaks, for example, of how contemporary advertising and commercialism have embraced “the rhetoric of salvation,” by which he seems to mean that consumerism encourages us to imagine ourselves as more than what we are. Here he draws an interesting parallel between the church—specifically, the Roman Catholic Church—and the language and imagery of contemporary consumerism. Modern commercialism has embraced ritual, imagery, and symbol in a way reminiscent of the medieval church. The ability of manufacturers and entrepreneurs to clothe messages about humanity in such garb caters, Twitchell suggests, to deeply felt human needs for the sacred in life.

Partly Confused

Continuing this religious theme, Twitchell examines some of the criticisms of consumerism commonly articulated by leaders and members of Protestant and Catholic communities alike. Here, however, he appears to be somewhat out of his depth. Twitchell states, for example, that “at the heart of Christian orthodoxy is a fierce condemnation of the material world,” and he then proceeds to outline why this is the case, by way of somewhat selective quotation of Scripture. The attitude that Twitchell describes is actually characteristic of the oldest Christian heresy: Gnosticism. The Gnostics viewed the things of this world and working with such things as irredeemably evil and corrupting. Orthodox Christians have found themselves repeatedly battling this error throughout the ages.

Certainly, there are innumerable warnings in Scripture against the dangers of overrating wealth in comparison to the moral and spiritual goods that more closely reflect our dignity in God’s image, but Twitchell appears unaware of the numerous Scriptural verses that affirm the essential goodness of the material world. For example, in Genesis (the description of God’s creative act in which, among other things, he creates the heavens, the waters, and the animals), we read the words “God saw that it was good” six times, and upon the creation of humanity, the whole is pronounced to be “very good.” In this way, Christians are simply asked by God to keep the material world in the proper perspective.

A similar vision of material things pervades the New Testament. Christ warned the prosperous people of his time of the spiritual and morals dangers associated with prosperity. “A man’s life,” he said, “does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). This, however, is accompanied by messages that encourage the proper management of resources, as evidenced by the parables of the talents, the pounds, and the unjust steward. Private property is simply taken for granted in these parables, and the resourcefulness of those who increase their wealth by honest means is applauded. Nowhere in the Gospels, in Acts, or in the Apostolic Letters is the material world derided or viewed as intrinsically evil. Instead, we see that material things do have a role to play in the salvation of humanity insofar as our use of them can reflect our acceptance or rejection of the Good News and its associated call to live in truth.

Essentially, the word consumerism can be employed two ways. One is to describe the process by which people make decisions to buy material goods. Such goods range from those that meet people’s most basic needs to those that reflect people’s capacity to choose which goods they wish to spend their income on, once basic needs have been met. Christians have nothing to fear from this type of consumerism; it simply reflects the material dimension of human existence.

The other definition of consumerism, however, is one that should concern Christians. It involves viewing the material dimension of life as the whole point of human existence. Consumerism, in this sense, involves the inversion of the priority of being over having—that is, we consider the pursuit of material goods as more important than our need to acquire those moral and spiritual goods—the virtues—that reflect our unique ability as humans to transcend what we are and to make ourselves into the person-that-we-ought-to-be. When used to describe this problem, consumerism is essentially a synonym for the type of materialism against which Christians have been warned by Christ to guard themselves. Unfortunately, this distinction does not appear in Twitchell’s book, despite the fact that the author is clearly seeking to place the nature of consumerism in a deeper and wider intellectual framework than is usual for studies of modern commercial activity.

Twitchell is, however, on firmer ground when he focuses upon the empirical dimension of modern commercialism. He notes, for example, that objects once regarded, as luxuries (such as computers and cars) are now essentials; yet, paradoxically, the price of such goods has steadily dropped over time. This reminds us that one of the benefits of the free economy is the constant raising of living standards for everyone—a point sometimes neglected by some religious leaders. He also underlines the hypocrisy of wealthy urban dwellers who bewail the materialism of others while simultaneously failing to recognize the extent to which it has permeated their own existence.

Slightly Manic

In the final analysis, this book performs a valuable service insofar as it encourages us to rethink the meaning of modern commercialism and to refrain from judging it too hastily or harshly. Unfortunately, it is somewhat marred by the author’s tendency to make unsubstantiated assertions. Twitchell claims, for example, that modern commercialism has replaced religion. This may be true of certain parts of the West, but it is more questionable when applied to the rest of the world. One suspects that this mixture of attention to detail and unproven assertions stems from the slightly manic, pop-culture tone that pervades much of the book. Whatever its merits, such writing is not always conducive to the art of careful and consistent analysis.