IT IS much to be lamented that the Church continues to fail so conspicuously to face the challenge of consumer culture. Consumerism is, as many sociologists have noted, the religion of our age, producing identities, sources of meaning, and ideas of the good life. If that is true, then it is also a religion that is swiftly destroying the environment on a global scale.
For this reason alone, one should warmly welcome Eve Poole’s Buying God: Consumerism and theology into the relatively small field of books that seek to engage theologically with consumer culture.
Poole begins by addressing the question how to do theology. She provides an engaging survey of a range of theologians before broadly categorising them into two theologies: world-view and etiquette. This functions as a kind of apologetic for Poole’s own theological approach to the question of consumerism, which constitutes the second half of the book.
It is here that Poole hits her stride. Her chapter on consumerism gives a concise but convincing account of capitalism and its weaknesses. It is those weaknesses that form the backdrop to her theological engagement with consumerism, which she understands as being the “software” for the “hardware” of capitalism.
She takes her argument on to the familiar territory of self-identity and desire, ultimately locating the basis for consumerism’s hold over people in the latter. This allows her to conclude her argument by promoting the development of character, virtue, and habit as where Christians can gain the capacity to resist the excesses of consumerism.
Buying God, however, goes beyond other theological engagements with consumerism by offering a helpful “how-to” guide for putting Poole’s arguments into practice. A “consumption audit” is provided to help readers reflect on their own lives and habits, and more than 20 pages of resources provide further aids. One can easily imagine these being used as helpful learning resources for small groups.
Unfortunately, a few problems weaken Buying God’s thesis. Parts of the book come from Poole’s earlier writings, and these often carry a tone that doesn’t marry well with other parts of her text — at times, her style is remarkably chatty and at others highly technical. She also tends to survey works rather than engage seriously with a few. This is due, in part, to her treating theology as a tool; her rationalisation of various theologies into grids and categories will not be to everyone’s tastes.
Finally, the Church as a discrete and historic community is hardly present, which conveys an implicit message that Christians have little beyond their individual wills with which to wrestle with the consumer culture to which they belong. As a result, Poole’s helpful audit appears as a rather futile exercise in the face of relentless marketing and advertising. Further attention to the Church as an economy would have fit naturally into her approach and strengthened her argument considerably.
The Revd Dr Mark Clavier is Residentiary Canon at Brecon Cathedral. His book On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church, and the Rhetorics of Delight is due out in November (Bloomsbury, 2018).
Buying God: Consumerism and theology
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £14.99