Holy Purchases: Identity and Idolatry

Read the previous posts about the role of purchases in the consumer religion and letting go of the holiness of our purchases to get more context for this post and this series. This series seems more relevant as we approach the annual High Holy Days of the consumer religion beginning with Black Friday and ending with Santa’s Birthday (some still call it Christmas, but that’s an actual Christian holiday, not a consumer one).

How do we move away from allowing our identity as consumers to define us? It isn’t enough to simply reject one identity. We must have another identity that gives us meaning and purpose. As followers of Jesus, I would argue, the consumer identity is the primary idolatry of our time. The first step is to recognize it as idolatry.

American Idols
To begin with, idolatry is not about believing the wrong religion or the wrong god. Augustine thought of it as wrongly ordered love. In other words, anything could become an idol if it was not given its proper place in the scheme of things. I don’t have a flow chart to determine what things you should love first, last or anywhere in between. Nor did Augustine exactly, but his claim was that love of God was the primary love and everything else came afterwards. Now, we also know because of Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46) that loving God and loving people, particularly the poor and marginalized, cannot be separated.


Consumed and Consuming Consumer Consumption
Idolatry is a notoriously slippery concept. As soon as I define it, I find myself qualifying and backtracking. However, since we are talking about the way that our purchases define us, creating meaning and identity, let me offer this angle. Idolatry as understood in the biblical narrative is double-edged. The gods made out of wood and stone are both referred to as “no gods” and as something dangerous. In other words, there is a deeper reality which renders these mute statues  meaningless and empty. At the same time, however, there is a real danger in their worship that involves the whole person in attaching themselves to something so empty and meaningless.

This is exactly the double-edge we encounter in consumerism. William Cavanaugh points out in his book Being Consumed that consumerism is not so much concerned with the accumulation of things, but the never-ending desire for the “new.” He suggests that what consumerism does is to empty objects of any meaning. Therefore it is not an attachment to the things that we are consumed with, but what we believe they signify about ourselves. In consumerism then, we worship the empty meaninglessness of the actual objects we consume in order to give us an identity and meaning that we believe our purchases signify. This fits the biblical understanding of idolatry perfectly.

So, the truth is that material goods do not confer any particular status, meaning or identity on us, even if they are fair trade, organic, local or otherwise ethically holy and pure. They are “no gods.” Consumer purchases do not change anyone’s personality or character. They might reflect that we have certain values, but they do not give us those values. It is also not possible to argue that because someone makes an ethical purchase they are therefore a certain kind of ethical person. All it tells us is that they want to appear a certain way, that they are worshiping at the empty altar of an image, an idol.

In the next post I hope to explore the particular identity found in the economy of God as an alternative to this empty, idolatrous worship of holy purchases.

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