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How Stuff is the Worship of Self

John Stonestreet interviews author, speaker, and pastor Skye Jethani about how consumerism takes us captive to the worship of self.

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Rampant consumerism is, sadly, most obvious during the most sacred time of the year: Christmas time. And Christians don't seem to be exempt. But during today's interview, John Stonestreet welcomes writer and scholar Sky Jethani to help us put it all into proper perspective, and instill in us a deeper appreciation of Christmas, especially as it entails keeping Christ at the center of it all.

It seems for Christians and everyone else, the question you get most this time of year is, "Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?" The priority which getting and giving gifts receives in the midst of the holiday season should astound us.

Skye Jethani
As John Stonestreet notes at the beginning of this week's broadcast, if an extraterrestrial anthropologist visited America and sought to determine what we worship, he might conclude as he watched us trample over one another for the best sales and spend more money than we have on the latest gadgets, that our god is stuff.

But as Skye Jethani, author of "The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity," suggests, perhaps there's something much deeper at work here.

As a pastor, a leading member of the Christianity Today editorial team, and an ardent student of the consumer mindset, Jethani believes that our obsession with stuff is only a symptom of a more insidious form of idolatry: our worship of ourselves.

"There's a difference between consumerism and materialism," he explains. "Materialism is a focus on, obviously, material objects. But consumerism is a little bit different, because it says that the consumer, or the individual, is at the center of the universe, and everyone and everything exists to satisfy [his] desires and interests. So at the end of the day, I think we worship ourselves."

"Consumerism," says Jethani, "is first and foremost a worldview. It's a way of seeing the cosmos. And it teaches us that the essence of our existence is the fulfilling of our desires. And therefore everything and everyone exists to satisfy our desires. And everything's and everyone's values are determined by how well they satisfy our desires."

Ironically, Jethani believes that there's nothing necessarily wrong with taking a consumerist view when it comes to the areas of life we most associate with consumerism: When we take a trip to the store, we purchase products based on what satisfies our needs and desires. This is appropriate. It only becomes a problem when we begin to believe that "stuff" will bring us lasting happiness.

But there's a far greater danger, he says. When consumerism becomes our overriding worldview, we begin to appraise people, institutions and even the Church itself based on how well they satisfy our desires.

Jethani believes this form of deep-seated consumerism is one of the root causes of America's withering divorce rate:

"My spouse doesn't have inherent value," he says, explaining our mindset. "She's only valuable to the degree that she satisfies me. And when she ceases to satisfy me, I'm justified in getting rid of her and finding a younger model."

This, he says, is consumerism at work in our thinking. But it gets even worse.

"We apply [this thinking] to our relationships, we apply it to our politics, we apply it to our patriotism, and we apply it to our faithto the point where God, Himself, becomes a commodity, and we "consume" Him to satisfy our needs and desires. And if He fails to [do so], then we go on a hunt for a better religion or a better god."

To tell the story of American consumerism in his book, Jethani brings to bear the life and work of a very different man from a different time. Viewing our modern idolatry of self through the metaphor of 19th century Dutch post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh, Jethani hopes to give us a fresh perspective of who we really are.

Van Gogh, himself a notable critic of the Church in his day, expressed a simple principle in his art: seeing the unseen. And that should perk our ears.

"Consumerism is kind of the water we're swimming in," says Jethani. "So it's hard for us to see past it to the reality of who we are. We need to see the unseen as well. We need to see past the realities of consumerism in our world to a different way of living, a different way of being the Church..."

And that's foremost for Jethani. As a pastor, he laments the way millions of American Christians have come to view the Church, herself, with a consumer's eye. The phrase "church-shopping" exists for a reason. It's how we live. So many American Christians hop from congregation to congregation, denomination to denomination, looking for something to tickle their fancies. But, says Jethani, this criterion leads us to ask the worst possible questions of the churches we sample.

Rather than seeking a church which faithfully teaches the Word of God, keeps the sacraments, and holds its members accountable to the Christian life, we find ourselves asking, "Was that entertaining?" "Was the pastor funny?" "Did the worship leader bring me an emotional experience?"

This mindset, says Jethani, has reduced entire churcheseven denominationsinto little more than industrial-scale marketing machines. Doctrinal training, godly discipleship, and historic wisdom fall by the wayside in the pursuit of relevance. The church, itself, once a table where the family of Christ came together to feed on "the bread and the teaching of the Apostles," becomes a literal stage on which entertainment takes place.

It's little wonder Jethani has dedicated himself to exposing the ravages of consumerism on American culture, and especially in American Christianity. But at this time of yearin spite of, and maybe even because of rampant consumerism, we have a chance to wake people up. We have a chance to change some worldviews. And that, after all, is why John Stonestreet and the rest of us at the Colson Center place so much emphasis on this time of year. It points us to something so much better than stuff, and to Someone so much bigger than our consumers' desires.

Listen to today's full broadcast for much more, including tips on how to revolutionize the way your family does gift-giving at Christmas time.

Learn More...

  • Get your copy of Skye Jethani's book, "The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity. >>CLICK HERE.
  • Check out Jethani's blog, SKYEBOX. >>CLICK HERE.
  • Check out Friday's BreakPoint commentary, in which John Stonestreet discusses consumerism in the lottery. >>CLICK HERE.


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