Christian Practices in a Consumer Culture
Two young fish, so the story goes, are swimming casually along, talking about whatever it is that young fish talk about. Presently, they look up and notice an elderly fish approaching. He has a mysterious twinkle in his eye as he passes them, going the opposite direction, and playfully shouts, “Hey boys! How’s the water?”
Once the old fish is out of earshot, the first young fish turns to the second and asks, “What the heck’s water?”
It has been observed by many people that we live in a post-Christian culture. The Christian who hopes to stay Christian, raise her children as Christians, and help her Christian friends and family resist the tide of secularism is often at a loss. We live in a culture the underlying presuppositions of which are, in fact, quite antithetical to the gospel. The problem, however, is that we are very often like the young fish in the story above. We are so immersed in the broader culture that we forget that it is there. If the seeds we are casting about are to find any fertile soil in which to take root before they are scorched or eaten by the birds, we need to till some soil. We need to cultivate practices that give our people some critical distance from the culture so that they can recognize the water they are swimming in and make informed choices about whether or not to fight the current.
Here is a short list of practices I have found helpful in my own battle for sanity. I hope you will share your own practices in the comments.
1. Don’t shop on Sundays
While this does admit of exceptions (medicine being an obvious one), not shopping at least one day per week gives us just a little freedom from the cycle of consumption that dominates life in a culture where we are what we can buy. Having to plan ahead just enough to avoid needing to buy things on a Sunday reminds us that we don’t need everything available at our fingertips all the time. We do not need to resent shopkeepers who spend evenings or weekends with their families or businesses that give their people a real holiday for Christmas. We can survive without demanding everything be open all the time.
The contemporary practice of “Buy Nothing Day” once a year is on the right track, but it is not nearly so radical as its proponents imagine. A “Buy Nothing Day” once a week would have a far more serious impact on a hyper-consumerist culture.
2. Don’t eat meat on Fridays
A couple years ago, Oprah hosted a promoter of veganism on her show. Enthused (she is Oprah after all!), Oprah declared, without any hint of irony, Mondays at Harpo Studios “Meatless.” I guess Meatless Mondays has the same alliterative value as Fish Fridays?
Not eating meat on Friday has some benefits similar to not shopping on Sunday. It requires, in a culture where meat is so readily available, some advance planning. It also highlights our superabundance in a way that has the potential, at least, of helping us to identify with the poor of the world, who live mostly on rice and beans.
It is possible, of course, to eat very well, even to feast, without meat, but taken seriously, abstaining from meat can also be a kind of fasting that gives us some control over our appetites – control which makes us far less susceptible to advertising which plays on them and actively cultivates our weakness in this area from, almost, infancy. If you are able to fast more seriously that just giving up meat on Friday, go for it!
3. Ditch the TV
We all know how much garbage is on TV. Which of us has not wasted a precious part of our lives which we will never get back on Jersey Shore or some other nonsense? Frankly, it destroys our capacity for beauty. On the other hand, there is genuinely good content on television. Not having sampled very widely myself, I can at least point to something like the new Battlestar Gallactica as serious and beautiful art. And watching Blue Jays games with my tiny men was always a great time of family bonding. (As an aside, I find watching sports much more community building than most programming because you end up interacting with the other people in the room in a way that is not possible with most programming. And besides, you can use something like baseball to teach geography, math, history, and economics. And you can use it as motivation to get outside and play yourself.)
But even the best content is crippled by advertising. Giving advertisers unfettered access to your living room for hours a day is bound to give you several neuroses. It will cripple, deliberately, your children’s self-image, and convince you that you are too fat, too impotent, too broke etc. all while making you fatter, more impotent, and more broke. Especially in this day and age, when almost all good programming that you would want on TV is available elsewhere, get rid of the damn (seriously) thing.
4. Be disciplined about your internet usage
While computers can give us the news, sports, and weather we used to rely on TV for, thereby making it easier to get rid of TV, this can be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Apart from the obvious pitfalls of using the internet for its immoral content, things like e-mail, social media, and the blogosphere can be a serious time sink. Which of us has not sat down to check our e-mail only to find ourselves still in front of the screen hours later with almost no recollection of what we have spent the last 3 hours doing? Even reading quality content often becomes nothing but a blur. Better to put on some tea and spend those hours with a good book.
We recently acquired a standing desk because of my bad back, but it has also made the computer less of a time sink because you don’t get stuck in a chair. You are more active and alert when you are standing and less likely to be distracted by infinite hyperlinks. I would also recommend having only one family computer. The whole family does not need to be online at once. If people have to wait for their turn to check e-mail they must fill that time by playing piano, or reading, or visiting. There is nothing sadder than a bunch of people sitting around a table together all playing solitaire. As an absolute minimum, smart phones and tablets are off at meal times.
5. Eat together
In an ideal world families would have breakfast and dinner together almost everyday. In our world, it is a victory to have at least most family members available for any given meal. If that is your family life, try making one night a week – absolutely, no exceptions except emergencies – family meal night. And try cooking together as well. The central Christian ritual, instituted by the Lord himself, becomes virtually incoherent in a culture where people do not understand the community forming aspect of meals. And the idea of tying his great sacrifice to a meal becomes opaque when people don’t know where their food comes from. Take your kids to a farm and show them where your food comes from. Give them a chance to milk a cow or even (seriously) behead a chicken.
We all need food to live. Because of that, confusion about what food is and does is likely to distort our perceptions of reality more than confusion about almost any other good or service. Eating, cooking and learning about food together is a great antidote to a culture in which fast (and unhealthy) food leads inexorably to fast (and unhealthy) relationships.
6. Eschew artificial contraception
Nothing has made fast relationships seem more innocuous that contraceptives. By giving us the illusion that sex can happen without consequences, it gives us permission to make other people into objects for our gratification. It is now possible to tell ourselves that using people, even in their most intimate and sacred core, that place where they understand who they are and what they can give to the world, is as inconsequential as a preschooler’s shoplifting gummy worms.
Now I am under no illusions about the difficulty of this path. Furthermore, I acknowledge that people were and are fully capable of using and abusing one another sexually without the aid of contraceptives. But I have also seen, in my own life, the way in which the rejection of contraception has provided a bulwark for me against the overwhelming and ever-present temptation to trivialize sex. Because of the difficulty my wife and I have faced in the use of Natural Family Planning, we are constantly made aware of just what kind of act married couples are called to engage in with one another. That doesn’t mean that we have perfect Catholic saint sex, the way some popular advocates would have it, but it does mean that we are protected against the worst excesses of a pornographic culture in a way that I am more grateful for with every passing year.
6. b) Have kids
[And if you can't have kids, for reasons social or biological, help people who do. I am more and more impressed by the family friendly communities that are built up around a religious house of celibates. These are often the very best places for hosting family events for people who have trouble even imagining how to get everyone out of the house together. Christian couples that cannot have children can also have an immensely positive impact on the community around them.]
Having kids is a radical act of hope. To have children in this decadent culture is to affirm with one’s very life that God has not given up on the world. Every baby is a sign of just that fact (as we would surely know if we were suddenly unable to have them). And, in my own life at least, kids have forced me to develop skills and virtues that I certainly would not have cultivated on my own. Being responsible for 3 tiny people has given me measures of discipline and patience that, insignificant as they may seem from the outside, are much more than I would have otherwise. There are, of course, other ways to build character, but children require it of you in ways that are difficult to parallel outside the most strictly observant religious houses. I simply cannot waste time and money the way this culture wants me to.
7. Eucharistic Adoration
Or Rosary. Or Scripture reading. Or all of the above. The point in this context is simply to BE QUIET. We are so deliberately overstimulated externally that many of us simply do not know what to do internally with a moment of silence. If you are like me, it is tough to turn your brain down even in those moments before sleep finally arrives. I am constantly thinking, but rarely in a focused or effective way. My brain runs around from one thing to the next, often forgetting what I meant to be doing when I started thinking in the first place. Who hasn’t sat down to pray and found themselves accidentally doing the budget in their mind? Adoration seems like a waste of time. And anyone praying the Rosary ends up right back where they started. Good! It is only if we learn to waste time properly, silently, that we will really be able to see the ways in which our time is frittered away in things far less human.
In a culture where information is at your fingertips, it is easy to become forgetful. The trouble is, information that is in your brain is much more organic and useful than information that is in your phone. The capacity to make connections and discern patterns depends on a kind of knowledge that simply cannot be had in an external way. If the internet often functions as today’s soma, memory is its antidote. There are powerful interests out there that don’t want you to be able to think. One of the best things you can do to foil them is to know a few classic poems and a lot of Scripture inside out and backwards.
9. Make something
It’s not all that important what it is, but learn to make something: cookies, music, furniture, poetry, scarves, blankets, tomatoes, babies. Our homes are completely full of junk. We are surrounded by garbage produced for no other reason than to sell it to us. In such a context it is easy to forget that we are co-creators with God, given the great privilege of creating real things that will, in the role they have in forming us, outlast the world. It is tough to see eternity as the redemption of creation when most things our culture creates are destined for the landfill. And yes, this applies to bad art and music just as much as it applies to plastic toys. It is bad for people to make junk, and any system that requires large numbers of people to produce garbage just to survive is dehumanizing.
10. Go play outside
Seriously. (And leave the smart phone at home.)
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto and Hanrahan Scholar-in-Residence at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.