Christ and Consumerism: A Critical Analysis of the Spirit of the Age

Written by Craig Bartholomew and Thorsten Moritz (Eds) Reviewed By Dewi Hughes

‘I shop, therefore I am’, as an adaptation of Descartes’ famous dictum may be a bit hackneyed by now, but it is a good way of conveying the spirit of consumerism that dominates contemporary Western culture. In this volume eight Christian academics from a variety of specialities tackle the issue of consumerism with the conviction that ‘Jesus’ followers today must examine their priorities in life lest we unwittingly take on the spirit of our age’ (xi). Five of the contributors, including the editors, hail from the school of Theology and Religious Studies of Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.

Craig Bartholomew sets the scene with an introductory essay describing the characteristics of consumerism. Colin Greene of the Bible Society then examines ‘Consumerism and the Spirit of the Age’. This is a very helpful essay on the church and cultural engagement which, in my opinion, is not linked strongly enough to the theme of consumerism. The third essay entitled ‘The Old Testament and the Enjoyment of Wealth’ by J. Gordon McConville shows from a study of OT law how ‘consumption of the good things of the world is bound up with matters of right and wrong, relationships with God and with fellow creatures’ (37). This is followed by Thorsten Moritz’ ‘New Testament Voices for an Addicted Society’ that grapples with the hermeneutic gulf between our context and that of the NT but concludes that we cannot avoid its challenge to adopt a lifestyle that is radically opposite to the culture of consumerism.

Craig Bartholomew then returns with a stimulating piece on ‘Consuming God’s Word: Biblical Interpretation and Consumerism’. He rejects Clines’ ‘market philosophy of interpretation’ in favour of consuming the word as Ezekiel was commanded to do when he was called to the prophetic office (Ezek. 2:8–3:11). The next essay, ‘Postmodernism Is Consumption’ by Alan Storkey of Oak Hill College takes us to the world of economics. I found this illuminating, powerful and sometimes very uncomfortable! In the next essay entitled ‘Life and Death and the Consumerist Ethic’ Gordon Wenham, the OT scholar, tries his hand at ethics. The case is made that consumerism, exemplified by the impermanence of marriage, the inconvenience of many pregnancies and the validity of euthanasia, is oppressive and destructive. Nigel Scotland’s ‘Shopping for a Church: Consumerism and the Churches’ examines the impact of consumer culture on contemporary ecclesiology. He begins in the spirit of the other contributors who see consumerism as an idolatrous ideology but ends advocating ‘The Benefits of Consumerism’ (145ff). The final chapter by Graham Cray, the Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, on ‘The Toronto Experience in a Consumer Society, while recognising that there may be ‘consumerist’ elements in the charismatic/Pentecostal movement, argues convincingly for the validity and need for the Christian experience that is the focus of the movement.

As with most multi-authored volumes the quality of the contributions is not uniform but even the least satisfying parts of this volume has something worthwhile to offer. The book illuminates the mind and challenges the heart to take more seriously what it means to be a disciple of Christ in an age dominated by consumerism.

Dewi Hughes

Theological Advisor, Tearfund