There is a covered bridge in Georgia that extends over a scenic rushing stream. A well-worn trail leads its visitors to a succession of small cascading waterfalls over a series of massive rocks. Sitting atop one of these rocks, my husband surprisingly turned to me and asked, “Do you ever think of the springs in France when you see a bottle of Evian?”
My answer caught me more off guard than his question. No, I really hadn’t ever thought of the springs, or the production, or for that matter, the importing that goes into the twenty-some kinds of bottled water we see on our grocery store shelves. In fact, I don’t usually think about the origins of anything I consume.
Sociologists call this growing trend of perspective (or lack there of) commodification, the progression of thought whereby the commodities we consume are seen in abstraction from their origins. For instance, when most of us think of chocolate, we rarely see it as having a context beyond our consumption of it. The land where it came from, the conditions of its production, and the community or laborers who produce it are realities disassociated with the commodity. In a world dominated by consumption, commodification is becoming more and more of an unconscious worldview, and one which is shaping habits of interpretation across the board.
Author and cultural observer Vincent Miller writes of how such a manner of seeing and interpreting is also making us more comfortable with engaging religion as commodity, lifting certain portions of a religious tradition from its context and historical background for the sake of one’s individual use or interest.(1) Thus just as chocolate or bottled water is easily and unconsciously viewed as detached and even different from its origin and context, parts and pieces of religious traditions are increasingly being seen as goods from which we can pick and choose, commodities disassociated from the historical realities and contexts from which they arise. Such habits of interpretation might explain the current fascination with diverse and isolated spiritual practices; it could also explain the man on television who recently expressed his desire to design a tattoo portraying his version of the Crucifixion. Jesus, the Cross, and the resurrection become commodities isolatable from first century Palestine, detachable from the context of the Old Testament, or optionally a part of the Christian story at all. When consuming religion, we prefer à la carte.
It is this ability to isolate and compartmentalize that also allows people to simultaneously affirm beliefs that would otherwise be contradictory. Miller cites an example from a Canadian survey that reports almost half of its participants asserting beliefs in both reincarnation and resurrection. Even a slight understanding of either concept would recognize them as incompatible, but in removing each from their traditions, the consumer mindset disorientedly and groundlessly insists on finding a way to embrace them both.
Someone once told me that the most comforting premise of the Christian worldview was, for her, the assurance of a beginning. The very first words of the story boldly claim that we are not lost and wandering in a cosmic circle of time and chance, isolated from any meaning beyond consumer preference. There is one who stood at the foundation of the world, who with wisdom, majesty, and purpose, caused life and history to begin. There was a first word, uttered by one who Christians believe continues to speak—not in detached fragments but in rich love and mystery—showing us the source of life and image, who we are, where we came from, why our redemptive longings matter, and how we live beside the one who redeems. There is a story that emerges from the beginning, and we have a place within the whole: “Indeed,” concludes Peter, “all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed’” (Acts 3:24-25).
Of Christ, there is no distant or fragmented consuming. At his table, we live as communing recipients and guardians of a way of life in which belief and practice are intertwined with history, meaning, and hope. There is an origin to the grace we cling to; we are made whole because in Christ we are given a context, a story, a Source.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Vincent Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005).