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Why Americans Insist on Having More Stuff: Confessions of a Consumer

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Americans Insist on Having More Stuff: Confessions of a Consumer

Both my mother and mother-in-law died two years ago. They were both living independently and both left houses full of stuff that we, their heirs, didn’t want. After all, we already have houses full of our own stuff. So we took this piece or that piece, a set of dishes, some furniture, but, for the most part, the stuff went to the thrift store, the consignment shop, or the trash.

Even so, it was as though the stuff would never go away. When my mom died, we dealt with her stuff. A year later when we sold her home, we dealt with it again. Then a year later when my brother died, we dealt with it a third time among his belongings.

Understand that neither my mother nor my mother-in-law was a weird hoarder. They were typical Americans who, like most of us, at least on a subconscious level, believed that the good life is “the goods life.”

That phrase, “the goods life” comes from Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation. Gregory argues that what holds Western societies together is not some sense of the common good, but consumerism. He writes, “Whether in the United States, where professions of Christian belief and practices of worship remain widespread, or in more secularized Western Europe and Canada, the overwhelming majority of people are profoundly influenced by ideologies, practices, and institutions geared toward the consumption of an ever-expanding array of goods to satisfy their wants, whatever they want. Amid the hyperpluralism of divergent truth claims, metaphysical beliefs, moral values, and life priorities, ubiquitous practices of consumerism are more than anything else the cultural glue that holds Western societies together.”

Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, or atheist—nearly everyone considers shopping an acceptable leisure time activity. And I, at least, will admit that there are days when a bit of “retail therapy” is just the thing to brighten my mood.

And for your convenience, churches are opening in malls. Why not? Expanding consumer choice as conveniently as possible is presumably a good thing so let’s see…we’ll look for shoes at Nordstrom’s, a frying pan at Williams-Sonoma, some jeans at The Gap, check out the sales at Macy’s, and grab a Starbuck’s latte and a Cinnabon before going to the Bible study at WorshipMart (unless that guy Todd is leading it or it’s on a passage we don’t want to hear about).

So-called “world culture” is nothing but consumerism. Whether it’s the United States, England, Japan, Cameroon, Egypt, or Chile, world culture looks like Levi’s jeans, Adidas running shoes, Nike T-shirts, and earbuds connected to a smartphone.

And it’s all designed to go out of style next month. As Brad Gregory writes, “Consumerist ideology succeeds through the inculcation of a manipulative, contradictory message: endless acquisition is the highway to human happiness, and one should be unhappy with whatever one has just been persuaded to purchase, no matter what it is.” How else can they sell us “the next generation?”

We don’t need to believe a “name it and claim it” prosperity Gospel to caught in this consumerist merry-go-round of stuff. It’s all around us and has been for centuries focusing us on the temporal when our minds should be on the eternal and dividing our hearts between two masters. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

And yet we try. Oh, my how we try. And in the trying we find ourselves stretching our budgets, our work lives, and our families to the breaking point.

G. K. Chesterton tells the story of how in the twelfth century the pope proudly pointed his palace out to St. Dominic. “Peter can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none,’ ” he announced. To which Dominic replied, “No, and neither can he now say, ‘Rise and walk.’ ” (See Acts 3:1-10.)

While I’m not advocating Dominican vows of poverty for one and all, I want to evaluate the stuff in my own life before my son is stuck with the burden of sorting it all. What helps in my spiritual life? What hinders it? What serves the Kingdom of God and the Common Good? What clutters, obscures, and disserves the Kingdom of God and the Common Good?

Finally, to riff on (of all things) an old credit card commercial: “So what’s in your storage spots?”

Publication date: June 26, 2014