My sister, Carolyn, likes to tell this story about me when I was a newly-married householder, but she may not remember it as I do.
She was visiting as my wife, Amparo, and I were trying to furnish our $120-a-month apartment in a rural Iowa town where I had landed my first newspaper job.
I was still in re-entry mode after over three years in rural Bolivia, where near our house in LaPaz, I saw people competing with dogs for scraps at garbage piles. I hadn’t become accustomed to what I saw as my country’s radical consumerism.
We had gone to the K-Mart in a larger, nearby town, a store that I saw as perfectly representing consumerism. With its garish overhead fluorescent lights and ever-present, non-descript canned music, it had millions of products. I felt confused, detached and a bit angry.
To be honest, I may not have been too happy about the whole idea of “going shopping,” not one of my favorite pastimes. But the K-Mart experience I found to be especially annoying. We were looking at window shades, and I was frustrated by the need to decide among so many choices.
Rotating Blue Light
Ok, so I may have overreacted – and I’ve now grown accustomed to the K-Marts, Wal-marts and Targets – but I believe that U.S. consumerism was out-of-control then and is even more so now. It is, in my opinion, a major distraction for people searching for God and a barrier between us and an appreciation for the plight of God’s poor.
Life’s blue-light special is the discovery of God’s love and generosity. Just think what it would mean if we took God seriously. The antithesis of a K-Mart experience, we would feel God’s presence and have peace – with ourselves and others.
Let’s face it, we’re inundated with consumer messages, so much so that we’re mostly unaware of them. I watch a lot of baseball, and baseball broadcasts are among the worst on TV in the number of ads per program. Three or four ads are crammed into each half inning of a nine-inning game. And ads fill the screen during every pitching change, every time there’s the slightest break in the action.
Ads are almost always manipulative. In a review of his new book, “The Market as God” in the National Catholic Reporter, Harvey Cox – among the country’s most famous and respected Protestant theologians – writes that our veneration of stuff is among the modern substitutes for religion. Unlike religion, however, ads engage only our emotions.
Ads target our weaknesses, not our strengths. If you have any doubt where young people AREN’T getting their news these days, tune in to a network evening news program. An overwhelming amount of advertising is from drug companies, appealing to older audiences.
“…The market has taught us to speak the language of feelings and to imitate the people we see in our mass media,” the article says.
Worship of False Gods
Consumerism is the modern version of the worship of false gods, condemned so vehemently in the Hebrew Bible. It distracts us from the search for God and replaces the quest for God-like values with the pursuit of stuff.
“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”