Volume 2, Number 12

December 16, 2011

Theme: Our Consumer Culture


Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: Faith in a Consumerist Society

by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah

The Manger and the Mall

by Fr. Joel Weir

Our Greatest Gift is on the Tree

by Deacon David Wooten

The Life of the World Revisited: Christmas — Not Material Enough

by Ms. Andreea Bălan

More information about the Authors and Contributors can be found here.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: Faith in a Consumerist Society

December 16, 2011

By Metropolitan Jonah

Editor’s Note: This is a part of His Beatitude’s address to the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month. A video of the full talk, comments, and questions and answers is available here.

In becoming a monk, I’ve been given the blessing of taking a vow of poverty. This vow, which encompasses facets of non-possessiveness, spiritual detachment and charity, exists for no other reason than for the sake of helping one attain union with Jesus Christ. In evaluating myself in an attempt to perpetually live up to this vow, I’ve been given the opportunity to reflect on the manner in which my own culture has influenced my personal development. One notion that has stood out in these evaluations is the manner in which material culture affects the relationships that we have with each other. The way I see it, one of the major problems of our culture is that oftentimes we have no clue about how to relate to each other on any level more genuine than “object”, leaving us isolated from Jesus Christ and from the rest of humanity.

We are now in the midst of the Nativity fast, anxiously awaiting the celebration of Our Lord’s birth. Famously, the shepherds and magi bore witness to the infant Christ by bringing him gifts. In celebration of the remembrance of our Lord’s birth and of the charitable works of St Nicholas (and, granted, of a Coca-Cola advertising campaign) we offer each other gifts on Christmas day. This is a good practice I think, one which allows us to be charitable to the ones we love and, hopefully, to strangers as well. We are allowed on this day to make a beginning in the establishment of a habit of charitable giving. And we do this, of course, in remembrance of the abundant gifts that Christ gave to us in his crucifixion and resurrection, the gifts of repentance and the remission of sins unto everlasting life, which are the precious fruit of the cross. This is an amazing time of the year, rich with blessings.

A time of year rich in blessings

But the feast comes and goes, and there are many sales at our favorite stores during the weeks that follow. Why is it that we lose focus so quickly following the feast? Or perhaps even truer for myself, why is it that the feast fails to bring me focus? I believe that this is because the prevailing habitual manner of relating to others is not founded upon an understanding of who we are in the eyes of God.

Apple is one of the younger generation’s favorite companies. They make such innovative gadgets, have really slick commercials, always feature great music and capture a design aesthetic that is just perpetually cool. Their ads show beautiful people dressed in a familiar manner doing things to which we are able to relate–making music, sharing photos with loved ones, finding lost friends. Apple makes computer products, but in reality they are a lifestyle brand. Buying an Apple product is about entering into a community and aligning one’s self with a certain vision.

This is really an incredible notion. Our younger generation is the generation of the iPod, and anyone who’s ever been to Apple’s store in Manhattan knows that this generation worships at the church of Mac. We align ourselves to live an ‘Apple lifestyle’. We ‘switch’ to mac. But peeling this back beyond a simple social phenomenon reveals something that I think is much more troublesome.

This generation treats each other as though they are actually iPods! Or, as though they were Facebook or Glee or the Warped Tour or J Crew’s fall collection. We develop our sense of identity through the material culture with which we surround ourselves, and inadvertently our friends and loved ones get the same treatment. We want our friends to look like the people in the commercials because we want to be the stars of those commercials. We expect our loved ones to interact with us in the same manner as those in the television shows we watch, because we want to be the stars of those shows. We want our significant others to do the things we see in the movies and music videos, because we want to live lives just like those that are portrayed. We demand that our women look like the magazine covers, and our men like those models at the mall. We treat our loved ones as objects that can be curated and manipulated just like the order of the songs in our playlist, or which types of olive and cheese we’ll buy this week at Whole Foods.

Really?  Through my work with college students I have heard Two quotes this past year which will help to illustrate my point: “I’m in to the whole Spanish thing right now, so get those olives and that sheep’s milk cheese. And get that other type of baguette, because the French one doesn’t work.” And, “Let’s do a Mad Men themed party and only drink classic cocktails. I’m really into the classic style thing right now. Don’t invite them, because they don’t really get it.” Those whom God loves and whom he created in the image and likeness of himself, those very same persons who are more precious to God than anything else in creation, we treat like the varieties of yogurt in the grocery store. Those whom we claim to love we use like objects in the project of “defining” ourselves.

"....we treat like the varieties of yogurt in the grocery store".

There are some in of this generation who believe that they can’t be treated in any other manner. Young women believe that they can only be loved by a man if they flaunt themselves as objects of sexual desire to be used for pleasure. And men, the perpetual adolescents, refuse to take responsibility for themselves and for this insidious treatment of women, ensuring that the trend continues. Or they rebel against the system, and treat themselves as objects of sexual desire as well. When we bore of our surroundings, we dump each other like clicking the empty button on the trashcan on our computer desktop and look for a new surrounding. How often have we said to ourselves, I want to be like so-and-so, so I’ll spend more time with this group of people, or buy these objects. We are perpetually trying to “make” or “define” ourselves with material culture, as opposed to digging deep into whom God sees us to be, and allowing for our “definition” to come from our creator.

The Feast of the Natvity of Christ

When the feast of the Nativity comes, and we journey through the fast to behold Christ who was borne of the Virgin Mary, we are unable to welcome him into our hearts. We are so occupied juggling iPods and Kindles and the keys to that car we really want, and we aren’t capable of receiving Our Lord and Savior. God came into the world so that we might behold him, and I’m left holding this bag of Cheetos. The pain of my generation in this instance is so incredibly deep, because in Christ’s birth we recognize that we haven’t prepared ourselves in the slightest for his coming. Christ’s birth demands something from us and radically changes how we conceive of ourselves. So, we have effectively ignored the one who gives us meaning.

At first I had thought that this pain stems from the fact that we give all of our attention to all of these material possessions and eventually they break or get old and aren’t as exciting. Certainly, this is part of the equation. But the deeper underlying problem, the reason why giving all of our attention to anything other than Christ is a problem, is that without the experience of relating to Christ we are left in isolation. We need first to be defined by Christ, in order that we might appropriately relate to those around us. As it stands, our experience is only based on relationships to objects, and not relationships to persons. In relating to our creator as a person, we come to know what it is to be a person. There is such a poverty in this generation, because we don’t know what this means. We do not possess an understanding of what it means to be loved by God, and appreciated as who he sees us to be—by definition, who we really are. Having never known this love, which takes into consideration even those things that we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves, we are incapable of relating to others in a similar manner.

Love does not exist outside of Christ. It is not possible to love something in a manner unlike Christ. Only in being transformed in Christ’s love are we able to love others. But we can’t do this until we recognize what it means to be loved. Christ sees us as individual, complete, beautiful persons created in the image and likeness of himself, and loves us unconditionally, despite our propensity to soil the beauty in which he created us. Because we have not felt this love and are thus incapable of reciprocating it first and foremost back to ourselves, we do not govern our actions in accordance with who Christ sees us to be. When such a thing has become accomplished, we will become better able to interact with each other and our surroundings in a Christ-like manner. But until that happens, so much of what we encounter only serves to distract us from how the truth of Christ’s coming changes our lives. Instead of immersing ourselves in Apple, we need to immerse ourselves in Christ. This is the only solution to our pain.

This immersion in Christ sounds so abstract and difficult, and it is because it demands complete self-denial and the putting to death of the old man, cultural inheritance and all. But it’s also simple, because we’ve been given a means of accomplishing this feat. The answer to the pain of separation, which causes us to treat others as objects, is giving.

The magi had the opportunity to give Christ gifts, and the woman with a flask of precious oil was able to anoint our Lord before his crucifixion. Abraham was willing to give Isaac, Manassah gave a prayer, the assembled masses gave a few loaves of bread and some fish, the deacon Stephen gave his life. We are able to give ourselves completely over to Christ, to donate our time, our talents and our treasures to Him. Even when we have nothing, we can give Christ our sins in repentance. He takes all of this and redeems it. There are no fire sales or bargain bins left with picked-over rejected products. It is no longer Apple’s economy but Christ’s economy, and instead of looking like a TV commercial our lives begin to reflect the kingdom of heaven. Salvation comes to the world! We give Christ our yearning hearts and he enters into our very being, and he acts through us to accomplish his saving work. We do not “switch” to mac, but to everlasting life. His indwelling in us saves us, and our pain vanishes. We partake of abundant life, and strangely, extraordinarily, everything comes back to us, in its appropriate time and manner, gifts like manna from heaven. Then, having come to known Christ’s love for us and having accepted that which Christ has given to us, we come to know ourselves and are able to love each other with the love of Christ. We no longer feel the pain of being treated like an object, or the loneliness of treating others like objects. Christ is born in us and in our midst. We relate to each other as real persons, and the pain of my generation is solved.

"Our lives begin to reflect the Kingdom of Heaven"

Being a monastic—that is, struggling to truly be a Christian- I have been given the great blessing of making this endeavor my only priority. Those who know me will vouch for me when I say that fail in this endeavor continually. But through quiet, sweet converse with God we are given a great deal of understanding about what God desires from us. He loves us and wants us to grow in him, so he keeps us constantly updated about how we are to grow and mature. When we experience this sense of rearing, we expect the same from others, and begin to treat them not as static objects that need to be moved like fashionable chess pieces, but as integral persons whom God loves. In reflection, for me, consumerism is a continuous cycle the starts with the failure to love others as God loves them, not with open expectation and genuine interest in development but with judgment and selfishness, and ends with the pursuit of material goods to assuage the pain of not feeling loved.

The Manger and the Mall

December 16, 2011

by Fr. Joel Weir

In the past two months, we as Americans have experienced the strange and curious season of preparation known as the “holiday rush”. This great American tradition, which now includes the mid-feasts of Black Friday and Cyber Monday features, among many other curiosities, billboards, TV, and computer ads, with words like “joy”, “peace”, and “love” intertwined with words like “sale”, “hurry”, and “4G Ready”.  It’s a strange time, Christmas in America. It’s especially strange if you’re a Christian. There is an inescapable tension that exists between the reality of what we know and believe Christmas is really supposed to be about and the siren call of consumerism that surrounds us on a daily basis. Its kind of like a Nativity Scene next to an inflatable Santa on a lawn. It doesn’t really make sense. It doesn’t work. But, still – there it is, and you have to deal with it.

"It’s a strange time, Christmas in America."

I think I first became aware of this tension sometime in middle school. I can remember the first time of feeling the disappointment of “stuff” at Christmas. I’m not talking about the feeling of getting socks in your stocking when you really wanted a Transformer, nor about the Electric Football game that didn’t actually work the way you imagined it would (I know, I’m showing my age). I’m talking about that deep pit of the soul feeling that tells you something isn’t quite right. I can especially remember the confusing cycle of excitement and then guilt about asking for and receiving certain expensive items at Christmas. I don’t know if it was because I had a greater realization of the sacrifice it took my parents to buy the presents (and, maybe a suspicion that they were going beyond their means) or if it was getting a keener sense of the economic situation of some of my friends in relation to mine. Whatever it was, something started to bug me. There was also the whole question about what buying and getting stuff even had to do with birth of Christ. And, then, I really got disturbed by reading further on in the story, to what Jesus actually said and did. Trust me, that messes with a kid, especially while staring at a new gaming system that replaced one your parents just got you last year.

What does buying stuff have to do with the birth of Christ?

I’m writing this now as an adult in my mid thirties. The temptation of twenty years ago – to have to have a new pair of Air Jordans when my old ones still had life in them has been replaced by the temptation to upgrade my phone when the one I have still makes calls just fine. I can affirm with confidence the words of Solomon that there really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the struggle against the desires of the flesh. I do wonder, though, about what Christian teenagers and young adults face in today’s consumer culture, especially at Christmas. On one hand, I know that young people face a barrage of advertisements, suggestions, and access to instant buying and coveting that I never had to face at their age. On the other hand, I have spoken with many young people who have a much broader understanding of the effect that American consumerism has, not only in relation to people in their community, but to much poorer people in other parts of the world, than I ever had at their age. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to understand that my Christmas list could potentially have global implications.

But what does this have to do with the Nativity of Our Lord, the real meaning of Christmas? Fr. Alexander Schmemann once described consumerism as “the idea that everything belongs to me and I have to grab it”. The antidote to this sickness, he described as Eucharistic living, “where we offer ourselves and are accepted through Christ’s offering to Himself” (Liturgy and Tradition: SVS Press, p.  130). The Nativity story is filled with examples of non-possessing, non-instant, profoundly personal giving and receiving. Mary receives the message from the angel Gabriel, which she ponders in her heart, but does not seek to possess or own, but rather to give away. She will ultimately see her son handed over to be crucified for the sake of all mankind. She will respond to the great gift of bearing and giving birth to the incarnate Son and Word of God by giving her life in love and intercession for others. The greatest example is from Jesus Himself, “Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6,7). This self-giving, self-emptying example, along with Christ’s willingness to be born and live among the poor should show us something about how we can honor His birth in our own act of giving and receiving at Christmas.

He gave himself

The consumerism of the holiday rush sells us a much different version of giving and receiving. Something that is supposed to be a personal expression of love to another person, in honor and celebration of the selfless love of God, becomes a source of anxiety, competition, and covetousness. Instead of drawing us to one another it separates us. And, on a global scale, our demand to have things cheap, instant, disposable and in huge quantities has led to ramifications not only in terms of poverty and abuse of the least among us, but also environmentally. Perhaps this is why the cycle of wanting and getting starts to bug us after awhile – our hearts tell us something is wrong.

This Christmas, as we face the tension we can transform it. Instead of simply buying more stuff for one another our gifts can be personal and lasting. The act of conscientious and prayerful giving and receiving can be a very helpful defense against the temptation of crass and empty consumerism. The extra work that goes into an inexpensive hand-made gift can be an excellent time of prayer for the recipient. Purchasing quality gifts from small, local shops can build relationships and support the community. Many charities have opportunities to donate in someone’s name. One of my family’s favorite traditions is picking out which type of animal we’re going to purchase from Heifer International. Sharing your talents and time is always a great gift, especially to those who especially need the joy of Christ in their lives. Visiting loved ones or even strangers in a nursing home, or volunteering as a family or parish community at a shelter or soup kitchen is a much better use of time and energy than fighting for an Xbox at Wal-Mart. Above all, combat the anxiety and urgency of the holiday rush with the peace and joy of Christ, whose birth we celebrate.

Our Greatest Gift is on the Tree

December 16, 2011

By Deacon David Wooten

The preacher had been at it for more than an hour in the TV studio.  His face was red, the vein on his forehead was throbbing, and his voice was reaching a fever pitch.  He pointed directly at the camera.

“Are you tired of sitting back and letting life happen to you?” he screamed.  “Are you tired of your teenagers being lost? Are you tired of not being able to find the ends, much less make them meet? Then why don’t you do something you’ve never done?  Why don’t you GO TO YOUR PHONE, RIGHT NOW! And say, ‘In the name of God’s Christ, I’m gonna sow the right seed, And I’m gonna believe for a miracle!!’”  The “seed” he was talking about was money.  If people would just “plant a seed,” the preacher said, and pledge a certain amount of money to his organization, they would “reap a harvest of blessings.”  What I was watching was one of the Prosperity Gospel’s most well-known preachers at work.

Go the phone right now!

The Prosperity Gospel—also known as “name-it-and-claim-it”—is a false teaching that most people only see when flipping through TV channels.  I saw plenty of it, live, during my years attending Oral Roberts University, a school named after a man who mentored many of today’s televangelists.  Now, although many at the school did not agree with the Prosperity Gospel, many prominent preachers of that message were on the school’s Board of Regents and would preach in chapel.  We were told that we could claim physical healing of disease, cancellation of student loan debt, and a prosperous career following graduation, if we would just plant a seed—no easy task for broke college students!—into the University.

Needless to say, this shallow emphasis on material riches disillusioned many of us.  Some lost faith in God altogether because of the superficiality of prosperity preachers.  Others looked to other expressions of Christianity for a faith more firmly rooted in the humble teachings of Jesus Christ.  Dozens of us found our way into Orthodoxy, where we discovered a God who was bigger than any “wish list” that anyone could bring to Him.  We discovered a God Who didn’t owe us a thing.  More than that: we discovered a God to Whom we owed everything, and Who had already given us everything we needed.

Christ who has already given us everything

As I write this, we are in the midst of the Nativity Fast, preparing to celebrate the greatest Gift ever given to mankind: the Incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.  In this event, we see the great example for us as Christians.  St. Paul tells us that Jesus, though equal to God, emptied Himself, took on the form of a servant, and became obedient, even to the point of dying for all mankind on the Cross (Philippians 2:6-7).  What humility!  Here was the Son of God, Who could have called down tens of thousands of angels to defend Him when He was taken to be crucified, but Who laid down His life of His own will, because He knew that His Father was in control of all things, regardless of how His life unfolded.  This trust in God is what we are called to, for He is good, and He does love mankind—whether or not our lives and bank accounts happen to be the way we want them to be.

Before the celebration of our Lord’s birth, we remember the three holy youths who were thrown into a furnace for their faith in the true God.  King Nebuchadnezzar had mandated that everyone in his kingdom worship the idol he had made, and any disobedience, any worship of any other gods, would be seen as a threat to national security—the gods, after all, ensured the safety of the kingdom.  When the king threatened the three youths with death, they replied with inspiring bravery: “O Nebuchadnezzar,” they said, “we have no need to answer you in this matter.  If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your idols or worship the golden image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:12-18).

The Three Holy Youths

Fr. Thomas Hopko in his book The Winter Pascha, contrasts this unconditional faith with the petty trifling of the Prosperity Gospel:

The three young men…trusted their God in everything.  If it was His will to deliver them, they were ready for that.  But if it was His will that they should perish in the flames, they were ready for that as well!  For they believed that whatever God did, He was still the God in whom they could trust for their ultimate victory…In a word, according to the witness of the three young men, real faith and genuine trust in God makes no deals and no claims.  It is completely and totally ready, as was shown supremely in Jesus, to accept whatever the Father wills and provides, knowing that His faithful ones will never be put to shame.

As we move through the holiday season, surrounded by advertisements urging us to think only of what we can purchase, we take comfort in the fact that our guiding light during this season is not one that flashes in neon colors and tempts us to desire more stuff.  It’s not the light from the TV screen promising us superficial gifts from a cosmic Santa Claus.  Rather, our guiding light is a star that hovers over a cave in Bethlehem, showing us how much God loves us, how He lowered Himself to serve us and die for us—and how we should live our lives committed to such selfless service, as well.  Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of His Son!

The Life of the World Revisited: Christmas–Not Material Enough

December 16, 2011

By Andreea Bălan

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.

~ Søren Kierkegaard

            Black Friday sales this year set a new record in terms of the monetary revenue generated by consumers. Shoppers spent over $52 billion over the weekend, up 16% from 2010.[1] More than 225 million people spent their dollars in stores or online, shelling out an average close to $400 each.[2] This spending fervor by no means indicates a healthy economy or results in optimistic predictions about the overall sales for the Christmas season. As Ms. Dickler, writing for CNN Money, quotes a consulting firm analyst, “It’s clearly a great start to the season but we still have five weeks until Christmas.”[3] The shocking behavior of those Americans who venture out on Black Friday to shop their hearts out only makes for interesting news — at the end of the day, the wherewithal is what interests corporations, and not the bizarre deportment of their customers. It comes as no surprise that, in this climate, religious leaders warn their flocks about consumerism and its pitfalls for the human spirit — creating in the process, ironically, a market for such ideas that comes complete with its own shelf in bookstores across the nation. However revolting, though, consumerism is not the illness of the human spirit. At its root, it is only a symptom of the disease afflicting all of us, namely idolatry, in Biblical parlance. Moreover, consumerism is incompatible with the Scriptures not because it centers on the material, as opposed to the spiritual, but precisely because it does not center on the material enough, in much the same way that pornography is not wicked because it is erotic but because it is not erotic enough — explicitness and eroticism have almost nothing in common. By ignoring creation’s inherent relational aspect, consumerism transforms matter into an instrument of self-destruction and a vehicle of tyranny over every living being. The Incarnation of Christ[4] offers a different perspective, pointing out that matter can be understood only when is it seen as existing in relation to the mystery of God, and not as an end in itself.

Black Friday

From the time of the prophets, the Hebrews became accustomed to hearing polemics against idolatry. That Israel was supposed to be faithful to Yahweh alone was a surprise to no one, since the first commandment that was revealed to Moses pertained to this, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). What was surprising about the prophetic tradition was the extent to which Isaiah and the rest accuse the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of violating the covenantal relationship with Yahweh — even prompting Ezekiel, for example, to rewrite his people’s history as a long string of idolatrous events and decisions on their part, something that sharply contradicts earlier descriptions of the Exodus event and the subsequent wilderness wanderings (Ezekiel 20). The same prophet’s magnificent vision of God’s chariot-throne testifies to God’s mobility and stands as a warning against his fellow Jews who believed that God was tied to his temple and would never demolish it. The people’s desecration of God’s holy place acts as the catalyst for Yahweh’s eventually leaving his temple (Ezekiel 10). Ezekiel’s message is clear: idolatry is heinous in the eyes of God.

Are we so different than the Hebrews?

Paul, as an heir to this tradition, is firmly anchored in it when he argues that the world is enslaved to sin (Romans 1). What Paul means by sin is precisely idolatry as defined by the prophets, a willful turning away from the Creator of all and a worshiping of the creature instead (Romans 1:25). Put differently, idolatry is a misuse of our freedom that stems from fear and that we direct at constructing a world in which the “I” can become self-sufficient.[5] Fear of annihilation, the fear that if I lose my self I will die, a fear that springs from the awareness that I am powerless and contingent (i.e., God, not I, is the source of my being), plagues all humans, who feverishly turn to possessions as a way of securing their existence. This instinct to acquire and possess “things” motivates us to do just that, which in turn gives rise to the illusion that we have become completely independent of God, that we have found the means to live without our real wellspring of life. In order to maintain the world that we have thus constructed we must continuously procure things, or else we stand in danger of having our world shattered into pieces. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes,

The objects of our worship require our constant attention if they are to remain gods, because they have no necessity of their own. The essential sign of the idolatrous spirit, therefore, is compulsion, which is simply a clinical term for enslavement. I must maintain this project, for it will collapse if I do not. Yet this is the project I pretend gives me my life! Idolatry begins in fear and ends in compulsion.[6]

It is easy to imagine how this instinct to acquire takes over our lives, since, among other things, maintaining a world built on sand instead of rock takes a tremendous amount of effort. Like all the false gods that we build for ourselves, it enslaves us and tyrannizes us with its never-ending need for constant attention, which ironically only exacerbates our fears that this brave new world will one day come tumbling down. Idolatry comes in a variety of shapes and sizes (some of which are boringly predictable). Consumerism is one such aspect, displaying, arguably, the most clearly the compulsion of idolatry with its frantic thirst for possessions, a habit that becomes hard to control.

The movie Inception will perhaps serve to make this concept clearer. Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his partner Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have found an innovative way of performing espionage. By stealthily infiltrating the subconscious minds of their subjects, using a dream-within-a-dream technique, they manage to extract valuable information without their targets’ knowing. Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) approaches Cobb and his crew about doing spying-in-reverse, i.e., planting an idea on an unsuspecting mind, which comes to be known as inception. The mission is dangerous, since, depending on the dreamer’s defenses, it could entail penetrating deeper than the usual one or two layers of the subconscious, possibly even reaching a place known as Limbo, where one becomes easily lost and unable to find the way back to reality. What is interesting for our analogy here is precisely this Limbo, unique because one can build a world to one’s own liking where one can live forever undisturbed. This place is so powerful and attractive that it can be easily confused with reality itself, something that happens to Mal, Cobb’s wife. Having constructed a world of their own and lived there for years as a happily married couple, Mal becomes unable to tell the difference between this dream state and the real wakening state, refusing in the end to leave Limbo. This predicament forces Cobb to implant in her, during one of their shared dream explorations, the idea that her world is not real. The plan backfires, since Mal, now back to the real world, believes that this world is a dream and commits suicide in an attempt to return to Limbo (dreamers are awakened from their dream either by a shock or by dying in the dream).

Don't get incepted!

Limbo shares many similarities to the world in which idolatry constrains us to live. It is a considerably appealing world to us, since in it we become like God, creating the structures and limits of our surroundings. It is a dangerous existence, however, because it is built on a false premise, namely that we are in control of our destiny, of creation, and of those around us. In Limbo, we literally build castles in the air, but such a task proves intoxicating, since it gives the illusion that we have the ultimate power over what transpires. The enslavement that occurs is clear: we are no longer able to tell the truth from a lie, to distinguish between reality and a dream. In Paul’s words, we become futile in our thinking and our senseless minds become darkened (Romans 1:21) — which best describes the state that idolatry brings about. Limbo is so enthralling that it becomes difficult to leave it, some opting for death rather than being disabused of the powerful delusions that hold them in their sway.

Consumerism, much like Limbo, engenders a small, but vicious world. When I stand at the center of the universe, I no longer see myself in relation to creation, but only perceive how it can serve me and my needs. Furthermore, what my needs are also becomes distorted. Consumerism tends to exaggerate or downplay our physical demands, ruling with an iron fist over the body. The most readily abused of all material goods is food, so easily observable in the United States, where the rate of childhood obesity is on the rise and where one in every three adults suffers from this disease.[7] At the other side of the spectrum we find eating disorders, which are part and parcel of the despotism of consumerism over the body. Disquieting stories about either extremity abound in the media, one of which belongs to the Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos who died in 2006 of heart failure due to a steady diet of lettuce and diet Coke for three months prior to her passing. No matter what expression it may take (e.g., food deprivation or an insatiable appetite, a couch potato or a gym addict), it is clear that consumerism is a constant onslaught on our body. It does little to satisfy its needs, but takes on its natural appetites and warps them, either by amplifying or diminishing them, in an attempt to quench unsuccessfully the idolatrous impulse that stems from our own misuse of God’s gift of freedom, which destroys, in many cases, the body.

The current ecological crisis best embodies the tyranny of consumerism over the world. If the I is at the point around which everything revolves, then creation is understood only in its relation to the same I. The world, grasped in this way, becomes simply a warehouse of “stuff” that I can use at my convenience and for my pleasure. Regardless of whether one accepts the scientific data corroborating the theory of global warming or not (and, oddly, in the U.S. this issue is still hotly debated), we can at least agree that our planet cannot sustain another economy like that of the United States since its resources are not infinite.[8] Such an abuse of Earth’s raw materials stems from a twisted perception of creation and our place in it. As Rowan Williams writes,

The world is not simply what we can manage and use for ourselves; there are unfathomable dimensions to it, hidden realities, hidden connections (or connections that we discover only too late, like the effect of carbon consumption on the atmosphere). Things in the universe exist in relation to the Creator before they exist in relation to us, so that a degree of reverence and humility is appropriate when we approach anything in the created order.[9]

The created order does not exist in order to fulfill my desires — it exists because of God’s love. Genesis confronts us with the truth about our role in God’s world: we are to tend and keep the garden, not misuse it for our own purposes. The present-day catastrophe bears the stamp of our idolatry, “for the creation was subjected in futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it” (Romans 8:20). Instead of maintaining the Garden of Eden, we have managed, recklessly, to transform it into the Eden Depot.

Coming Soon to Paradise!

Even though consumerism is a disease of the spirit — the evil husbandry of the mind over matter — the emphasis in religious circles, perhaps in an attempt to bring some balance to the scales, seems to be that Christians need to emphasize the supremacy of the spirit over matter. Such a position emphatically disagrees with the Scriptures, which teach us that we are not called to leave the material world behind us, in quest of a disembodied existence that would allow us to become “spiritual” beings. We are to become more incarnational, and not more spiritual. If we claim to believe that Jesus is the Word become flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14), then we cannot justify the position that espouses the belief in the sovereignty of the spiritual over the material. The incarnation of Christ emphasizes the centrality of matter in Abba’s plan for the salvation of his people, which salvation encompasses the entirety of the created world (Romans 8:19-22). John of Damascus uses a similar argument in his writings in the defense of icons.

I do not venerate matter; I worship the fashioner of matter who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. … Is not the body and blood of my Lord matter? Do not abuse matter; for it is not dishonorable.[10]

What St. John teaches us is that salvation occurs through matter, but that matter is good only when seen in relationship with Abba the creator. Such a mindset guards against the idolatrous impulse that compels us to use creation in order to satisfy a hunger that is unable to be satiated.

We live in a world that trains us to shop frenziedly for possessions with a burning passion regardless of the consequences that such consumption invariably brings about. Consumerism, a disease of the spirit, not only has disastrous consequences for our environment and ourselves, but is also in part responsible for the popularity of the heresy that underscores the spirit at the expense of matter (or at least its continued existence). The Scriptures do no exhort us to escape the world, but always plunge us back into the physicality of life, allowing us to work with matter in a way that bears witness to Christ. As priests of creation, our task is to gather the whole world in us, transform it, and offer it back to God in thanksgiving, just as we offer bread and wine (formerly wheat and grapes) at the altar table where they become the body and blood of the Lord.

[1] Jessica Dickler, “Record Black Friday Sales? Don’t Get Too Excited,” CNN Money (November 29, 2011). December 9, 2011 <http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/29/pf/holiday_sales/index.htm&gt;.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Incarnation cannot be understood as a separate event from the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. As Behr puts it succinctly, “[T]he Incarnation of the Word is not located in the birth of Jesus from Mary as a distinct event from the Passion and exaltation. In some ways, such a position results from assuming the shorthand formulae as ‘dogmatic facts,’ and then conflating John 1:14, which does not speak of a birth, with the infancy narratives, which do not speak of an incarnation of a heavenly, previously existing being. … to describe this event as ‘the Incarnation of the Word’ can only be done by reflecting on Christ in the light of the cross through the medium of Scripture.” John Behr, “The Paschal Foundation of Christian Theology,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 45:2 (2001): 129.

[5] This line of thinking, and most of the rest of the paragraph, is indebted to Luke Timothy Johnson. See especially, Faith’s Freedom: A Classis Spirituality for Contemporary Christians (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990).

[6] Johnson, Faith’s Freedom, 61-62.

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Overweight and Obesity Page. December 5, 2011 <http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html&gt;.

[8] For an interesting article on this issue, see Chandran Nair, “Can the Planet Support More Americas?,” The New York Times (June 6, 2011). December 5, 2011 <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/07/opinion/07iht-ednair07.html&gt;.

[9] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 49-50.

[10] St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, Andrew Louth, tr. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 29-30.

Volume 2, Number 12, Authors and Contributors

December 16, 2011

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, is the archbishop of Washington, D.C. and primate of the Orthodox Church in America. His official Biography is available here.

Rev. Joel Weir is the Rector at St. Stephen the First Martyr Orthodox Church in Crawfordsville, IN. He is married to his wife, Presvytera Maria and has two children. He is a recent alumnus of St. Tikhon’s Seminary. Fr. Joel is also an instructor at Hagia Sophia Classical Academy in Indianapolis. He sometimes writes things and plays music.

Deacon David Wooten is married with three children and hails from Fort Worth, Texas, where he taught high school Spanish for seven years. The Wooten family members—Dn. David, Mat. Audra, Hope Elizabeth, Katherine Ruth, and Laura Louise—are in the midst of their third and final year at St. Vlad’s. Upon graduation, the Wootens plan to return to the Diocese of the South (OCA) and are particularly interested in establishing Orthodox communities in Spanish-speaking areas. He occasionally blogs here.

Andreea Balan was born and raised in Romania, moving to the U.S. when she was 16 years old. After graduating from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM with a degree in liberal arts, she went to study theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Upon completion of her degree in 2010, she relocated to Dallas, TX where she serves as the youth director for a local Orthodox church in the Antiochian archdiocese.