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Simplicity and abundance

08 May 2012

Mike Starkey reflects onthe morality of buying


The Christian Consumer: Living faithfully in a fragile world
Laura M. Hartman

Oxford University Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

IN A consumer society, our retail choices become more than mere shopping for life’s necessities: they are acts that define identity and aspiration. And, in a world with limited natural resources and an expanding popula­tion, our acts of consumption become a vital issue for ethics.

Laura Hartman, assistant professor of religion at a college in Illinois, sets out to formulate a coherent Christian ethic of consumption. Her approach is to outline four key imperatives that, she believes, should guide the Christian consumer: to consume in ways which avoid sin; to enjoy the blessings of creation; to love our neighbour; and to anticipate God’s future Kingdom.

To illustrate each of these themes, she draws on a wide range of sources — from the Bible and figures in church history to people and issues in current debate. The chapter on the avoidance of sin explores the virtues of ascet­icism, poverty, and simplicity, through repre­sent­ative figures such as Francis of Assisi, the Quaker John Woolman, and Ronald Sider (au­thor of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger).

The author acknowledges the uneasy ten­sion that can exist between this emphasis and her next imperative, to celebrate the abund­ance and blessings of creation. This she ex­plores with the help of Thomas Aquinas and Matthew Fox, but also prosperity preachers such as the wonderfully named Creflo A. Dollar, Jr. It is, incidentally, refresh­ing to read a serious engagement with pros­perity theology rather than the knee-jerk dismissals often found in Christian polemics.

Her third imperative, to love our neighbour, asks searching questions about the meaning of love when applied to patterns of consump­tion, and what it means to love distant “neigh­bours” in a global marketplace. Finally, the imperative to consume with an eye on the future draws on biblical eschatology, using the themes of sabbath-keeping and eucharist as windows into God’s future redeemed crea­tion. All four imperatives, Hartman says, need to be held together when formulating a balanced ethic of consumption.

This book may not tell you which foods, fashions, or furnishings to buy on your next shopping trip, but it does help to clarify the issues at stake for the Christian consumer in a way that is both scholarly and practical.

The Revd Mike Starkey is the Vicar of Llanidloes and Llangurig. His books include Born to Shop (Monarch, 1989).

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