by Rebekah Hanson
from Signs of the Times No. 73 - April 2019
The book, Buying God: Consumerism & Theology, by Eve Poole, engages with questions concerning the complexities of modern-day economic responsibilities that Western individuals have, and more specifically, the responsibilities that Christians have to God and the world in a Western, secular, capitalist context.
The author organizes her book into two main sections to help explain her perspective as rooted in public theology. The first four chapters of the book make up the section ‘How to do Theology’ where she discusses the key issues of public theology, particularly concerning the audience(s) to which the theologian addresses, and the different ways of communicating one’s theological perspective to different publics. From there she explains where she sits among the different methods of communication to help the reader understand where she is coming from in the second section called, ‘God and Consumerism.’ This is followed by a ‘Resources’ section which invites further spiritual reflection and action. In terms of intended audience, the book is primarily aimed at Christians, ‘while drawing on those parallel secular resources that might have currency in the public square.’ (p.65) In this way she makes use of secular wisdom in the shaping of her theological arguments, so that the book can be accessible to audiences both inside and outside the Church.
In the first section she focuses more directly on theological issues. Christian readers may be more familiar with the language and concepts of this section than non-Christians, but it is not saturated with academic or obscure theological language either. She also makes economic terms and concepts easy to understand for readers unfamiliar with the complexities of the economic language of capitalism. Theological reflection on the environmental and human impact of modern-day consumerist practices in the second section informs the nature of the capitalist reforms she calls for. This enables her to expand upon her argument that ‘The rhythms of Christian belief can offer an alternative routine that puts consumerism back into perspective.’ (p.95) In this way, she also shows how Christians, wishing to engage in public conversations about issues concerning the economy and environment, can make their Christian perspectives relevant and respectful in response to secular views and practices.
The book offers guidance on everyday changes that people can make in their lives, thus drawing out the spiritual implications of our consumerist habits. In the section on ‘God and Consumerism’ she largely focuses on individual will-power and personal transformation. This provides helpful advice on the ethical changes individuals can make to contribute to wider change. However, her suggestions and arguments could have potentially been strengthened by including a chapter which focused on the power of community involvement, and particularly church communities, where people can support one another as they strive to make changes in consumer habits together, thus reflecting further on ‘the rhythms of Christian belief’. That said, she does mention some key actions the Church has taken, which could serve to inspire further action, and the ‘Resources’ section at the end of the book could be used and adapted for church communities and reading groups to discuss changes in habits together.
Some readers may agree with Poole’s vision of how her suggested changes in consumer practices can reform capitalism for the greater good of human flourishing and the environment. Other readers may be sceptical of how far individual consumer habits can transform the economic impact on the global issues she discusses. Nevertheless, the book offers challenges and insights for the reader to reflect upon regarding the spiritual, economic, and environmental impact of everyday consumerism.
Rebekah Hanson has just started a PhD focusing on the Bible and Digital Culture.