Sunday, October 06, 2013

Consumerism, Christian Discipleship and the Digital Age

What follows is a post I recently wrote for my Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society journal, a semester-long assignment regularly making entries for a course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where I'm currently in my last year of a Masters of Divinity program. It's definitely just a bit of free-form, unedited thinking, but I'd love to hear what you think.

So I've been thinking a great deal about the many concepts we've talking about in the course so far, and given that we're almost halfway through the semester, I figured I'd try to articulate my thinking thus far. This won't be pretty, it's just a lot of raw, stream of conscious writing, but here we go...

Throughout the semester something's been hanging on me a bit... I sort of had a general notion that things were changing, that the advent of a variety of web 2.0 platforms and especially social media was revolutionizing how we identify ourselves, what we desire, and how we define ourselves. In other words, I thought social media was changing many of the factors involved in what we create and how we can consume... yet, I could never really articulate what I was trying to get at.

Last week, when discussing Pastor's Zandstra's article "30-cent Deal of a Lifetime," what I was trying to get at became a bit clearer. A major argument of Pastor Zandstra's piece was that we don't primarily purchase/ consume commodities because we desire the physical object, but rather that we desire a certain identity that various commodities signal to others (and ourselves). Essentially, for many millennials, and increasingly folks of older generations as well, Pastor Zandstra's apt observation no longer holds true. With social media revolutionizing the way we identify ourselves and the way we make meaning, a decreasing percentage of the commodities many younger folks buy has very much to do with identity at all. Sure, if I ever buy brand new clothes (I usually just thrift shop), its at LL Bean, primarily so I can return the commodities I purchase once they wear out, but also because the whole woodsy Maine thing is a part of the identity I've constructed for myself. A Facebook profile is such a stronger, more interactive way of signaling identity though, so if my online persona greatly contradicted the whole woodsy thing, folks would probably think of me more based more upon what they see online. In this way (and its only one of two ways I've so far identified), purchasing commodities of a specific brand is increasingly less important in constructing an identity for one's self.

I just analyzed my own spending over the past month in order to provide some factual evidence to back up this idea. Here's the categories I spent on:

- Rent: 26%
- Food: 22%
- Entertainment (mostly beer & concert tickets): 16%
- Health: 10%
- Transportation: 8%
- Books: 8%
- Investment: 7%
- Miscellaneous: 2%
- Charity: 1%

Outside of the charity number being so low (that definitely something I need to work on over the next month), the only category that really has much to do with identity at all is the books (I like identify as a proud member of the liberal intelligentsia haha). The local microbrews and folk-rock concerts can probably be added in as well as having to do with identity (I'm a bit of a hippie), as can the charity (I'm an overly cheap Christian) but that really only makes up one quarter of my spending for the month.

On another level, social media is also beginning to subvert the original purpose of brands to begin with. As we discussed in class, brands only became important when folks began buying commodities from a third-party, rather than directly from a local producer whose reputation the purchaser would have known about. With the advent of modern capitalism, brands were necessary to signal reputation of the producer, since the original producer may have been half a world away from the purchaser. Now however, with social media, anyone can talk about the quality of any sort of product with folks all over the world. Thus, while brands are still important (I'm typing on my MacBook Air right now), the consuming public increasingly has the power to discuss and define a brand, subverting the producer's ability to define their brand to a certain extent.

Two more quick points I'm only starting to think about. I'm in the midst of reading Karl Marx's Capital, and I've started to further nail down the whole identity creation through social media thing. In Marx's read on a capitalist society, the problem with the capitalist class is that they privately own the means of production, and thus can extract surplus value from the laborer, which turn leads to an increasing concentration of capital... did I get it right? If we take as a given that creation identity is a central factor in capitalist consumption, then capitalism is at very least on the verge of changing its form. This is because an increasing percentage of individuals (one third of people globally currently have internet access and another third have mobile phone access), now control their own means of identity production in the form of blogs, Facebook accounts, YouTube accounts and the like. This idea needs to be fleshed out a great deal still, but I'd like to think I'm on to something.

So, what does Christian discipleship look like in this digital age, where the masses increasingly control their own means of identity production? I haven't fleshed this out yet, but I've been repeatedly drawn to a Gustavo Gutierrez quote from A Theology of Liberation when thinking about this:
Men are called together, as a community and not as separate individuals, to participate in the life of the Trinitarian community, to enter into the circuit of love that unites the persons of the Trinity. This is a love which "builds up human society in history." The fulfillment and the manifestation of the will of the Father occur in a privileged fashion in Christ, who is called therefore the "mystery of God." For the same reason Sacred Scripture, the Church and the liturgical rites were designated by the first Christian generations by the term mystery, and by its Latin translation, sacrament. In the sacrament the salvific plan is fulfilled and revealed; that is, it is made present among men and for men... The sacrament is thus the efficacious revelation of the call to communion with God and to the unity of all mankind (Gutierrez 259).
As Christians in community, as the Church, Christ's body on earth, increasingly both has individual and collective access to our own means of identity production, it becomes increasingly easier for God to work through Christian community as a sacrament to the world.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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