When Christianity is just another consumer choice

Originally at: http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/twocities/christianity-consumer-choice/

by Joel J. Miller

Personal taste and individual preference are fine for beer and hand cream, but what about faith?

In 1838 American novelist James Fenimore Cooper lamented “the taint of sectarianism” that “lies broad upon the land.” When he was a still a child there were about 500 active Christian denominations. Today that number is over 40,000, and Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly says, based on current growth, the number will rocket upwards of 260,000 separate denominations by the end of the century.

Whether the forecast proves accurate is not as interesting or important as Kelly’s rationale for why we should expect increasing diversity in Christian expression. “Subtle distinctions, endless permutations and combinations of creeds are bound to increase in a world of abundant choices,” he says.

“When you can get 72 varieties of mustard in the supermarket, choice is accepted.”

Choice in the religious marketplace

Choice is nothing new for Christians. We hear it echoing through the millennia from the Old Testament. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua told the Israelites. Indeed, the entire story of Israel is a winding and frequently agonizing tale of how his hearers and their descendants responded.

But there is a different quality to the choice Kelly is talking about. We, as he suggests, approach faith like a consumable, an approach that comes with another set of expectations than those facing Joshua’s listeners: Does it fit my needs? Does it gratify me? Does it make me happy?

This is not merely about options, regardless of how many varieties of mustard or cults might be available. Pagan Rome, for instance, had plenty of religious options, but not much of a religious market. We have both and commonly speak of our religious marketplace. Why?

A Roman pagan believed what was expected of him, more or less, whereas consumer culture engrains in us the idea that our choices are the primary means by which we express ourselves—even serving as the means by which we create ourselves—and that these self-expressive and self-generative outcomes transcend nearly all other concerns.

Consumer culture exercises a domain over the person unimagined by previous generations. Our economic, technological, political, educational, and religious systems all participate, cultivating the widespread assumption that individual preference is supreme. Discord in these arenas often reflect disagreements about what’s supposedly best for the individual—e.g., If only he could see what’s in it for him, then he’d change his mind!—not whether the criteria is appropriate to begin with.

This consumerist focus around faith and spirituality is particularly powerful today, but the problem is not not a recent one.

Shopping for God

With no established church, American Christians have long experienced competition for their adherence. Different movements, sects, and groups argued, solicited, induced, and pressured open hearts to their various positions.

James B. Twitchell calls this a “scramble market” for religion, in which sectarian proponents peddle their wares with ever-increasing savvy about emotional manipulation, marketing, and salesmanship.

In his book Shopping for God, he reproduces a cartoon from nineteenth-century American satire magazine Puck. The scene represents the situation Cooper lamented: Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Mormons, and others line up like a row of carnival hawkers, competing for attention and customers. “The Arcade of the Truth Faith,” a sign reads. “Take Your Choice.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 10.58.49 PM

“Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false ware at pleasure,” Philip Schaff famously complained about the situation in 1845. It was as easy as it was appropriate to attack these “peddlers,” but it’s worth remembering that every sale requires a customer. And it was in the open market for belief in the nineteenth century that Americans learned to pick and choose their faith.

Of course this was only the beginning. The number of offerings on the tables today are obviously many, many more. Not only denominations, but myriad subexpressions of the faith, all of them capable of endless customization and personalization.

Designing your very own gospel

Christian churches and organizations play to this consumerism because they feel they have to, but the more they empower it, the more they lose power to it. A consumer approach is fundamentally an individualist approach—one that tends to undermine the cohesiveness of traditional faith and practice as people cherry pick, modify, and create their own expressions in ways they feel best meet their personal needs—however they determine those and whatever they determine them to be.

In his books Moral Freedom and The Transformation of American Religion sociologist Alan Wolfe observes time and again that religious expression among Christians is increasingly personalized and self-directed. We look for churches, programs, ministries, and “authorities” that cater to ourselves in ways previous generations did not. “Designer religion” is Twitchell’s term for it.

Consider our social media activities. Our writing, linking, and sharing have the effect of “collective belief making,” as Twitchell says—“you’re designing and crafting your faith.”

We cobble together the voices we like and messages we agree with. We assemble our own devotions, disciplines, practices, and liturgies: a few different blogs and Twitter streams, podcasts we like, a meeting with friends at a nearby coffee shop, playlists for the right mood, three or four books on the nightstand. Church might be involved. It might not be. Whatever works for you, feeds you, nourishes your spirit, brings you closer to God—pick your favorite cliche.

In a culture of religious plenitude and consumerism we could potentially see as many expressions of Christianity as there are people, no matter how mutually exclusive many of those expressions will inevitably be (and already are). We’re only limited by our imagination.

Suddenly 260,000 separate denominations seems like sandbagging.

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