We human beings often perceive an emptiness at the core of our selves and we long to find something to fill it that will make us whole. Our entire consumer economy and much of our culture is built around satisfying, or purporting to satisfy, this longing. Our popular music affirms the idea that some object (or some person) is the answer to that gnawing emptiness at the core of our being.[i]
Now, religion is frequently on record opposing the consumerist solution to deep existential problems. The church, for example, denounces the idea that goods, sex, money, drugs, fame, or power can ever fill that void. But on closer inspection, it appears that organized religion is not opposed to the idea that something can fill those gaps. It’s just not the something that the other folks are marketing.
Peter Rollins, a religious philosopher and theologian in the “Emergent Church” movement, points out that contemporary Christianity buys right into this consumerist attitude: there is a problem you have, and the church has the solution to fix it. No, the solution is not sex, drugs, or rock-n-roll, or the acquisition of material goods, or power and status; the solution is Jesus. And the church is here to provide you with that product.
Sometimes, I like to think of that product as God™—The Solution to All Your Problems (SM). This product goes beyond existential longing and is good for all manner of ills. I can almost hear the late-night infomercial:
Is your life miserable? You need God™. Are you having trouble getting that promotion? You need God™. Do you wish you could get your life together? You need God™. And lucky for you, we have God™. God™ is like Oprah, Apple Computer, Google, and Jason Bourne all in one. What more do you need? Oh, and if it turns out that you don’t get that promotion: that’s okay, it’s all part of God’s Plan™ (sold separately).
Rollins notes that the idea of God as the fulfillment of our desires is so all-pervasive today that most people take it for granted. Even those who don’t believe in God believe that the God they don’t believe in is intended to be the answer to all a person’s problems.[ii]
This consumer approach to faith is seen in many aspects of religion: in the prayers, in the sermons, in the marketing used to reach out to people to get new members, and even in the music. Rollins writes that contemporary Christian music is nearly identical to the music of the popular culture. Critics of this kind of music will refer to it as “Jesus is my boyfriend” music, and for good reason. The only difference between Christian music and pop music is that instead of lifting up the girl or guy or the car or the money as the object that will make you happy, Jesus is put forward as the magical cure-all to what ails ya. The style of music is the same and the attitude is the same: you’ve got a problem and we’ve got the solution.[iii]
The similarity of the genres was even noted on an episode of The Simpsons, when Rachel Jordan, a Christian rock star played by musician Shawn Colvin, told Ned Flanders that it was easy to make the transition from Christian rock to secular rock: “All you do is change Jesus to baby.”
The church, and indeed much of religion in general, has become the purveyor of yet another product in a saturated market of solutions. Faith, then, becomes one more product promising fulfillment, happiness, and “unwavering bliss.” In Rollins’ thinking, the church takes its place in the industry of selling satisfaction and “religious hymns become little more than advertising jingles, and the clergy come to resemble slick salespeople presenting their god-product to the potential customer.”[iv]
But herein lies the problem and the great difficulty of this approach: the product doesn’t work as advertised. Believers are not happier, more satisfied, or more successful than the general population. All of one’s problems do not disappear once faith is claimed. In fact, sometimes the problems get worse. There is a long history of martyrs and saints who suffered for their faith, and, lest we forget, the founder of Christianity was crucified for his.
But when you’ve thought of religion as a product designed to solve all your problems, doubt and uncertainty will not do. Both the believer and the salesman have to be convinced of the product’s efficacy. Both have to be certain. (Well, the salesman has to at least appear certain.) The consumerist view of religion requires certainty to work.
[i]. Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction (New York: Howard Books, 2012), 21.
[ii]. Ibid., 23.
[iii]. Ibid., 21.
[iv]. Ibid., 22.