By Chaplain Mike
Darn that Skye Jethani!
He has written the book I wanted to write: an insightful, stern, yet gracious critique of evangelical culture, illustrated by the works and stories of Vincent van Gogh, and linked with the wisdom of spiritual practices. And he did it well.
It’s called The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity. I just devoured it, nodding, smiling, expressing exasperation at some of the more egregious examples, highlighting passages that shone like the swirling orbs splashed across the sky in van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.”
Need I say it? I highly recommend this book.
In Jethani’s introduction, he quotes one of my favorite pastoral teachers, Richard Halverson:
In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise. (11, emphases mine)
Americans live in a consumer-driven society. We are consumers. This is our world, and the ethos of the corporate and consumer dominated life has been with us and expanding for well over 100 years. Consumers R Us.
However, there is a difference between being a consumer and having a worldview of consumerism. Consumerism is “a set of presuppositions most of us have been formed to carry without question or critique” (12). It has become the subconscious framework through which we viewÂ everything, including God, the gospel, and the church. In Jethani’s view, “it is competing with the kingdom of heaven for the hearts and imaginations of Gods people” (12).
For Skye Jethani, the concept of imagination is key. “Learning to see the world as it truly is — saturated with the presence and love of God — should be the essence of Christian discipleship, or what many call spiritual formation” (13). However, the church is failing to provide an alternative vision that will captivate the hearts and minds of consumers and break the chains that bind their imaginations. Instead, churches are catering to consumers without challenging the worldly assumptions that leave them undernourished and anemic in their faith.
By means of a brilliant illustration, the book gave me an unforgettable picture of what we consumers do to faith. Jethani reminds us of Walt Disney’s original vision for Epcot Center, his greatest dream. In Disney’s mind, Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) would be a utopian community, an ever-evolving “living blueprint” of the future where people would live a life unavailable anywhere else on earth. Disney died before his dream was realized, and by the time Epcot opened in 1982, it had become just another theme park — that was all the managers who took over the Disney corporation could envision. One wit excoriated the result by saying, “They have created a land of make believe that’s worse than real life.”
I’ve been in churches like that.
As a means of stimulating our imaginations, Skye Jethani turns to the letters and paintings of Vincent van Gogh to complement his argument. Van Gogh had a complicated relationship with faith and the church throughout his lifetime, at one stage on the verge of being ordained into ministry, at other times in his life a cynical doubter. The book’s point is not to set Vincent van Gogh up as a great hero of faith. Rather, it is to take certain themes from the painter’s life and works to promote an alternate vision of faith.
What are Skye Jethani’s complaints about consumerism? How does this worldview stunt our faith?
- It commodifies God. God is not the Holy One any longer, the Great Mystery, but one who nicely fits in with our desires and politics. We value him for what he can do for us.
- It moves us to construct our Christian identity from the brands we consume rather than from what God has done for us in Christ. Christians buy Christian, and thus are Christian. Image is everything.
- It leads us to seek transformation through external “experiences” we consume. This has led to a whole new kind of church and ministry: “And the role of the pastor, once imagined as a shepherd tending a flock, now conjures images of a circus ringmaster shouting, “Come one, come all, to the greatest show on earth.” In Consumer Christianity, the shepherd becomes a showman” (75).
- It has turned the church from an “ocean-liner” designed to move people from point A to point B (connecting people with God), to a “cruise ship” that is, in itself, the destination. One need never disembark because it contains everything the Christian life has to offer.
- It leads to a faith that is insatiable, unable to delay gratification, and averse to suffering.
- It causes us to segregate ourselves from others who are not like us, and to gather in homogeneous communities, causing us to miss the gospel call to a unity that rises above human divisions.
- It moves us to choose lifestyles of guarded isolation and individualism and miss out on the gospel call to practice hospitality, especially toward those we would never naturally associate with.
As antidotes to this sub-Christian ethos, Jethani explores themes in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and suggests various spiritual disciplines such as silence, prayer, having soul friends, and practicing hospitality in order to help us explore our subconscious commitments to a consumerist mentality and to seek God’s transforming vision for an alternate faith ethos.
To accomplish this, I have approached the structure of each chapter the way we encounter a van Gogh painting. Like other post-Impressionist artists, van Gogh used brilliant and contrasting colors applied with short, staccato brushstrokes. At close range the subjects of his paintings were indecipherable, a formless abstract of color and texture. One must step away from the canvas for the colors to fuse and the eye to discern the subject. Likewise, the chapters that follow are impressionist in form. they are comprised of short, seemingly incongruent scenes of personal narrative, biblical exposition, and cultural observation. But with distance and reflection they fuse in the mind’s eye to construct a discernable theme. My intent is for the reader’s imagination, and not merely his or her intellect, to be awakened and nourished with an alternative vision of faith from the one we’ve inherited from our consumer formation. (13)
Darn you, Skye Jethani.
I wish I had written this book.
Nevertheless, I am sure glad you did.