Friday, November 25, 2011

What to Preach on Black Friday

Today, as the remains of the national Feast of Thanksgiving course through the alimentary canals of our Republic's ignoble citizens, said dyspeptic citizens have lined up in the darkness to buy stuff.

Indeed, in the greatest assault to our national traditions since the Beatles' musical celebration of hand-holding, some retailers opened during the Feast of Thanksgiving itself. The horror! The horror!

Our Republic's clergypersons, both conservative and progressive, are united in their homiletical scorn for this activity. It is materialism, pure and simple. While the Manichean progressives insist that the fault lies with the dark forces that propel "corporations," "corporate greed" on its way to becoming a compound noun in their vocabulary, Calvinist conservatives insist it's a matter of the depravity that infests every human heart. Progs say that the problem is on the supply side, so corporations ought to be forced to close their rapacious, big-box retail outlets for the holiday. Conservatives say that the problem is on the demand side, so people ought simply to stay home.

In this regard, the conservatives, despite our labeling them as we did, happen to be more right than the progs. As if that needed to be said. Progs live on the notion that they're more noble than their deprived fellows, victims all, and so aim to restrain the narrowly limited population of evil folk (the 1%) to protect the hapless mass of ignorant but good folk. Conservatives hold to the hoary notion that there's such a thing as human nature and the human experience, and the thing is universal.

But we delight to refine the discussion, with some insights from behavioral sciences and biblical theology.

What we witness on Black Friday is not materialism but what many behavioral scientists label "seeking," that is, the behavior of animals, including human ones, to investigate their environment to find new and better things to eat, places to sleep, and opportunities to procreate. Neuroscience shows that seeking is the main source of pleasure in the brain, that the anticipation of reward provides more pleasure than the reward itself.

What Black Friday shoppers are doing is activating their "seeking" mechanism to overcome challenges in the investigation of their environment, deriving pleasure from the anticipation of finding something that they register as a reward. It's the thrill of the chase that they seek, and the purchase is more a trophy to memorialize the thrill than a source of pleasure on its intrinsic merits.

Now, let's get theological in a biblical way.

What's wrong with "materialism" is not the materiality of the stuff people possess. It takes a profoundly unbiblical notion of spirit/matter dualism--spirit is inherently good, while matter is inherently evil--to get to that. The God of Israel makes material stuff and calls it "very good."

No, what's wrong with "materialism" is the seeking of something other than God as a source of security and satisfaction. Jesus' famous story about the man with a great harvest who plans his security via bigger barns points out the futility of such confidence. The man's planned economic expansion can't add to his life a single cubit, as his life is required of him the very night he forms his plans.

The problem with stuff is that we hope it will make our lives right, and stuff can't do that. But we love to seek things--that's how we're wired to work. So we go seeking stuff.

And what we need to seek is God.

We submit that God designed creatures to be seekers so that humans would seek Him.

This gets us closer to the real notion of materialism as idolatry, a common and legitimate connection, though one usually made imprecisely. It's not that people "worship" their possessions in a sense that any of them might recognize as religious fervor. It's that they pursue possessions as a source of security, buying into the ancient, false notion that possessions provide self-sufficiency (eat it and you'll become gods). Thereby, they fail to seek God, to listen to God, to rest in God, to reckon with the failure of their possessions and ultimately of the failure of their mortal bodies. And so they fail to trust in God in any sense beyond verbal assent to a religious dogma.

We could provide biblical references, but we prefer that readers seek them for themselves. Make that an alternative activity of seeking on Black Friday.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

humbled. didn't do anything on black friday, but cyber monday got your boy to spend 499 on a tv that was originally 799 due to a whistling noise coming out of my current tv....probably over the top.