I don’t know if materialism as I mean it here is a philosophy. If it were, it would simply mean that one believes that things are real – have substance and “thingness,” and don’t possibly disappear when we can’t see them, as poor old Barclay hypothesized. So that’s not what I mean.
What I mean is not just consumerism – which is part of materialism – that drive to buy and consume and accumulate – but a belief that possessions are good, and that one gains “good” from them beyond their functionality. We can’t deny that we use things, or that we need a certain number of things. We are tool-users, and there’s a reason for that. It makes our lives productive and safer. No one is proposing here that we go back to a paleolithic lifestyle, following herds of wild animals, dressed in who knows what, guarding our campfires carefully because we don’t have flint. I’m acknowledging that we need objects more sophisticated than a heavy rock.
The problem as I see it is that we have endued things with personality. Objects are not just objects – tools and conveniences – but have inherency, a status. “Valuable” is a word we attach to objects. It has value beyond utility. Its mere possession makes someone a “better” person, more worthy of admiration and flattery. (I’m going to avoid including ‘status” experiences here, a a somewhat different topic.) A person derives status from the object rather than the other way around.
Advertising creates a false status – this famous person uses this product, therefore his or her status is transferred to it; a consumer of the product can then derive some status from the product, presumably by some osmosis. In a way there is a logic to it. Tiger Woods is an excellent golf player. He chooses to use a certain kind of nine-iron because he knows what a good nine-iron is; if the consumer buys the same nine-iron, he will be using a better tool than the one he is using now. This is logical within its own little closed loop, but doesn’t take into account the facts outside the loop: Tiger Woods is paid to use that nine-iron and perhaps has not considered its full utility. Or the advertising shows him using it, but the one he uses in tournaments is different. Or it is a perfectly good and usable nine-iron, but without the inborn athletic ability and years of practice Mr. Woods has, the buyer will never realize maximum potential from the nine-iron, and may play no better than he did before.
Derived status just doesn’t work, does it?
So carrying a Coach or Gucci handbag, using l’Oreal hair dye and driving a Lexus do not confer status. They might excite envy in someone who is status-conscious, but the products themselves will not gain status for the one buying them. The Gucci bag will not get you the best table at Le Cirque. (If that is still around – I don’t know – although I just googled it and yes it is, with a huge five star boast. For those who don’t know, it is a restaurant in New York, once the hotspot for all the glitterati. A meal there would cost us a week’s wages.)
Status is illusory. I’m going to just make the bold statement – status is a lie. Advertising lies to you.
Some new products will make your life easier. If you hate ironing, the no-wrinkle shirt will please you and relieve the load of guilt you might feel when you don’t iron – but you have to take it out of the dryer while it is still warm, and you can’t hang it on the clothesline and expect that it will be wrinkle-free. It will make you do some work, too, but that might be a good exchange for you. Those all in one mop devices (rhymes with sniffer) with the disposable cloths for sweeping and washing floors might satisfy your cleaning needs, and you are comfortable with throwing out the little expensive nylon reinforced nonwoven nonrecycable sheets. You are probably not going to derive status from them; they are conveniences and you know it. (Yes, at first convenience products can endow status – in my mother’s day it was cake mixes. Forty years ago, you said something about your socio-economic bracket and the amount of social time you indulged if you were “too busy to bake.” Now you can buy cake mixes at the dollar store, and many children have never had a scratch-baked cake.)
Our culture – that of North America and Europe and the other areas of the globe we influence, which is a lot – has gone status mad. A young friend went to New York City for the first time this spring. She’s a girl from the country, but raised with television and fashion magazines. She’s no hayseed, although she isn’t experienced in the world. She had many memorable experiences in the city, and truly enjoyed her trip to all the cultural sites, but one of her most vivid memories is the other women buying rip-off designer handbags on the street from vendors selling goods packed in a shopping cart. These women were going back to small town Canada with bags that said Prada and Gucci, to a place where some of them will have to drive a tractor and sort seed potatoes. Where the heck are they going to derive this status? No one, I hope, is realy fooled that they got an authentic bag from Paris. How does this lie about status improve their lives any?
This may be materialism at its worst. It is the tremendous waste of resources that goes into making status objects, and the continued deception (most of it self-deception) that these objects confer good. It wastes the materials it takes to make the object, the cost of transporting it, the human energy of crafting and selling it, and the brain cells of the purchaser or recipient who should be thinking of more productive things than owing a fake Gucci handbag.
So having laid out my premise and perhaps having defended it, it’s time to get to the core of this argument.
People are more important than objects. Relationships with people matter more than relationships with objects.
We laugh at edgy comedy where money fixation is used as the punchline – the character who pledges his mother’s house on a short sale in the stock market, hoping to flip a stock fast enough and for enough profit to buy a new Lexus. And what if he fails? (Short sales being a gamble.) Mom will have to go live with his sister. (Cymbal crash, we all laugh.)
There’s the plot of the drama I watched last night – a Johnny Depp movie. He’s a young man in the nineteen-sixties who falls into the drug smuggling business. Despite numerous busts, despite jail time, despite getting married and having a child, he keeps going back to the fast lane. He’s got good intentions for this one last deal, but it always falls apart. He goes from the Miami palace and the jet set lifestyle to prison. On the way he alienates his parents, his first love, his friends, his wife and finally his adoring little daughter. While it is a cautionary tale, a tragedy in the classic sense, it would be tempting to a young person who might think they were smarter than old George Jung, the character Depp plays. He’s got the girls, the looks, the clothes, the toys, the drugs and alcohol. It’s party life. Even if he had succeeded, and had escaped the law, where would that life get him eventually? The same alienation, the same poor health, the same lack of self-understanding. And death.
Maybe we aren’t interested in the fast lane. But we can be just as material, just as grubbing, to get the things we want.
The church often wants to marry culture. It’s a mismatch. Jesus told us it would be. Anyone who can read the gospel with an open mind can see that. Although we have to live in this world, we are not of this world.
I believe the only way to defeat this materialism is to live entirely in God, following the way of Christ, which is a way of realtive poverty and a way of self-denial. For some, that may mean the poverty of a dedicated life religious, with no possessions at all except the clothes they wear, and complete celibacy. For others, it may mean asettled family life, just enough shelter and possessions to be reasonably self-supporting, and in the chastity of marriage. There may be minor variations on these themes, but it all comes down to humbling ourselves before God and embodying that humility in our ways of earning money, our appearance, our public discourse. We need to get rid of our mirros – the glass reflecting kind and the advertising we see in print and video. Mirrors begat anxiety; we are unsure of what we offer the world. We start judging ourselves and then we judge others.
Christ lived in holy poverty and with the interdependence of His group of disciples, based on a village-agrarian culture. It is still a good model, even if our “garden” is a farmer’s market. God calls us to humility in Him because we need that humility to live with others. And although I am communciating with you via this electronic medium, it is not nearly as good as if we could live in real-time community. We ar all spending too much time bathed in the glow of plasma screens and not enough time under the sun God provided. Our words are silent on deaf ears. Although we are building productive virtual communities, we need to look to ways to make them face to face and hand to hand.
I feel the world changing. Soon I believe we will be ready to move out into a real community of voices, smells, and the sights of three-dimensional human faces. This virtual community can become a real community. The time is shifting fast. God is working in hearts, minds and through our hands.