Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday and Worldview: Consumerism

Every year the traditional starting point for the American Christmas shopping season begins the day after Thanksgiving, known as “Black Friday” (a term referring to retailers who, hopefully, will turn a profit and get them out of the negative red).  What's caught my attention this year is the intensity of advertisement to lure people from their homes and be first in line for holiday bargains.  Throughout the nation people have been camping out in front of stores for days so they could be the first to snatch up the super sales when the doors open.  Some stores actually began their Black Friday sales at midnight.

I am in the midst of reading, “Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Studies That Shape Our Lives,” and the second chapter deals with the worldview of consumerism.

Not all aspects of consumerism are negative.  Since the beginning of time people have made or grown goods to sell.  It’s the cycle of consumption that is the part of life.  Even if one grows roses as a hobby, as does my wife, we consume the flowers by cutting and putting them in a vase to beautify and bring color into our surroundings.  Consumption, then, is an inherent part of who we are as human beings (one can argue that the animal world are also consumers, though they are without one distinguishing characteristic, a consciousness of self). 

The consumption ritual of Black Friday, and indeed the shopping season leading up to Christmas and beyond (don’t forget the after-Christmas sales), reveals a materialistic worldview; that we are by what we own.  Self-worth and worth of others is dependent on the philosophy of consumerism.

Materialism is a worldview irrespective of income, held by both the wealthy and the less affluent.  The car we drive, the home we live in, the clothes we wear and even the food we eat are all symbolic indicators of consumer power.  The feeling of being successful or making economic advancement is marketed by brand, price and exclusivity.  The “I’ve got to have it,” regardless of whether one can afford it, is the power of the consumerism worldview.   

Authors Wilkens and Sanford also point out in their book that consumerism buys and discards the ever-elusive definition of “need.”  The commodity that is so desperately needed this year will soon be thrown away or in next year’s garage sale.  The dream home becomes inadequate over a period of time and the ultimate mobile phone becomes obsolete within a matter of months.  So prevalent is the worldview of consumerism need that it even affects marriage.  The ideal husband or wife loses their value and the search for a more meaningful relationship lead some in our society to discard their mates because they no longer meet their needs.  Consumerism is the pursuit of greater fulfillment.   The reality of Black Friday and all consumption activity is that it is a black hole.  What we own materially is never sufficient, echoing the words of J. D. Rockeller when asked how much money is enough replied, “Just a little bit more.”

Guilt is also a marketing technique of consumerism.  Several years ago, in my own home, I was given a catalog of a certain product.  The sales pitch was, “I think your wife really deserves something this nice for Christmas.”  The subtle message was, “If you value her, don’t go cheap, go big.  Show her you REALLLY love her by buying something expensive.”  So moms and dads all over the nation will get up at 3 a.m. on Black Friday and fight traffic and endure shoulder-to-shoulder crowded stores just to show little Ethan they love him by buying the latest XBox game, or little Emma has the coolest IPod. 

Mary Douglas wrote in “The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption,” that materialism is driven by envy and competitive display.   Envy of what other people have influences the market and what the consumer perceives as need. 

Conspicuous consumption is the pitiful cry of the self-absorbed consumer saying to the world, “Look at me.”  Suffering from a severe case of inferiority, the consumer tries to mask their feelings of inadequacy by buying the symbols that will prop up their self –esteem.

The Bible is actually neutral in matters of wealth.  Having material things is never the issue but the attitude behind consumption.  It’s the attitude of greed that makes it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than the rich entering the kingdom; it is the foolishness of pursuing riches that is equated to trying to catch the wind.    A biblical worldview is about contentment, helping those in need (not just the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table) and pursuing God rather than money.  A biblical worldview recognizes that our worth is not in what we own, but rather who we are in Christ.   God, who created our material world, gave charge to His creation to be stewards of the earth and all that is in it, not to consume, gain or hoard.

Black Friday is an attempt to manipulate the retailer’s bottom line and feeds the worldview of consumerism as well as promotes competitive shopping.  However, this holiday ritual of consumption will never contribute to the real bottom line of man’s greatest need.  The water that Best Buy or Khols offers requires that we go back to the well each day.  The maker of the water said that if we ask He will give us living water and we’ll never thirst again.