Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

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A friend on social media once wondered out loud why a big telecommunications company would decide to come out to join in a massive media campaign by a slew of large corporations who supported a particular social cause which, on the surface, had little or nothing to do with their particular lines of business. The question then asked out loud was “what do these causes have to do with making money”?

Nothing was said out loud, but silently and slowly an answer came to mind which is only now being put down. A few years ago in The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward observed that from the early 1980s onwards, we have been gradually entering an age of what he called “post-materialism”. This was a condition concentrated in highly affluent societies where, more than survival, material superabundance is the (highly unevenly spread) hallmark. In these societies, goods and services are becoming cheaper and profit margins are shrinking with every unit sold.

In such societies, there are growing cadres of highly affluent groups of individuals with massive spending power, who do not have to worry about material survival, but still seek to have a meaningful existence. As a result, many would come to adopt causes and values that have little direct relation to their economic output. Such values can be environmental, minority-related, political, religious, artistic or cultural. These values need not be traditional – indeed one journal article noted that post-materialism is occurring at precisely the moment when traditional values are on a massive decline. – , and these affluent individuals are willing to spend a large portion of their financial surplus to support campaigns promoting these values. The financial flows that are generated by such post-materialist pursuits are massive.

What is of interest for for-profit businesses then, is not so much the cause per se, but the ability to tap into those financial flows and boost lagging profits. What we see is the latest stage of a trend identified in the 1960s by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, where consumption in capitalist societies come to provide not only material but also “esoteric” well being, so much so that a consumer can, to borrow Marcuse’s words, find their soul in their car or stereo set.

In our day, corporations have come to boost their profit margins and market share by deliberately turning the commodities one consumes to something more than a mere material product. Under conditions of post-materialism, corporations have taken on a marketing strategy of turning their good or service into sacraments of the non-material causes that one wants to pursue. By providing material signs of invisible benefits, the corporation is making money by turning itself into an acolyte of a church called the market, where one saves oneself by taking and consuming, and every bite is a prayer from which a corporation seeks to literally profit.

Prayer After “The World Spins Madly On”

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Almighty God,

You moved your servant to listen to “The World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies, that short, beautiful song of unfulfilled longing, broken promises, and utter helplessness in the face of this barbarian called life that you have let loose on us.

In this song you remind your servant that of all the contingencies of life, people, days, places, memories, words are just that – things that pass by us and are not meant to stay with us. You make us reflect on the only perennial thing in this contingent universe, mankind’s need to say goodbye to these contingencies. All these things, they come by our lives for but a moment.

But in the words of our father Augustine, we desire these temporary things to last an eternity. And in our efforts to make our own heavens on earth with the temporary things of this earth, we only render our heavens into foretastes of hell, creating glimpses of that separation that awaits those who, like those angels in ages past, declared their refusal to serve you, knew what it meant, and meant it with their hearts.

And in this song, O Lord, you cause us to ponder how the world does not care as these hells multiply, in our own lives and in lives all over its continents. Little wonder that we are jaded, O Lord, as our cries of agony of loss, small and large alike, are just met with the world simply moving on. Our world is so cold, and our search for comfort in this world for the pain of our loss only seems to compound this pain, as the sheer contingency of all things tears away our comforts that we have band-aided over our wounds.

But in your wisdom, you deign to heal our wounds borne from our bindings to those that would only leave us. And indeed, you deign to heal them with these very contingent things to which we cling, but in so doing you create your own portals to a truly eternal life. With water, oil, salt, bread, wine, bodies and words, you put together a vault of the sacramental life to immerse us in, thus showing viscerally to our own senses that our longing for the eternal can be fulfilled. Our recurring pain need not be the only eternal – nay it was merely an illusion – experience in this mad world, nor do they need to be meaningless knocks of fortune. Let these portals you have created, O Lord, take up these temporary things of this world gone absurd, such that they do not just get meaninglessly lost in the passage of the moments.

May it please you that, in the moment when moments march no more, you would in your mercy show us how every instance of loss and being lost in this life of ours – and yes, even the end of that life when we shall lie motionless in bed for the last time – forms the threads in this cosmic tapestry of your saving work.

For our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Praise be the name of the Lord, both now and forever.


When What We See Is What We Worship

The old saying goes that the “eyes are the windows to the soul”, and many are quick to scoff at the grave implications of a faculty that is used so often for such mundane things that it is taken for granted. Upon examination of the Christian tradition, however, such a claim, though liable to some qualification of being the window to the soul, nonetheless posits sight as one very important access point.

Consider how, of all the senses, the Christian tradition appears to give the most attention to the sense of sight, as if our being and our salvation – our beginning and our end – literally depended on it. The first creation account in the book of Genesis makes the  provision of light – the foundation of sight – the first creative act upon whichall other creative acts follow. It was the sight of a burning bushthat lay the foundations of the forging of the covenant with Israel. The psalms speak of the path of life as also a path that is lit by God, the Gospel of John speaks of Christ as the “light that shines in the darkness”, while the synoptic Gospels give great weight to, Jesus’ healing of the blind as well as the lame. Our salvation lies in a state that theologians call the “Beatific vision” where, as Paul once wrote, our true home lies in an eternal state of “seeing Him face to face”.

Scripture’s attention to the sense of sight is continued on in liturgical worship, where colour, shape and sheen are not incidental to the proper worship of God, but are the very means by which one enters into the proper act of worship. Seeing was very closely linked
to worshiping.

As we know from the Genesis account, however, a major contribution to the downfall of humankind lay in the eating of a fruit that was “pleasing to the eye”. Other than sound, it was also sight that contributed to the entry of sin into the world.

What is interesting to note, however, is that this kind of sight was not a seeing devoid of worship. However banal the object of our sight is, whether it is in a movie, news report, fashion item or porn image, the act of worship is never far behind. In his book Gifts  Glittering and Poisoned, Chanon Ross provides a very important insight into the link between seeing and worshiping. Ross refers to the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, to show the way in which seeing in our day not only serves a material function, but is also a spiritual action.

For Debord, seeing was not merely an instrumental function, but also a tapping into a longing for transcendence. Debord speaks of our economy as one dependent on the faculty of sight, and argues that a sight-based economy is driven by a form of “religious fervour” for what Debord calls a “factious god”, and seeing becomes a way of accessing this god.

Though Debord sees the need for a change in the economy by ridding ourselves of the need for religious fervour and gods, Ross sees in this analysis a highly important insight, that Debord recognised that seeing is more than a function but a liturgical “worship of a …  god”. Ross is even more pointed to not only draw a link between seeing and worshiping, but saying that seeing analogous to worshiping. The beholding of a spectacle in an economy saturated with the shine of images and commodities, Ross says, “is like a prayer offered to a malicious god” which “opens us to powers and principalities”. Ross suggests then, that an economy built upon spectacle is not just a material order, but also an order oriented towards the worship of things other than the worship of the God of Israel.

Crunchy-Conservatism, Migrants & Pope Francis

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Crunchy-conservatives” in the United States have started organising against the neoliberal and faux-conservative status-quo, and one outlet for this organisation is the online thinkerspace known as Solidarity Hall. Whilst having run a website for a number of years, the Folk at Solidarity Hall have launched their publishing arm, Solidarity Hall Press, with the release of their first book Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis, edited by Daniel Schwindt.
This book is an edited text with a number of short essays which, from a variety of perspectives and stations in life, the theme of what it means to be a radical and Catholic is explored and what the relatively new papacy of Francis would mean for this intersection. By extension, the contributions of the book explores possibilities for Catholics in America – outside the media-manufactured slogans – to relate to their nation, democracy and modernity.
Though not American, the Divine Wedgie is glad to be associated with the work of Solidarity Hall, with its blogger at large being invited to make an Australian contribution to Radically Catholic, in a chapter entitled “The Migrant and the Latin Church“. A contribution has also been made to the Solidarity Hall website with the online essay “Pop Culture and Total War“, which is a more condensed version of the conference paper presented in Germany for the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, entitled “War by Other Meangirls: Pop Culture as Total War“.
Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis is available in hard copy and on Kindle.

The Church and Popular Culture: DePaul Winter Course Offering

The Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University is inviting enrollment into one of its new course offerings to be taught by “the Divine Wedgie’s” blogger at large and Visiting Professor, Matthew Tan, entitled “The Church and Popular Culture“.
The course, to be held in the Winter Quarter of 2014 (beginning 6th January), will explore pop culture through the lens of Catholic theology. It will demonstrate how pop culture is more than a system of distributing goods and services, but also a way of forming human persons, and ultimately worshippers of different gods.

The course will use the theology of St Augustine as the basis of looking at areas such as advertising, fashion, music and movies. These will become case studies to explore the ways in which the spiritual dimension of the human person has become affirmed and yet commodified as a product. In addition, the course will analyse how the kinds of persons as depicted in the Christian tradition are either affirmed or distorted in pop culture.

The course will be held in 2 sessions (90 mins each) a week over 10 weeks in De Paul University’s Lincoln Park Campus. Potential Topics to be Covered may include

  •   What is Pop Culture & Why Does it Matter?
  •   Zombies, Vampires and Faith
  •   Spirituality of the Mall and Nightclub
  •   Pop Culture as Worship
  •   Religion as a Consumer Product
  •   TV & Movies as Theological Texts
  •   Cyberculture and Christianity
  •   Moving the Body of Christ in Pop Culture

Details can be found by emailing Matthew Tan at mtan13@depaul[dot]edu, visiting the course’s facebook page or by scanning the the QR.


Christians and Crises

Crises are politically useful gimmicks. Whether it is economic meltdowns, asylum seekers, cabinet reshuffles, sex scandals or wars, political entrepreneurs will often either make use of them or create them to try and force a surrender by the general populace of their right to communal discussion, reflection and critique.
What can be concerning is the degree to which many Christians seem willing to play along with the games of the political classes. Whatever the event, many Christians would treat such crises as unusual times in which deeper civilisational questions, and the seemingly otherwordly and academic discourses of theology and philosophy which provide the vocabulary to address such questions, must be set aside in order to “deal with more urgent [read practical] issues”. The argument continues that once the crisis is over and stability restored, then these foundational questions can be asked and answered.

The presumption that underpins such arguments, and one that is often aceded to by Christians, is that theology and philosophy are nothing more than irrelevent and unnecessary civilisational frills that do not really deal with the things of this world. This is strange for the Christian because, to expand on a comment made by Derrida and Vattimo at the beginning of their Religion, the commitment that there are fundamentally no real theological and philosophical underpinnings to the way the world works is itself a theological and philosophical underpinning to the way the world works.

Writing in the Second World War, C.S. Lewis wrote a passage that just as easily responds to any contemporary Christian audience in crisis-mode, such as a Christian audience in the era of the War on Terror, where the prevailing discourse may sound something like “since we are waging a war on Terror, we must forget about Jesus’ impractical command to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ and worry about it when the war is over”. The War, Lewis wrote in response:
…creates absolutely no new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.

In other words, discipleship is not something that Christians do only when things are calm. In times of crisis, when the pressures are applied on Christians to put on the armour of civic nationhood instead of Christ (Rom 13:14), discipleship becomes all the more urgently needed.

Scribblings in Transition

A series of transcontinental transitions will temporarily affect the frequency of posts in the coming weeks.
Next week, blogger-at-large Matthew Tan will be presenting at the 2013 Conference of the Centre of Theology & Philosophy at Oxford University. The paper is entitled “Runaway Soul: The Postmodern City and Theologies of Escape” and builds upon a post on the Divine Wedgie entitled “A Theology of Running Away“.
The paper correlates Graham Ward’s work on the postmodern city in his Cities of God with a a deeper analysis of themes of running away in songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, Tracey Chapman’s “Fast Car”, Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”. As the post and podcast have argued, Christian theology should pay attention to the themes of running away in the postmodern city because they stem from a good, divinely ordained impulse. This must however be qualified by a critical observation that escape in the postmodern city is but a parody of the Christian mode of running away.
In the 2013/14 academic year, Tan will subsequently take up a new post as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Catholic Studies department as well as the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at de Paul University in Chicago. The Professorship gives him the opportunity to both teach and conduct research under internationally acclaimed scholars such as Michael Budde and William Cavanaugh. The hope is for him to return to Sydney and his post at Campion College once his duties in de Paul are fulfilled.
Whilst delays in updating posts are anticipated, expect normal posting to resume very soon.