Culture, Media and Individualism

The conversation about how individualism is
promoted in the consumer culture and how this influences our quality of life is
important and urgently needed. As I listen, or read, a couple of thoughts
continue to nag at me.

Consumption threatens to destroy us by increasing our individualism which undermines relationships to others and destroys civic community. We are losing our sense of the common good. The media, especially when they are used for marketing and sales, which is all the time, are warping our sense of self, our community life and our spiritual life. That’s the gist of what I’ve heard in a number of settings and read in a number of books recently.

For those of us in faith communities, the values change inherent in this process is profound and disturbing. It encourages privatizing religious experience and expression, de-emphasizes the role of religion as a shared set of values which lead us outward toward others in partnership and service and contributes to the idea that individuals can determine their own faith beliefs apart from a tradition or body of knowledge, practice and experience that has informed religious people in the past. This runs contrary to Donne’s claim that “no (person) is an island” and it re-constitutes Rousseau’s “I think, therefore, I am,” to a contemporary version, “I shop, therefore, I am.”

Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam, Michael Bugeja and Tex Sample are among many perceptive commentators making this case.

The subject becomes more sharply defined for me as our agency prepares for the release of a new ad campaign to invite people to attend United Methodist congregations. More about why that is important in a moment.

While the various versions of this critique make great sense, some of it, in the whole, doesn’t quite square with a down-on-the-street understanding of the dilemma, nor offer constructive alternatives. First, much of the critique of materialism also sounds like criticism of those who live in its clutches. It’s as if they are failing morally. To criticize individuals for lifestyle behaviors that are systematically taught to us from birth is to fall into the trap of the very individualism that some critics are concerned about.

The whole communications apparatus of this society targets us for the purpose of addressing us as individuals and encouraging us to consume. We are formed by the culture of consumption from cradle to grave. Consumption, of course, is a never-ending, empty pursuit. Our deep spiritual yearning can never fulfilled by material things alone because they represent our search for God and for deep connection with others. But things cannot fill this non-material gap. The point is, how unfair and ultimately useless it is to hold individuals accountable for behaving as they’ve been conditioned to behave by a powerful systemic effort.

Secondly, it’s interesting to me that a few (very few) critics call for the church (at least the denomination to which I belong) to disengage from its media efforts because the media are part of the problem. Clearly, the media promote the culture of consumption and they contribute mightily to our individuation. But to disengage when we’ve only just begun to re-engage after years of tragic absence from the media seems to me very shortsighted and just plain lousy theology.

I’ve heard some critique about the lack of religious language in some church advertising, for example. In our research we know from direct comments that many, many people have experienced religious teachings used against them in ways that have led them away from a faith community. For them this language is a turn-off. Extending an invitation by using language that is more inviting and accessible and backing it up with genuine caring and acceptance is healing and reconciling. It’s not bad theology, nor unfaithfulness.

In fact, I don’t think it’s that much different from the apostle Paul speaking to people on Mars Hill in Rome when he referred to a god they were familiar with but not known as the Christian God. He was seeking to connect with them in language that made his understanding of faith accessible to folks who didn’t know that language but apparently had spiritual yearnings.

As for the suggestion that the church should not engage the culture through these media, I believe this is theologically unsound. To oversimplify, here is the conundrum. If we cannot approach people in language that they use in daily life and, therefore, that communicates, we are limiting our ability to communicate with them about their deeper concerns of the spirit. If we critique the consumer lifestyle, which I believe is both legitimate and necessary, but refuse to speak to those who are being injured by it, how are we to work with them for healing and for a different perspective toward life under a loving God?

I believe there is a middle way. It involves engagement with the culture. It requires truth-telling. It demands compassion with justice. It makes us responsible for finding new, healing ways to live in community. It will happen only if we re-engage, not abandoning those victimized by an on-going process of formation in a consumer dynamic that is destructive to them and the wider community, but including them in affirming, loving community. When consumption becomes a substitute for genuine community, individual vocation, spiritual growth and meaningful personal relationships, it’s destructive. Jesus said that. But he also told those with great resources that it is their attitude toward those possessions and toward others that determines their spiritual state. He told them they faced hard choices, but he would work with them.

He told the rich young man to give up his possessions and serve others. To find God, move toward other people, Jesus seemed to be saying. That sounds different from a lot of what I’m hearing today.

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