CONSUMERISM fuelled by the rhetoric of advertising dominates contemporary life in which rational judgement is overruled by emotional feelings in the search for immediate happiness. The Church faces the dilemma of conforming with or challenging such consumerism, both of which lead to her inhabiting “a niche within an overarching consumer society”.
The answer to this problem for Mark Clavier, in this latest study in the Reading of Augustine series, is to adopt St Augustine of Hippo’s use of rhetoric in discovering that true happiness lies in that delight which God offers.
He begins by recounting how, influenced by Cicero, Augustine became a master of rhetoric, understanding how emotions could be manipulated. For him, fallen humanity is addicted to sin, whose rhetoric persuades sinners to embrace their own bondage. Delight is akin to falling in love. We cannot control what delights us, but our delights shape who we are. Delight seems to make humankind impotent.
Augustine’s answer is a rival delight. He believed that everyone was enslaved to this world and the devil. What was needed was someone more eloquent than the devil, “someone who can overcome sinful delights with true delight. That orator is God and the Holy Spirit his eloquence.”
What the Holy Spirit does is to pour love into the hearts of the faithful and this love draws them to God. Thus begins the process of freeing humankind from the eloquence of sinful delights which, as Paul knew (Romans 7), cannot be entirely achieved in this life. Instead, the faithful must contend in a rhetorical conflict in which spiritual delight contends with sinful delights.
Clavier then considers the problem of being a Christian in a consumer society. He rejects as inadequate the idea that all that is required is to develop a Christian world-view based on scripture; for it “neglects our desires and the sources of delight that influence those desires”. Far better is Augustine’s concept of a rhetorical contest that takes “the battle to consumerism’s own territory: the heart”.
Christian converts are inevitably caught in this battle “between two competing rhetorics of delight: God and the world”. While they are not left on their own, for they receive “the Holy Spirit, God’s own eloquence”, yet, Clavier argues, individuals have little hope of resisting the professionalism of this-worldly consumerism. It is for the churches to challenge such consumerism by themselves becoming communities of delight.
Drawing on Augustine’s The City of God, Clavier maps out the mission of the Church as a mission of delight by first embodying that delight and then challenging all that masks God’s delight. For this, the Church requires “men and women who can be vehicles of God’s eloquence and delight” as people can find their salvation only by being delighted by God.
Finally, turning to Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, Clavier argues for the importance of teaching in every aspect of the Church’s life. The Christian orator is not to entertain, but to teach about delight, starting with engendering mutual delight in the community itself. Only by grace can anyone teach, and that means that the teacher must first be one who prays. It is the author’s hope that his readers will consider how they can make their church a community of delight. It is a matter of some urgency, as a world dominated by consumerism is ultimately unsustainable.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight
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