FISHING nets at the ready, we holidayed in Whitby this year, in the hot July sunshine. I promised my six-year-old twin girls an Enid Blyton idyll of rock-pooling, donkey-rides, and endless fish and chips.
They had been given some holiday money by their grandparents, which we took to the local Toymaster store. What to buy? A crabbing bucket? A badminton set? A kite? No. Their heart’s desire was a Poonicorn. Yes, that’s right. A soft toy shaped like a poo emoji, with a unicorn horn. To complete the picture, you need to know that they are keyrings that “hatch” from an egg, and that they come in rainbow colours. You can collect them all, at £5 a pop, and display them on your schoolbag.
I hope, like me, that you are reeling with awe for this triumph of peak consumerism. Kids love toys. They love poo. They love emojis. They love unicorns. They love stuff in eggs, and they LOVE collecting things. Retail gold. And if you are sitting there thinking this is just kids’ stuff, let’s talk about the crazy market for gin (mine’s a lavender and rhubarb/passionfruit one), or the $50 billion global market for male grooming products, when soap used to be fine.
IT IS easy to feel utterly overwhelmed by the gleeful global triumph of the marketeers, at the sight of the queues for yet another Apple launch, or when the latest Disney film character completely possesses your child’s every waking moment, or when you simply must upgrade your phone immediately, while still the loan sharks circle to keep the purchasing cycle in perpetual motion.
Enough. We’ve all had enough of it. But isn’t that an interesting word? What is enough? You do have enough, probably. But you may not feel that way. Neither should you, theologically speaking. As St Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. We are creatures who yearn. We yearn for meaning and purpose, and we yearn to belong. These are not bad things.
But those who could make a margin on this yearning have turned this well and truly to their advantage. Advertising has moved away from just showing us products. Now adverts show us who we could become, if only we invested in THIS particular brand. Oh, how popular and perfect we would be. Then, like the ticking of a time-bomb, smartphones ping regular alerts about whether those choices are getting you more “liked” or not.
We know this is costly, not least in terms of societal indebtedness and environmental collapse. And teenage mental ill-health and anxiety are sky-rocketing in parallel with ubiquitous smartphone use, so much so that France is banning phones in all its schools from the beginning of next term. But what can we do?
CHRISTIANITY is actually one of the best antidotes to consumer poisoning. If we can come to terms with the essence of consumerism, we can loosen its power over us. And all the sound and fury is fundamentally about the same thing: our search for self-identity. Consumerism can only ever fail, because it cannot satisfy. It lies, because the latest “thing” soon becomes old news, dooming us to spiralling dissatisfaction in our relentless quest to stay on top.
But, if we accept that we cannot win, and that we are already immeasurably loved, we can start to ask ourselves searching questions about our Pavlovian response to consumer signals. Do we really need that thing? What do we really think it will do for us, deep down, and could it ever?
As Rowan Williams says, we need to grow up. We have to stop imagining that we just have a few neat gaps left that the market can fill. Crucially, we need to stop kidding ourselves that there is any end to our desire, and come to terms with yearning. Nothing on earth should satisfy us, but he argues that it is in desiring grace that we are most likely to find peace.
Easier said than done. But easier, perhaps, than we had thought. You do not need to fight consumerism, or hide from it. You just need to see it aright, as a false promise, which is not good enough for you. As a child of God, you are worth far more than that.
Of course you will yearn, and you will consume, but that is God’s destiny for you, not Mammon’s. Yours is the gift of free will, to guide your choices heavenwards, to school your desire towards God.
Dr Eve Poole’s latest book, Buying God: Consumerism and theology, is published by SCM Press, and available from the Church Times Bookshop on a special-offer price of £13.59.
Dr Poole is interviewed about the book on The Church Times Podcast.