There has been a massive influx of Christian literature and criticism regarding the multifaceted behemoth of “consumerism” in recent years. What could be dismissed as a faddish form of cultural criticism has begun to take hold in Christian communities across denominational and confessional lines (insofar as such lines still really exist in protestant Christianity). Up until now the bulk of such writings were actually coming from Roman Catholic theologians (such as Eugene McCarraher and William Cavanaugh) and mainline protestants (such as Daniel Bell and Stephen Long). With the addition of Paul Metzger’s new book, Consuming Jesus, we now have a distinctly evangelical contribution to this growing body of Christian literature. While some evangelical Christians from the more “emergent” stream of Christian thought have offered a great deal of reflection on consumer culture (see David Fitch’s book The Great Giveaway for example), most of them have done so from the framework of taking leave of evangelicalism (at least as much as possible). Metzger, by contrast clearly speaks from within the broad American evangelical tradition as a distinct voice of loyal opposition.
In so doing, he offers us an excellent book which deserves a wide reading among protestant Christians who are concerned about the state of the church’s unity and mission in our world of global capitalism and its attending veneer of bourgeois consumerism. Metzger, in speaking from within the evangelical tradition draws from distinctly evangelical resources (particularly Jonathan Edwards’ theology of the religious affections) in seeking to speak prophetically and practically to the evangelical churches who, by and large remain segregated along racial and economic lines throughout the United States.
Framed with a forward from Don Miller (of Blue Like Jazz fame) and an afterword by his primary inspiration, John Perkins (the profoundly Christian social rights activist and community developer), Metzger tells the story of the evangelical withdrawal from such theo-political issues as racialization and poverty through an analysis of the fundamentalist debacle in the early twentieth century, and the persisting problems of the political agendas of the Religious Right which dog us up to the present day (Chapter 1). He then goes on to explore how the invisible hand of consumer preference and affinity groups shape evangelical churches into segregated and unfaithful sub-cultures which seek to appeal to the “felt needs” of strikingly homogeneous bodies of believers (Chapter 2). Following these historical and theological excoriations of the failures of the evangelical tradition to confront race and class divisions in the church, Metzger moves into a theological “reordering” of the evangelical church’s vision and practices in the remaining four chapters of the book.
He first turns to the dynamics of consumerism in shaping the life of evangelical Christians and how Christ’s defeat of the powers and principalities informs our engagement with the powers of consumerism and racialization (Chapter 3). He colorfully tells this story through J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagery of the Balrog of Morgoth’s confrontation with Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He then moves into an analysis of what is, in may ways the central fixture of the evangelical identity: the experience of encountering Christ as one’s Savior who transforms the heart of the believer to love God and others (Chapter 4). Through an investigation of the trinitarian and affective theology of Jonathan Edwards, Metzger argues that evangelicals are unfaithful to their own distinctive spiritual legacy when they do not envision the transformation of the heart through the Spirit as impelling them to love all humankind and break down the divisions imposed between people by racialization and consumerism.
Following his discussions of the atonement and the heart-driven transformed life of Christians, Metzger turns his attention to the corporate life of the body of Christ, exploring how consumerism restructures the “sacred space” of Christian gathering and worship (the common metaphor for and example of this being the act of “trading stone altars for coffee bars”). He explores how the purging of sacred symbols, such as the Lord’s table from the places of Christian worship have had the deleterious effect of removing crucial elements of Christian social formation (Chapter 5). The eclipse of the Eucharist and the sacramental imagination of the church in evangelicalism evacuates the church of its central call to unity and communion, which is more necessary than ever to the consumer church of racialization and classism. Finally, Metzger moves on to explore the dynamics of how the church must embody its mission in “building beloved community” in the face of the market forces that seek to determine the shape of our lives (Chapter 6). In conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., John Perkins, and others, Metzger articulates a vision of “redistribution” which has the power to reshape the ecclesial social lives of evangelical Christians and have a profound impact on building a more just society.
The book ends in a beautifully constructed vision of the great eschatological banquet which should animate the Christian social imagination and empower Christian witness and action in a world shaped by the powers of market forces and consumer preference. The final solution to the problem of consumerism lies ultimately in the banquet table of the Lord to which all are called, and at which all are welcome.
On the whole, the book is a distinctly evangelical tour de force, powerfully challenging the evangelical church’s acquiescence to the forces of consumerism and commodity fetishism in the United States. Eugene McCarraher has written strongly about the “highbrow moralism” that passes for prophetic critique in many Christian discussions of “consumerism”. His cautionary words are well-grounded and needed. Consuming Jesus, I think passes any such test, if for reasons that may not be clear to every reader. Having had the privilege of knowing Dr. Metzger personally and offering what meager assistance I could in the various stages of this book’s genesis, I can assure the reader that what they read is not the abstract musings of an academic, but the galvanized conscience of a passionate and grounded ecclesial Christian. These reflections on the consumer church come from no ivory tower, but from the trenches and the tears of ecclesial life and practice. I encourage the strongest hermeneutic of love to those who would read this book. It has much to teach Christians of all traditions, but most of all I hope that evangelicals will take its message to heart and begin to lean anew how to embrace the sacramental imagination that tends towards unity, and a fresh vision of the church’s catholicity as the location in the world where the Triune God’s love longs to draw people from all races, classes, and backgrounds together into a beloved community in which difference leads not to separation, but to communion, feasting, and joy.