Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: Consuming Religion by Vincent J. Miller

Vincent J. Miller. Consuming Religion. Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Continuum. New York, London, 2003.

This book was mentioned by Tyler F. Williams on his Codex blog in his Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch article, when it first caught my attention. While reading Toying with God, I noticed that the authors also heavily referred to Miller and the references were interesting enough to actually make more of an impact than just recognizing the name. I wanted to see for myself what Miller had to say in this work. As a result, I end up with this lengthy book review. Lengthy due to disagreement.
        To be honest, I feel mislead by the title. The book “explores how consumer culture changes our relationship with religious beliefs, narratives and symbols.” (p. 3). True enough, but in particular, the author is interested in the way consumer culture has this effect on Roman Catholic beliefs, narratives and symbols. The last chapter is dedicated to tactics that aim to counter the commodification not of religion at large but of Roman Catholicism in particular. This is an important part of the book, one might even say what it has been working up to so far, and then as I read this chapter in which clergymen and laymen of Miller’s church are offered tactics to ward off the perceived corrupting influences of consumerism on their faith, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was reading this. That is just not the final chapter I expect in a book with a title like that. Ironically, I’d say it’s false advertising!
        Ironic why? Because advertising and marketing are two forces that the book deals with and in fact aims to if not counter then at least expose. Marx’s idea of alienation, described as “the product of the worker’s labor belong[ing] not to the laborer but to the employer” and “the estrangement of workers from self-realization in their labor” (p. 34), is used as an important tool that Miller uses in his analysis. Marx’s idea of the commodity fetish is another one, that Miller describes thus: “The commodity appears to us as intrinsically valuable, when in fact its true value is dependent on a number of factors that do not appear with it. In addition to its use value, the commodity’s value depends on an economic system in which commodities can be exchanged and on the labor that produces it. These sources of value, however, do not appear in the commodity. They are obscured by the aura of self-evident value.” (p. 36). Advertising and marketing make use of this obscurity. It can even go further than that, something Miller treats when he speaks about “misdirection”, which he describes as “the systematic association of other needs and desires with commodity objects and the resultant channeling of the drive to fulfill these needs into acts of consumption.” (p. 119). Think for instance of cosmetic surgery that is being advertised with the line “self confidence is now for sale!”, telling you nothing about the product but presenting a boost in self-esteem as a logical result from purchasing it. One way to unveil the (layers of) the commodity fetish that Miller proposes is through the craft ideal. He describes this as “the practice of handcrafts, not the consumption of handmade goods.” (p. 186). The idea is basically that when you try to make something yourself, you will realise the amount of work that goes into it. Personally I think this is a bit naive. I don’t think I will wise up to the ways of industrial food production by spending some time in a vegetable garden. Moreover, I don’t really think that the worth of anything is ultimately the hours of labor that go into it. Let’s say I learn to fully appreciate the effort it takes to make a music record. I really dive into it and find out about the smallest details of production that are required to get that product on the shelves. Will it change the way I experience that record? Unlikely. Generally I’d say that the direct experience of something determines it’s worth far more than it’s origin. Above all though, I wonder about this: What the hell is a theologian doing frolicking in the field with Karl Marx, king of atheists? I can see Marx standing there, going “well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in! Couldn’t do your dirty work without me, could you?” Then again, Marx is dead and Catholics can hijack his theories and apply them for their own benefit. So who’s laughing now?
        All this Marx stuff is distracting from some other central points of the book. I’m not going to talk about the final chapter, Catholic emancipatory issues don’t seem of much interest to me, but some of his central arguments do. I like for instance, his idea of the “dual dynamisms of commodification in religion” (p. 77). He describes them as follows: “On the one hand, there is consumer capitalism’s insatiable hunger for marketable stuff, which creates a world where everything is transformed into a commodity that can be brought to market, exchanged, and consumed: selves, others, culture, religion. On the other hand, we witness a great hollowing out. Exchange demands interchangeability, equivalence. Anything that stands in the way of exchange becomes a problem. Rough edges must be smoothed. Objects must now function outside of their original contexts.” (p. 77). I suppose that means that not only will there be a bobblehead rendition of Jesus, but also one of Buddha. I think this touches on a central theme of the book: rootedness. Whether it’s about commodities being abstracted from their circumstances of production or about belief being “systematically misdirected from traditional religious practices into consumption”, the uprooting of things seems to be a central problem for Miller. For this reason he also criticizes seeker religion, associated strongly with the idea of “spirituality” (p. 89) which Miller describes as “the personal, experiential dimensions of religion in opposition to its institutional forms” (p. 90), as a consequence of which “believers increasingly relate to religious traditions as repositories of insights and practices that they appropriate for their own personal syntheses.” (p. 90). His critique then is that “elements of tradition are interpreted, engaged, and used in abstraction” (p. 91). Understandable perhaps from a Roman Catholic perspective. But how real is this rootedness?
        The Marxist idea of reducing the significance of everything to it’s socio-economic origin I already expressed doubt about. But how about reducing all meaning of an article of faith to it’s theological origin? Miller actually touches on this when he juxtaposes theology and what he calls “lived religion” (p. 171). Miller first quotes Robert Orsi, who writes that “people appropriate religious idioms as they need them, in response to particular circumstances. All religious ideas and impulses are of the moment, invented, taken, borrowed, and improvised at the intersections of life.” and then concludes himself that “the term “lived religion” described this practical dimension of everyday religious belief and practice.” (p. 172). He argues that “lived religion involves a more multidimensional relation between belief and practice than is usually considered by theology. [...] Rather than the linear relationship between doctrine and practice envisioned by theology (elites adjudicating issues of orthodoxy that are then disseminated to believers for application in practice), here we have religion providing complexities to the cultural terrain that can be employed in a variety of ways. [...] Religious symbols and doctrines function in many less-direct ways as well. [...] They provide a space for agency as much as a set of beliefs. [...] It is true that such uses of symbols and doctrines often involve conceptual misunderstandings, but such uses have formed the building blocks for the complex and unplanned masterpieces of religious traditions for millennia, despite the protest of elites” (p. 172). Theology, on the other hand, “values conceptual clarity and strives to apply doctrines consistently and systematically across the range of their relevance.” (p. 173) Miller is quick to note in fact that “these rules bring obvious advantages, but they entail weaknesses as well. Clarity and consistency come at the cost of abstraction. Lived religion is, by its nature, engaged in practice. Academic theology is always in danger of succumbing to the comforts of theory by attending to its specialized rules to the exclusion of the practical concerns of the Christian community. Short of such extremes, by its very nature, academic theology transforms practical questions into intellectual ones.” (p. 173-174). Finally, he concludes that “for this reason, academic theology not only teaches and corrects but also learns from the everyday theology of lived religion.” (p. 174). This is where I actually disagree. I’d say in fact that academic theology can only learn from the everyday theology of lived religion. Theology to me seems like a desperate attempt to make sense of the dirty, muddy, inconsistent and incoherent religious practice. Theology is destined to always follow practice and try to clean up the mess it made. Religion is a problem child and theology is its incompetent mother. Therefore, if a use of a symbol or doctrine is conceived to be a conceptual misunderstanding, I would rather think that it proves the conceptual understanding itself to be wrong. If a religious belief is being theologically abstracted, I’d say that exposes those theological roots as artificial. Strangely this would turn religious commodification into a means with which to emancipate religion from theology.
        In a nerdy way, perhaps I can appreciate theology. In a cynical atheist way, one might even condescendingly think that theology is “cute” because it tries to make sense of something that is ultimately untrue and is therefore also perceived to be destined to fail. However, I appreciate most the weird, the bizarre, the spontaneous, the unforeseen and the extreme expressions of religion. The more incredible and born of despair, the more it radically contradicts itself, the better. I like my faiths ugly and chaotic. No explanations, no apologies, just the madness! This indeed is the lived religion with it’s strange practices and not the theological reflection upon it, which can actually only compromise religious extravagance. If Miller is correct in his thinking that commodification tends to abstract matters of faith from theology then I say level the field, away with all kinds of theological constructions, and let the games begin!

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