As I sit at the cafe with my coffee looking out over the morning rush of Collins Street, I watch a young man pasting his tasteful ‘winter sale’ sign on the Ralph Lauren store window opposite. Next door is Hermanns with its not so discreet ‘50% off’ in bright red letters. Further up there’s Gucci and just to my left Chanel for whom sale signs are perhaps too common. Up and down this historic street are the boutique stores that mark the upper end of the consumer market here in Melbourne. For those who like to shop and do so in style, this is the place to be.
As a pastor of a church in this neighbourhood, I often struggle with what it is we have to say as followers of Jesus. On Sunday I’ll begin exploring the New Testament letter to the Colossians, ‘a subversive text for challenging times.’ But really, what on earth does living subversively look like … here? I wish I knew.
A couple of years ago I read a little book that stirred my own thinking about these sorts of things. The New York based author Judith Levine claims no religious perspective on the issues of consumerism, but approaches the challenges in an interesting way. In Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, she documents a year of frugality, one in which she and her partner shopped for nothing but the basic necessities of food and personal hygiene. In diary form, Levine tracks her experiences and responses, interweaving them with reflections on broader issues. The result is a highly readable, personal and sensible exploration of consumerist culture and its impacts … one of the best I’ve read. There is much in Levine’s writing that is helpful, but it’s her reflections on the relationship between consumption and desire that I find most compelling.
Levine grieves the apparent death of utopian visions of society. The only utopian movements left, she argues, are ‘ecstatic embraces of discipline’–on one side the religious Right with its pledges of sexual chastity, and on the Left the movements of voluntary simplicity. Quoting cultural critic Ellen Willis, anti-consumerism has become ‘the Puritanism of the Left.’
According to Levine, on both Left and Right desire is now cast as the enemy: ‘Part of me is disgusted by America’s sense of entitlement to vast quantities of everything. At the same time, I am loath to ally myself with any movement, right or left, that starts by telling people not to desire.’ For Levine, the problem is not that we consume and certainly not that we desire too much, but that we do not desire enough. Our visions of utopia and the longings that undergird them have been hijacked and made trivial.
‘I don’t want faith. As far as I am concerned, there is far too much blind faith out there; the worst, from Islamic jihadists to Christian anti-abortion assassins, are full of passionate conviction. But I do want something that religions offer in abundance: the permission to desire wildly, to want the biggest stuff—communion, transcendence, joy and freedom …’
For Levine, the great tragedy of our current consumerist society is that our desires are reduced to shallow and empty things. Speaking of her own culture: ‘America’s aspirations are not rising. They’re a lead bob plummeting to zero. … compared to what we might imagine, the desires of the American consumer are paltry.’
Perhaps Levine is onto something. Perhaps living well, living and shopping subversively, in a consumerist culture is less to do with overcoming desire and more to do with allowing desire its reign. As followers of Jesus, we are called to an audacious hope, an envisioning of life in its fulness. Perhaps our subversive rally call might be: Desire boldly!