October 17, 2017

IM Book Review: The Divine Commodity

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 view  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.

Comments

  1. I would agree with that Halverson quote as far as it goes, but in recent years churches at least in the German-speaking parts of Europe have enthusiastically embraced the Willow Creek model (there is even a “Willow Germany” organization to promote it) and the church is fast becoming an enterprise over here as well.

    • As you say, we are always a few years behind the US. In a word, bedauerlich.

  2. Just one of the reasons that I love IMONK is the introduction to new authors, thinkers, and wanderers thru the ev. wilderness ( or more liturgical forests 🙂 ) thanks for the book review: I’ll try and pick this up while reading Mere Churchianity, I think they’ll compliment each other, though I might have to add something happy sappy so I don’t get weighed down with too much truth: maybe some KLOVE on the ear-buds while I read…..

    thanks Chap Mike…..your time/book is coming
    Greg R

  3. It leads to a faith that is insatiable, unable to delay gratification, and averse to suffering.

    Question: how do we steer clear of this, and yet stay open to legitimate experiences of GOD through worship ?? What would be some practices (disciplines ??) to safeguard against this and move toward a biblical contentment ?

    A sidebar question would be, can churches be missional AND attractional (in the ways that these terms are understood by the seeker friendly model of church) ??

  4. I must disagree with the idea of imagination being the key. One main problem I see young people having with Christianity is “what is real.” Postmodern cynicism combined with revivalist imagination concerning subjects like heaven and end times have served to make the Christian faith look like a fairy tale.

    To me, this is the goal of modern praise and worship services, to create in the imaginations of Christians, an weekly experience of heaven-on-earth. And I see the same thing with much of the classic spirituality. It is based on the imagination and not grounded in reality. Imagining God instead of God being substantive in our world is a major reason why atheism is so appealed. There being no God seems more “real” than there being a God.

    The individual imagination is an amazing thing and an apt vehicle for an expression of an individual’s faith and ideas, but I would never base faith or reality on imagination. That creates a dichotemy between “imagined” good and “real” evil, which is close to gnosticism.

    • I don’t think Jethani is using the word imagination in that way. By imagination he includes a rich intellectual grasp of Biblical truth. Imagination, in addition, captures heart and spirit as well as the mind. Furthermore, he is reminding us that Jesus did not come and teach a seminar on the truths of the Kingdom vs. the religious establishment and what they believe. He told stories, performed signs, and made use of language in such a way that it went beyond propositions. This is the same manner in which we see the prophets and wisdom teachers speak within the Bible. They not only transfer truth, they envision a different reality and make us imagine and feel it.

    • Mike, I was about to follow up with similar thoughts to your own. There is a difference between imagination being a mentally created reality (as in painting, fiction and cinema) and imagination being the place where the human mind grasps concepts.

      Now, I definitely agree with the idea that our concept of God is horrible damaged by the consumer worldview (and it was smart to differentiate between simply being a consumer in a marketplace and a worldview based on consuming). And it also horribly damaged by political views of utopian societies (Epcot).

      For me, the greatest and most profound idea I struggle with is the reality of the creature meeting the reality of the Creator. The only way two completely different realities (one material, one spiritual) can meet and be grasped is at the place where the human mind steps beyond the mere facts of creaturely existence and reaches towards the concept.

  5. “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”

    Some of us call that mysticism… <smile

    • The author, as Chaplain Mike says, emphasizes imagination throughout. And that definitely is mysticism in its truest form. For those who are longing for their reach to overshadow their grasp, this book is for you.

      I echo the good Chaplain: highly recommended.

    • “Some of us call that mysticism… <smile…"

      🙂

  6. Thank you so much for reviewing this book! The excerpts are spot on. I have grown so weary of the God-as-vending-machine theology that is so popular today. The commodification of relationships, experiences and even God (love for crying out loud!) has been so destructive to our collective psyche. I’m thrilled to see more folks writing about it and calling us to something more genuine instead of cashing in on the spectacle a la Joel Osteen. There is hope for us yet!

  7. Ekstasis says:

    MWPeak, great point: “The only way two completely different realities (one material, one spiritual) can meet and be grasped is at the place where the human mind steps beyond the mere facts of creaturely existence and reaches towards the concept.”

    By concept perhaps you mean something beyond the normal human intellect? God’s wisdom should expand our minds way beyond what they were yesterday. If we are simply gathering additional information about God, perhaps we have entirely missed the boat.

    Maybe we should view truth and understanding as layers. Take a paper book. At one level it is simply ink on paper. Then we realize that the ink displays patterns. Then we learn that each word has meaning at the semantic level. Then we begin comprehending ideas and concepts through abstractions and metaphors. This is presumably where the human intellect gets off at the top floor. The goal for the spiritual man or woman is to bust through this limitation, with the help of our creator and designer.

    How do we do this. As mentioned, the book hits on silence, prayer, etc. This is certainly where it is at. The problem is that we are then battling against all that distracts us — the constant barrage of all the desires and aversions and pursuits that the world and flesh. This is why we must die to self, abandoning and renouncing detaching from all temporary things, so as to clear ourselves for God’s presence and revelation. This silent battle, constantly pursuing Christ while constantly detaching ourselves from all that encumbers us, is a 24-7 job. It is way beyond what is going to happen in a church service once a week.

  8. Brendan says:

    While I definitely agree this is right up the iMonk/post-evangelical wilderness thing, my questions is there any real solutions offered in this book. Does the author do more than just capture our imagination? Is he actually part of a community that has legitimately found a solution to this madness?

    We have found far too many people willing to give a diagnosis and not enough practitioners.

    • Brandon,

      Part of the problem with offering solutions is that not every solution works for every person. I found my way to Roman Catholicism, but a number of people here have serious theological differences. For others, some main line opportunities might be geographically impossible. Not every community has the desired church.

  9. And when our churches adopt a consumerist paradigm, it’s natural that they would also apply it to scripture as well as project it back outward. That’s how we get (for want of a better term) the capitalist Jesus, who seemingly came to tell us that interfering with corporations and their markets is wrong. Sorry for the negativity but I’m overwhelmed by the BP spill following on the heels of health care “reform.” Ignore me. I’m just really tired of principle-free marketing.

  10. Nice thought-provoking book. I liked the way he wove Van Gogh’s life and paintings into his theme.

  11. I’m not convinced by the point about self-segregation and homogeneous communities. First of all, I don’t see any connection between consumerism and this. Secondly, the US, Canada, and Australia form a unique set of countries with multiethnic populations. In other countries this simply can’t be an issue, because the entire country is mostly homogeneous. Here, by contrast, much segregation was originally linguistic; after all, I wouldn’t get much out of a Polish Catholic mass. Even the Catholics segregated by language, and still do. No consumerism in that.

    • Homogeneity is a primary principle of church growth philosophy. It teaches that to grow a church you should appeal to the needs and wants of a specific target audience. These are the tenets of corporate marketing, and they lie at the root of much evangelical practice in the U.S.