Branded or Baptized?

From the outside, liturgical churches often seem out of touch.  With the world filled with terrorists, the stock market plunging, the future uncertain, liturgical churches spend time perfecting their prayer books, revising their rubrics, honing their hymnals, and solving arcane sacramental puzzles.  Even from the inside, this often seems a waste of precious energy.  Who hasn’t been tempted to think, when running through the liturgy yet again, Shouldn’t we be doing something useful?

Liturgy can of course be an escape from responsibility, a retreat to the safe haven of immaturity.  But it need not be.  In fact, liturgical and sacramental churches have untapped resources for addressing the cultural and political trends of our times, and for addressing them in a specifically Christian fashion.  Anglicans and other sacramental Christians need to have the courage of their tradition, and resist the temptation to lurch away from liturgy in the often chimerical hope of being relevant.

Liturgy, baptismal liturgy in particular, is one of the church’s most powerful weapons against the lures of contemporary society.  Here the apostle Paul leads the way.

According to many contemporary Pauline scholars, Paul did not, as Protestants have long assumed, object to the opponents he described as “Judaizers” because they taught that salvation could be achieved by works.  He objected because Judaizers were attempting to reverse history, anachronistically imposing the requirements of the Mosaic Torah on Gentile Christians.  Paul did not regard circumcision and other “works of the law” as efforts at self-salvation; he regarded circumcision, dietary laws, and other Jewish practices as “boundary markers” that perpetuated the socio-religious divisions of the Mosaic covenant in the church.  Badges of Jewish identity have no place in a community where there is no “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Traditional Protestants object to this reading of Paul for a variety of reasons, but one prominent reason is that this reading robs Paul’s letters of their timeless relevance.  Protestants read Paul as the most vigorous opponent of works righteousness and the most insistent advocate of sola fide – in short, as the most “Protestant” writer in the New Testament (surely, more “Protestant” than that troublesome James).  When he attacks the Judaizers’ attempts to be justified by the works of the law, Paul is attacking the perennial temptation for sinful human beings to try to save themselves.  On this reading, Paul’s letters addressed the same problem as Luther did in the sixteenth century, and they are as relevant in the twenty-first century as they are in the first.  If Paul is dealing with the more specific problem of Jewish identity markers, what relevance does that have for us now?  Surely Judaizing in this sense is not a perennial temptation.

Or is it?  A glance at some of the dynamics of what is called “consumer society” tells a different story.

Consumption, of course, is as old as man, and as old as production.  Yet, it has long been given secondary status in economic theory.  Though Adam Smith recognized that “consumption is the sole end purpose of all production,” classical economics largely ignored consumers and devoted attention instead to problems of production.  Insofar as they paid any attention to consumption, it was assumed that consumers were rational utilitarians looking for the most efficient way to fulfill their needs and desires.  Classical economics therefore gave only scant attention to the way that social pressures, beliefs, habits, fantasies, moods, and other non-rational factors influence what a consumer chooses to consume.

Today, increasing attention is paid to the consumption side of the economic equation, and to the various factors that influence consumption.  “Consumer society” indicates a social order organized around consumption, around buying things that will be used and then tossed aside.  Boundaries between social groups, and bridges from one group to another, are constructed through consumption.  As David Lyon points out, consumption expresses a “system of symbolic rivalry,” where consumers form their identity “through acquiring commodities that make them distinct from others, and seek approval through lifestyle and symbolic membership.”  Piercings and tattoos are physical marks that identify someone as a participant in some variety of “cool,” but rivalries are “also visible in preferences for yogurt over ice-cream, four-wheel-drive keeps over family sedans, and attending live music over listening to the radio.”  Clothing brands can be as effective identity markers as brands on the skin.

Producers and managers in a consumer society are wise to the game and orient their efforts toward consumption.  Advertisers and marketing experts target groups with common consumption habits in order to encourage more of the same.  This is perhaps most striking in regard to teenagers.  Murray Milner, Jr., is only one of many commentators who have pointed out that “Advertising is . . . a core feature of the symbolic milieu within which young people grow up.”  Before the average American child graduates from high school, he “will have spent 18,000-22,000 hours in front of the television compared to only 13,000 hours in the classroom.”  The youth market is a target not only because of its size but also because of its longevity and because its loyalties are still in formation.  Kiddy versions of adult products are widely available – Gap Kids, Ozarka Spring Water for Kids, and magazine publishers try to win future readers with Teen People, Newsweek for Kids, and CosmoGirl.  By associating their products with popular superheroes, sports figures, rap singers, producers are trying to win over young people to their product, following the strategy summarized by an article in the Economist: “Hook them on a brand today, and with any luck they will still be using it in the next century.”

Consumer society tends to treat everything as a commodity, as a consumable.  In his vision of the fallen city in Revelation, St. John saw an ancient version of consumer society’s Vanity Fair, where everything’s for sale: “cinnamon and spice and incense and perfume and frankincense and wine and olive oil and fine flour and wheat and cattle and sheep and horses and chariots and slaves and human lives.”  Consumption items are also temporary.  In what Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modern society,” everything becomes “commodified,” a commodity being an object that “loses [its] usefulness . . . in the course of being used.”  A Styrofoam coffee cup is a commodity; your great-grandmother’s tea set is not.  In liquid modernity, we are tempted to treat everything as disposable.  In a consumer society, everything – plastic forks, sour cream, styles, friends, spouses, religions – has an implicit “use by” date, because soon the ads will be announcing the “new, improved” variety that everyone simply must have.

Already in last part of the nineteenth century, Thorstein Veblen described some of the social dynamics of consumer society in his works on the “leisure class.”  Instead of viewing consumption as merely a matter of rational economic calculation, Veblen argued that, for leisure classes with excess wealth, what he called conspicuous consumption offered social advantages.  Consumption is the capitalist way to play the game of competitive honor that men in earlier ages played with lances and broadswords.  To buy unnecessary and unnecessarily luxurious goods, and to do it in a public way, buttresses the man of leisure’s reputation as a man of leisure and erects a symbolic barrier between himself and the working classes.  By his purchases, he announces that he has money to burn and doesn’t care how he spends it.  Upper class refinement of tastes has a similar function.  The man of leisure “becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics.”   Not only does he demonstrate he can afford the best; he shows he’s got the time to know what the best is, and to enjoy it.  This has its down side, for it means that the gentleman tends “to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way.”  Leisure becomes work by other means, but the social advantages are worth the trouble.  Since the second half of the nineteenth century, and more intensely since the second half of the twentieth, larger and larger segments of the peoples of Europe and the United States have become part of the leisure class, with more wealth than we know what to do with.  “Consumer society” is the trickling down of leisure to the middle classes, and the same use of consumption for reputation, the same drawing of lines between insiders and outsiders that Veblen recognized among his leisure classes is now evident among middle class consumers.  Mary Douglas and B. Isherwood point out that goods are not only sensually but socially pleasurable.  That bottle of Pinot Grigio is tasty to the palate, but the ability to purchase and appreciate it places the connoisseur in a different realm of humanity.  Porsches and Ferraris are, no doubt, fun to drive, but they also function as admission tickets into an exclusive club.  In consumer society, what we eat and drink, what we drive, what we wear, what we watch or listen to – and in what setting, are all markers of our social location.  These goods and practices are quasi-sacramental badges of belonging that put a visible difference between us and the rest of the world.

Which brings us back to Paul and the Judaizers, and to liturgical Christians.  Contrary to the fears of some Protestants, the new reading of Paul does not rob Paul of contemporary relevance or consign his letters to the dustbin of intramural debates within first-century Judaism.   Maintaining boundaries of in and out, and employing badges for that purpose, is essential to every society, and most social conflicts are, in part, struggles over defining the boundaries and designating the badges.  Certainly, the Christian society of the church has struggled for two millennia over these issues.  Luther protested the exclusion of the laity from the Eucharistic cup as vigorously as he protested theology that fostered self-confidence.  Christians today are deeply divided about the meaning of baptism, whether baptism should be reserved for professing believers or applied to infants.

From this angle, consumer society tempts Christians in a myriad of ways.  It is not only that consumer society encourages the materialist belief that “life consists in many possessions.”  It does that, for sure.  More subtly but dangerously, insofar as they penetrate the church, consumerist habits threaten to erect boundaries and form divisions within the undivided Christ.  The baptismal liturgy sharply poses the question, Whose name do you wear? What name determines your identity?  Do you carry the name of Jesus, or the name of your favorite beer?  In the Book of Common Prayer liturgy of baptism, the baptismal candidate renounces not only Satan, but the world along with its powers that “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”  Consumer culture is one specific form that worldliness takes today, and it is one of the things Christians renounce in receiving the baptismal brand of Jesus.

To Christians who proudly wear the badge of Tommy Hilfiger, or look snobbishly at those who drink boxed wine, or keep their distance from other Christians who prefer Grisham to Coetzee, Paul would have much to say.  He would warn them to love one another.  But also, in exasperation, he would respond as he responded to the Judaizers: “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you!”  He would remind us, as he reminded the Corinthians, “Has Christ been divided?  Or were you baptized into the name of The Gap?”

We cannot serve God and Mammon, and this choice can be posed as a baptismal question, with a Pauline either/or: Which will it be?  Will you be branded, or will you be among the baptized?

'Branded or Baptized?' have 2 comments

  1. January 27, 2016 @ 10:19 am Mark Talley

    Thanks for publishing this. More than once, Leithart makes special reference to Anglicans and the Book of Common Prayer? Did he write this article for this journal.


    • Jesse Nigro

      January 28, 2016 @ 4:54 pm Jesse Nigro

      Mark, you’re right he seems to be quite a fan! I think this piece was written specifically for the journal, but this was before I took over editorship so I can’t be certain.


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