Listening to Public Radio International’s business journal Marketplace last week, I heard a brief commentary that challenged me on a seemingly harmless practice that many of us have adopted as a normal part of our daily lives–drinking bottled water. The commentator, Benjamin Barber, says capitalism is fine and good when it effectively combines altruistic service to others with self-interested entrepreneurialism (i.e., meeting a real need and making a buck while doing it). But in recent times, he suggests, our capitalism has become more about creating new markets by manufacturing artificial needs. And one of these “manufactured needs,” he contends, is the $10 billion bottled water industry. Sadly, hardly any of that money makes its way to Third World countries that don’t have the luxury of unpolluted water out of a faucet. He uses Starbucks’s Ethos water (sold at $2 per bottle) as a sobering example of how backward things have gotten. I encourage you to check out his commentary.
Barber got me to thinking about the ways we have allowed our consumerist culture to lure us into unnecessary purchases by convincing us that they’re an essential part of our lives today. In his new book, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, he argues that consumer culture has turned adult citizens into children by catering to our narcissistic desires and conditioning us to passionately embrace certain brands and products as a necessary part of our lifestyles.
The consumerization of the church has been talked about ad nauseam, but Barber’s thesis challenged me to think about it from a fresh angle. I wonder, what kinds of unnecessary products and practices in our contemporary Christian culture have we embraced as a necessary part of our spiritual lives? And how might these things be hindering us from seeing—and then responding to—the more urgent needs around us? What’s more, how might these things be blocking us from pursuing true reconciliation in the body of Christ?