It’s the myth of consumerism: we have infinite choice, and in that choice lies fulfilment. All we need to do is reach out and access it, taking whatever fits our needs. Consumer goods, brands, online content of all kinds, ideas and even identities – we can shape our worlds around ourselves. 

Except it doesn’t work. Not just because of the Bible’s warnings about seeking happiness in the pursuit of stuff (Luke 12:15). Consumerism is innately dissatisfying, because that’s actually its job. Choice is what it’s all about – and there’s no point having infinite choice if you don’t exercise it. So it has to sow dissatisfaction: the message that happiness is in change, in the next choice – rather than the one you just made, which typically has a rather short half-life. In other words, consumerism promises fulfilment, but it does so by spreading discontent. It’s oxymoronic, like the George Carlin quote about fighting for peace. And we distract ourselves from our dissatisfaction with consumerism’s predictably failed promise of constant fulfilment by looking for something new to give us a momentary hit of meaning or significance.

If distraction is the chronic cough, then dissatisfaction is the cancer and consumerism is the cigarette smoke. Faith in this kind of environment is challenging at best. [1]

I shop therefore I am,” proclaims Barbara Kruger’s famous 1987 artwork. Back then, received wisdom was that greed was good and stuff made you happy. But the ‘I shop therefore I am’ (Latin: Tesco ergo sum) mantra of the 80s and 90s has evolved to become more sophisticated. Nowadays, we’re smart enough to know that things don’t bring fulfilment. Things can help, of course, but we’ve learned to define ourselves by far more than that. For the discerning 21st century consumer, it’s not just about what we buy, but what we buy into. Our identities have become the ultimate exercise in personal branding. ‘I shop therefore I am’ has become: ‘I choose therefore I am’. We can choose from an infinite array of options to suit us, and change them whenever we want.

Consumerism is our age’s dominant ideology. It impacts us deeply, encouraging us to shape our individual worlds around ourselves. The web has turbocharged that by placing anything and everything we could possibly want at our fingertips. E-commerce makes it fast and easy to buy just about anything we want, and available credit gives us the means if we need it. More significantly, the content we’re served is tailored to us. The updates you receive in your social media feed are selected on the basis of algorithms that deliver what you want to see – because that’s most profitable for the social networks. We live in bubbles of people like us with ideas and values like us, with anything we might want to find just a search away. No wonder that after that referendum, and that election, our social media worlds were divided into two camps that simply couldn’t understand the other.

Our faith is not immune from this all-encompassing consumerisation. It’s an attitude we can import into our approach to prayer, worship, the Bible – if we don’t like something, discard it or find a version that does suit us, in the same way we’d treat a TV channel or a brand of toothpaste. Worse, though, is the constant background of dissatisfaction consumerism breeds by definition. If we take seriously Paul’s teaching about contentment in Philippians 4:10-13 – written as he was sitting in prison – then we should also take the threat of consumerism seriously, too.

Our online habits are a big part of that. The web is the primary means by which we exercise choice – and we probably do so without even realising it most of the time. Exercising choice isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that we need to do so consciously and discerningly.

  1. Be a critical consumer

Christians are supposed to be fish out of water, “aliens and strangers” in the world. Mainstream consumer culture should appear foreign to us if we have taken on board the truth of the gospel. Recognise that there is an agenda behind the ideas and values we are routinely ‘sold’ through advertising, news media and entertainment, and that these will rarely coincide with those of our faith.

  1. Be an informed customer

When you do buy, use the information available to you to make really good purchases – whether this means ones that are high-quality and durable – reducing unnecessary waste, created from sustainable resources, or with transparency and justice throughout the supply chain. Your money constitutes a vote for the company from which you are buying and the practices and values they endorse. How are you values represented in this purchase?

  1. Pick your battles

It’s one thing to keep ourselves informed, quite another to be perfectly informed. Having access to infinite choice can be exhausting, and it can prevent us from making a decision as we seek to keep our options open, wary of making the wrong choice. In this respect, the best can be the enemy of the good. There will usually come a point when the information you have gathered is good enough and you should make a choice. This is equally true of elements of your faith as it is of an online purchase. You could ‘shop’ for the right church indefinitely, never committing to settling in one place and becoming a part of the community, because you are concerned you might be missing out on a better church elsewhere.

[1] Digitally Remastered, p. 79

‘Digitally Remastered’ is available from Christian bookshops and, priced £9.99.

Written by Guy Brandon // Follow Guy on  Twitter //  Jubilee Centre

Guy Brandon is the senior researcher for the Jubilee Centre, a Cambridge-based Christian social reform organisation. He is the author of Digitally Remastered: a biblical guide to reclaiming your virtual self, a book that challenges us to think through the relational and spiritual implications of our digital world.

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