“Uncomfortable”: Out in Stores Now!

“Uncomfortable”: Out in Stores Now!

I wrote Uncomfortable to remind Christians of this: that in spite of the awkwardness, the challenges and the discomfort of local church life, it is worth it. The discomfort of it is how we grow, as we lean not on ourselves but on the Holy Spirit at work within us, supernaturally doing things in and through churches that by all fleshly accounts should not and could not happen. 

“How it Fits Me” is the Wrong Criteria for Finding the Right Church

“How it Fits Me” is the Wrong Criteria for Finding the Right Church

If we always approach church through the lens of wishing this or that were different, or longing for a church that “gets me” or “meets me where I’m at,” we’ll never commit anywhere (or, Protestants that we are, we’ll just start our own church). But church shouldn’t be about being perfectly understood and met in our comfort zone; it should be about understanding God more, and meeting him where he’s at. 

Charles Taylor and Church Shopping

Charles Taylor and Church Shopping

Taylor's observations suggest that by perpetuating the "seeker/consumer" paradigms of expressive individualism, today's churches are setting the stage for their own spiritual demise. When churchgoing becomes mostly about a person finding the church that best supports their own subjective "spiritual path," it will eventually become an impossible task, more frustrating and draining than it's worth.

21 Challenges Facing the 21st Century Church

21 Challenges Facing the 21st Century Church

The following 21 challenges are in no particular order and are by no means exhaustive, and they are largely (but not exclusively) reflective of an American evangelical context. I also should note that each of them represents not only a challenge but also an opportunity. The church has historically thrived when she is tested rather than comfortable.

Can Mass-Appeal Christianity Thrive in a Scarcity-Driven Culture?

Can Mass-Appeal Christianity Thrive in a Scarcity-Driven Culture?

“I Saw Christ Crying in Hermès.” That’s the name of the new single from little-known indie artist, Slow Dakota (real name: PJ Sauerteig), a Fort Wayne, Indiana-based singer/songwriter who often explores themes of religion in his lyrics. Listen to the song here. If you haven’t heard of Slow Dakota or if his style isn’t particularly palatable to you, that’s OK. It’s sort of the point actually.

Abortion, the Environment and the Exile of Autonomy

Abortion, the Environment and the Exile of Autonomy

How is it that our society can collectively agree that an unborn life lost to a miscarriage is something to lament but the loss of millions of unborn lives each year from abortion is not? Karen Swallow Prior pondered this question recently, calling out the contradictory yet widely held idea that unborn children are babies whose lives matter [...]

Should Cinema be Slow and Boring?

Should Cinema be Slow and Boring?

In recent weeks, several prominent film critics have engaged in a lively back-and-forth about the question of "slow and boring" cinema. Hearkening back to the famous Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris debates of the 60s-70s, this latest debate revives some of the classic, ongoing tensions in cinema, and raises fundamental questions about about the movies are for, and how we should watch them.

Introducing the Poorgeoisie

When I was in New York City earlier this year, I took some pictures of a person lying on a couch on a sidewalk in the East Village. I wasn’t sure if he was a hipster or a homeless person. This question has come up numerous times in my hipster field research over the last couple years, and it’s definitely becoming harder to tell the difference. Apparently the homeless look is hotter than ever. Actually, I first noticed the trend a few years ago in L.A. and wrote a post on my blog entitled “Derelict Chic” back in 2007.

The Commodification of Experience

In Wes Anderson’s new film, The Darjeeling Limited, three brothers from an aristocratic family meet in India to go on a “spiritual journey.” Loaded down with designer luggage, laminated trip itineraries, and a hired staffer (“Brendan”) with an albino disease, the dysfunctional trio embarks on a train ride through the richly spiritual terrain of India.

It is clear from the outset that the brothers—or at least Francis (Owen Wilson)—are here to experience something: something deep, profound, and hopefully life changing. And they are oh-so methodical about maximizing the “spirituality” of it all. Francis stuffs every spare moment of their schedule with a temple visit or some sort of feather prayer ritual. It might be odd and a little offensive that these three rich white guys—decked out in fitted flannel suits by Marc Jacobs—are prancing around such squalor, making light (by juxtaposition) of the decidedly exotic culture that surrounds them… But this is what makes the film funny. It’s a comedy.

But it also rings very true. These guys are swimming in things (designer sunglasses, clothes, trinkets, keychains, etc), but what they really want is to feel. And because acquiring commodities is in their DNA, they assume that these types of immaterial experiences can be collected too. Thus, their exotic pilgrimage to India.

The film made me think a lot about my own life, and how I increasingly feel drawn to experiences rather than things. It’s all about seeking those magic moments—whether on a vacation abroad or on a sunset walk on the beach—when we feel something more. And of course, it helps to have an appropriate song pumping through your iPod to fit whatever mood or genre of life you are living at that moment. In Darjeeling, the “iPod as soundtrack to a nicely enacted existential episode” is given new meaning.

In his book The Age of Access, Jeremy Rifkin applies this all very neatly to economic theory, pointing out that our post-industrial society is moving away from the physical production of material goods to the harnessing of lived experience as a primary economic value. For Rifkin, the challenge facing capitalism is that there is nothing left to buy, so consumers are “casting about for new lived experiences, just as their bourgeois parents and grandparents were continually in search of making new acquisitions.” Rifkin believes that the “new self” is less concerned with having “good character” or “personality” than in being a creative performer whose personal life is an unfolding drama built around accumulated episodes and experiences that fit into a larger narrative. Rifkin keenly articulates how this user orientation toward theatricalized existence creates a new economic frontier:

There are millions of personal dramas that need to be scripted and acted out. Each represents a lifelong market with vast commercial potential… For the thespian men and women of the new era, purchasing continuous access to the scripts, stages, other actors, and audiences provided by the commercial sphere will be critical to the nourishing of their multiple personas.

And so as we (the spoiled, affluent westerners among us, at least) become more and more dissatisfied with all the physical goods we’ve amassed, and begin to seek lived experiences and dramatic interaction as a new life pursuit, we must not delude ourselves that this is some higher goal, untainted by commercialism.

On the contrary, the economy is shifting to be ready for the “new selves” of this ever more de-physicalized era. The question is: are we prepared to allow our experiences to become commodities? Are we okay with the fact that our “to-buy” wishlists are now being replaced by “to do” lists, of equal or greater value to the marketplace? What happens when every moment of our lives becomes just another commodity—something we collect and amass to fill the showcase mantles of our memories?

Conspicuous Consumption

So I was watching this show on MTV last week, called Newport Harbor. Essentially it is Laguna Beach all over again, just 20 miles up the California coast in another ritzy Orange Country beach town. The cast of the show is made up of a handful of ditzy-but-beautiful blonde girls and a few token surfer dudes who each of the girls will date at one point during the season (which follows their senior year of “high school”). Everything on the show is pristine, nicely coifed, tanned, and very, very rich.

Most episodes of the show, like in Laguna, feature the kids shopping at designer stores, eating at Zagat-rated restaurants, or (in the case of the episode I saw) going on weekend trips to Palm Springs. Of course, no seventeen year old really has the money to live this way, but MTV wants us to think that yes, these kids (most kids in Orange Country, actually) do in fact spend their free time surfing, tanning, gossiping, and eating braised lamb while the rest of us do homework and eat Ramen noodles.

At one point in the Palm Springs episode of Newport, “Allie” asks her father (“Art”) whether his American Express card will work for her during the weekend. “But it’s the gold one and not the platinum!” she complains as she opens the door to her friend’s SUV. Art playfully reassures her that his gold AMEX will be more than enough for one weekend, and he smiles and waves as his daughter drives off with his money.

Such scenes, which deceptively portray a fantasy world where it is normal for parents and teenagers to behave like this, seem to be the bread and butter for MTV these days. On any given day there are at least two episodes of an atrocious—but sickeningly addictive—MTV show called My Super Sweet Sixteen. This show features the most outrageous flaunting of wealth I’ve ever seen. Fifteen year old “princesses” routinely spend upwards of $500,000 of their parents’ money to throw themselves a birthday party certain to be the illest the sophomore class has ever seen, or will ever see.

But it’s not just MTV. Everywhere you look on TV and in pop-culture these days, you see this strangely alluring thing that is a sort of a rich people minstrel show: wealth being exploited for the entertainment of the underclass. Shows like Bravo’s new reality offering, Welcome to the Parker (which is all about the Parker hotel in Palm Springs—the most ridiculously posh playground for celebrities in SoCal), emphasize how gloriously snobby rich people are, while shows like The Fabulous Life (VH1) and Cribs (MTV) keep tabs on which rich celebrity has managed to spend their money the most frivolously. Each of these shows contains the playful cha-ching graphic, which keeps tabs of the “bill” during the course of any episode, making light of the fact that some people manage to spend more money in a year than the entire country of Ethiopia has made in a decade.

And lest we forget the phenomenon of Paris Hilton, a “famous for being rich” celebrity who embodies all of the above. People are always asking, “why are we obsessed with Paris Hilton?” But this has a pretty obvious answer: it’s because we’re obsessed with being rich. It’s the same reason we watch Newport Harbor or buy something that Oprah likes. If we can associate ourselves with wealth (even if we’re really poor) by watching or imitating it, we feel more legitimate, desirable, and important.

The Paris Hilton culture is just the latest incarnation of what Thomas Veblen first coined “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Essentially it is the idea that with the onset of expendable income, the new upper and middle classes took to flaunting their “wealth” as a way to demonstrate their social power or significance, whether real or perceived. In other words, people began to buy lots of fancy furniture and art (but chiefly so they could have dinner parties and show it off), and they began to buy expensive clothes and jewelry, mainly to present themselves as more important than they actually were.

Consumerism and the consequent drive to be conspicuous about it is certainly something we all deal with. Living in Los Angeles, a mile away from downtown Beverly Hills, I see it everywhere I look. One time when I was sitting at a bus stop near Rodeo Drive, I played a game in which I counted how many Range Rovers drove by me in the course of a minute (the Range Rover is the current “must-have accessory” in L.A.). I think I counted 6, or maybe 10. Either way, that’s a high volume of grossly over-waxed blingmobiles in the span of a minute. That’s like one every ten seconds.

I’m not sure how many people who drive Range Rovers actually can afford them; but that’s beside the point. Half of the wealth that is flashed in your eyes on any given day isn’t real wealth. It’s all about appearances. Sunglasses are the best way to feign wealth, especially in L.A. (where sunglasses are worn more than socks). Most really good, designer sunglasses are at least $300—which is not that much for the average stockbroker or real estate tycoon. But you can easily find knock-off sunglasses for like ten bucks that look exactly like the massive Prada pair you saw on J.Lo last week. It’s easy to look wealthy and important if you try hard enough.

Nowadays, the measure of someone’s “importance” is often seen in the technological accessory attached to their ear. Whether it’s an iPod, iPhone, or the latest fashion in Bluetooth earpieces (which scream “I’m white collar and too busy and important to use a hand phone!”), people are vying for status via The Sharper Image. It’s all an illusion, though, because no one is so important that “hands free” devices are necessary. Still, it’s the driving illusion of our time.

Christians find themselves in an interesting spot, living in a culture that measures a person’s value or relevance by what model of cell phone they carry. We are followers of a man who once told his disciples that anyone who wanted to follow him must “deny himself” and “take up his cross daily.” Jesus constantly dropped lines such as “what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:23, 25). He also insisted that we not worry about things like food and clothes (Matthew 6: 25-34), and offered counterintuitive little quips about how blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted. Can you imagine an MTV show about nerdy little Christian kids in Irvine who take all of this to heart?

The Christian life is so crazily counter to a life of conspicuous consumption. Ours should be a life of conspicuous rejection of all the bling money can buy. We should be conspicuously consumed with Christ, so much so that we become much more fascinating to watch than Paris Hilton. Instead of a culture that questions their obsession with Paris and Britney, what if the curious questions were about Christians—why are they so utterly, obviously uninterested in what everyone else is living for (self-aggrandizement)? Now that would be a story worthy of reality TV.

Note: This article was first published in the Relevant 850 weekly newsletter.