A while back I mentioned I’d like to start doing some book reviews, and the first book I was going to tackle was “Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age” by Yale Divinity School grad Tyler Wigg Stevenson. The reason it interested me is that from the overview, it looked like the book would talk about two topics I love to take deeper looks at: Religion and Brand Identity / Advertising.
Boy, was I in for a good time with this book! Just as I’d hoped, Stevenson sets up a great premise; that present day Americans have found themselves living in a consumerist age, looking for something to define their lives. While in past cultures, individuals had often been defined by the situation in to which they were born (class, race, even profession), the American dream of “you can be anything you want to be” places us each in the dilemma of defining ourselves. Left without a clear vision as to our collective identity (a clean slate, even without a state religion), and without a unifying story as a society (Stevenson argues that after the end of two World Wars, our last great story as a nation was that of the Cold War), many people have taken to defining themselves by their possessions. In essence, what we buy is who we are.
Stevenson identifies the first of these possession defined generations as the yuppies of the 80s, and traces the roots of this group into today’s consumers. He does an amazing job of recognizing the more recent trend, of consumers being able to customize mass-produced items (think shoes on the Nike iD site), as the furthering of this mind set. Now, not only are people able to purchase something with a brand name, but there is further clout assigned to the fact that someone has “designed” the item themselves. To tie it back to his theory of no longer having a unifying and defining story to relate to, he argues that Americans have reached the point that they are defining themselves through their purchasing ability, and the customized offerings of many companies is feeding our collective excitement over this self definition.
This is the premise for his work, long before we even get into the ideas of Brand Jesus. It’s good stuff. It makes you think. How tied am I to what I buy? Do my possessions define me, and am I proud of what they say?
I know in the past, there have been times when I have had thoughts along the lines of “If I only had “that car,” I would be cool. (Really, it was about 1991 and I was a Sophomore in college.) I really did think that if I had that one thing, both other people would think I was cooler, and I would feel cooler. I think I may have felt that same way about my first walkman, and some shorts and tank tops that I was sure made me look more like Madonna. But this stuff all dates way back into the late 80s and early 90s. I’d have to ask, was it yuppie influence, my own teenage sensibility, or likely the result of a perfect storm of both?
What Stevenson’s first chapters bring screaming to the forefront of my mind is that this trend of consumerism is directly tied to our current financial and environmental problems. For so long, our nation has been very focused on our ability to purchase, to buy new things. It is not a trend we can continue because it is not sustainable. The consumerism that has become so deeply inter-twined in our daily behaviors is starting to ruin us, from financial, environmental, and spiritual perspectives.
It is my own opinion that we are racing, headlong, into our next “great story” as a nation, and that will be the one of our unifying enough to reverse the effects of our consumerism and fix the financial and environmental issues that we have caused. It is a growing story already, that of the “green” movement. Time will tell if this will be our next great story and amazing achievement.
For some reason, I found myself thinking of this song today, while I was at work:
Edited to add: After re-listening to this song, I find it very interesting that the Indigo Girls make reference to the great fear of the Cold War (“at least I know there’ll be no nuclear annihilation In my lifetime”). The song was originally released in 1992, which would have been just after the Cold War ended. There’s a lot more going on with the song itself, but I do love that there’s mention of what Stevenson is claiming to be the last unifying American story. I think that is probably why it came to mind for me.