Tuesday, May 05, 2009

‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’ ‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’ - Two Cheers for Consumer Religion

Consumer religion is that type of religious allegiance that follows the pattern of, and perhaps is an expression of, the consumption of everyday goods and services. If the household needs a power-washer, then we set about buying one; save, take out credit, or buy one for cash. And similarly with a bottle of good red wine, or a trip to Jordan, or a CD of J.S. Bach’s Organ Concertos.

Currently religious observance and allegiance is like that, at least in the fortunate West. (This piece is not meant to refer to the actual conditions of what it means to be a Christian in Pakistan, or Turkey, or China). Perhaps such observance is modelled on, or apes, consumerism, or simply occupies a similar kind of human space as does the consumption of any of the articles that are ‘necessary', even ‘vital’, to our well-being. This space is created by the coming together of a goodly supply of leisure, health, mobility, and disposable income.

For some, evidently, religion does not merely follow that pattern of such consumerism but is a case of consumerism, sharing many of its more obvious hedonistic desires and goals. For a Shopping Mall, read: a Megachurch Complex. For vitamins, a personal trainer and activity holidays, read: ‘the gospel of Health and Wealth’. Such consumer religion comes in various degrees of intensity. The point is obvious, and so not one that needs to be laboured.

Two cheers!

The existence of such debased religion, religion as conspicuous, hedonistic consumption is the reason that one cannot give consumer religion as such Three Hearty Cheers. But I do think that one can give it Two Hearty Cheers. This is why -

‘Consumer religion’ is another name for toleration, or one implication of toleration in its present-day expression in the West. In England the time was when religious toleration was expressed by the various religious denominations of putting up with each other, existing side by side. The existence and structure of such groups partly followed geography, partly class, partly history, and partly religious conviction. Individual or family choice rarely came into the picture. This was, we might say, stratified toleration. It was similar in other European countries except where Roman Catholicism exercised exclusive rights. But today these stratifications have largely gone, they have just about crumbled into the dust. New denominations have arisen or been imported, independent congregations have been formed or have seceded from the historic denominations; house churches have grown up, the historic denominations, included the established church, have become more doctrinally variegated and weaker. Above all, social mobility has increased. And the consequence is pick ‘n’ mix religion. Never has the religious consumer been better served than at present, even though the scene in the UK seems sepia-coloured by comparison with the glorious technicolour of California.

I say, this is a good thing. Who wants to go back to the day of Jingoistic religion: ‘my denomination right or wrong’ or to the time when a dissenter could be imprisoned, like John Bunyan or Jerome Bolsec? Later, Bolsec was banished from Calvin’s Geneva ‘to the sound of the trumpet’. (On 23rd December 1551: ‘Happy Christmas, Jerry!’) Isn’t it gain, pure gain, to be free to move from congregation to congregation? If ‘worship bands’ wish to play ‘Christian music’ until one's head aches, let them do it. But please may I be free not to attend? Please may I go to a congregation where there are decent hymns and psalms and good tunes? Yes, I may. If top-down, control-freakish ministerial antics scare me, do I have to put up with them? Certainly not. If people come to confuse the latest ideas of the ‘eco-theologians’ (yes, there are such) with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so put in jeopardy the freedom we have in Christ, isn’t it great to be at liberty to move from St. Ethelbert’s to Ebenezer, where they know the difference between a faddish panic and the real stuff? Yes it is.

For all their talk of Christian fellowship, are the people sniffy and aloof? If they are, do I have to stay? Most certainly not! Are there benefits to moving on? There may be. Are there benefits of staying? Perhaps there are. The matter must be weighed, of course. It may be difficult to balance one factor against another. But in all these cases, the choice is mine, not the state’s or the hierarchy’s. Nor need I be controlled by what is ‘the done thing’, or by what the Rectory or the Manor or the mill-owner dictate.

You’ll notice that the presence or the absence of sound doctrine has hardly been mentioned. Of course the presence of serious error is serious. May we not leave the congregation that is subjected to it? Of course! Isn’t such freedom a great blessing?

I can think of two possible reasons against such an attitude. The first (and lesser) of these is that such courses of action as leaving one congregation for another can be whimsical and unserious. There is no perfect church. (And if you find one, as Spurgeon once said, don’t dare join it. My father used to say that only he and I agreed on what constituted a true church, but that he wasn’t so sure of me.) Of course people can act whimsically, just as they can make bad purchases when shopping. Does the fact that some people buy garden gnomes and plastic flowers mean that I ought not surrender my opportunity to buy a pleasing terracotta pot and a clematis?

An alternative?

What’s the alternative? There isn't one. Trying to show this brings us to the second, and main, objection, to consumer religion, that it undermines church discipline. By church discipline is meant the practice of identifying public misdemeanours of a certain kind of seriousness, and offering various procedures to the offender with the aim of his or her restoration to ‘full fellowship’, with excommunication as a last resort. A number of points need to be made.

There are only two social circumstances in which such church discipline has a serious chance of being effective. One is where the church is a small sect-like community in a predominantly hostile environment. In such circumstances to be prepared to reject restorative discipline may literally be a matter of life and death. One might find oneself rejected both by the community and by the hostile environment. In such a situation the words of John make perfect sense: ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us’. (I Jn. 2.19) But the movements between congregations made possible by consumer religion are not equivalent to apostasy: to think that they are is to be guilty of a kind of category mistake.

The second set of circumstances is where the church is dominant in a society and is in a friendly alliance with the state. Then excommunication, the final, fateful step in restorative discipline, the point when attempts at restoration have ceased to be only a moral or spiritual matter, the point where the issue becomes public, is also the point where excommunication has multiple consequences. In such a situation excommunication is not merely a churchly act, but it carries with it social ostracism, perhaps loss of income or social status, of the sort made notorious by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

But these days in the West such excommunication is only of historical interest, like the stocks and the May-pole. Why? Because a person who is deprived of the privilege of Holy Communion for some real or supposed misdemeanour for which he remains impenitent – supposing things get that far - can cross the road or the city to another congregation and immediately be in good standing. Besides, what is it to be in good standing? In my experience, participating in the Supper, the most visible and most precious sign of Christian fellowship, is pretty well universally administered in a slap-happy way. Even when in theory there is some kind of ‘fencing’, attendance at the Supper is pretty-much the result of a process of self-selection. Participation is solely at the initiative of the would-be attender. That's how the Supper is presented: 'We'd love to have you join us if you'd like to'. Besides, who except the church secretary knows who the members of a local church are?

So the argument against consumer religion from the breakdown of the operation of church discipline is not strong. For church discipline has already broken down.

Ought we not to hope and pray that our brothers and sisters in Pakistan, Turkey or China soon have the privileges of such consumer religion?

So – I say – Two Hearty Cheers for consumer religion: ‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’, ‘Hip! Hip! Hooray!’