Tuesday 31 March 2009

Church and business: retail therapy

Here’s a letter that Kim Fabricius recently published in the British church magazine Reform:

I have no problem with the church in the retail park (“Retail Therapy”, Reform March); what I do have a problem with is the retail park in the church in the retail park.

Mega-malls are the cathedrals of consumerism in which bending the knee to global capitalism takes the form of conspicuous and relentless shopping. What concerns me is that the ecumenical chaplaincy at Middlebrook Retail Park, Bolton might simply be the court prophet that blesses such pagan subjection to distorted desire and spiritual restlessness.

I am concerned, for example, that the “calm space where worries can be talked through” sounds suspiciously like what Philip Rieff calls reducing the gospel to “rubber nipple” therapy in the burgeoning “anxiety market”.

I am concerned that so-called audacious conversations with the punter, the staff and the boss may not include the pathologies of shopping and debt, the sin of corporate avariciousness, the smoke and mirrors of marketing and branding, the ethics of fishing-the-bottom (the north shops, the south drops), the economic suicide of protectionism, and so on. Now that would be audacious.

And I am concerned, at source, about the agreement between church and management that presumably sets parameters for the project: is the chaplain free to evangelise, spearhead fair trade campaigns, fight for workers’ rights, etc – or is the gospel in chains?

I hope I’ve got it wrong, and that “retail chaplaincy” has nothing to do with greasing the squeaking wheel of the market economy by suppressing hard theological questions and colluding in the privatisation of faith. (As a university chaplain I myself have, of course, exercised a pastoral/counselling ministry; but I have also felt compelled openly to criticise university management for its obsession with a business model of learning, as well as for its contemptible investments in the arms trade.)

It is suggestive, I think, that when Paul ventured into the market place in Ephesus (Acts 19:21ff.), he caused such a “serious disturbance” (v. 23) over the trade in silver that the crowd rioted and tried to lynch two of the apostle’s companions.


Rachel said...

Kim- I agree with your hesitation. I think another good model of the church utilizing the marketplace for witness are the Pentecostal storefront/movie house church. "Setting up shop" in the midst of consumerism is crucial, provided we do not forget what we are witnessing to.

roger flyer said...

So when in rome...?

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by Kim's mention of protectionism...

chad said...

"Rubber nipple therapy" might just be my favorite new phrase. Painfully prophetic, yet funny enough to make me embarrass myself by laughing aloud in public. Kim, as is typically the case, your commentary oozes with wisdom and depth. You've put your finger on one of the banes of the Church, yet without claiming the role of the "strong" brother over against the "weak."

For my part, your reaction to "retail chaplaincy" has reminded me of what I take to be this sad phenomenon's instantiation in my own mainline denomination. Our particular knee-bow to the marketplace comes (at least) by way of massive pension plans which, I have to believe, have done more in recent decades to keep our doors open for business than has God himself.

The great irony, for me at least, is that this very lament serves to reinforce my understanding of (or perhaps, my need/desire for) God's great providence, which in turn keeps me put, denominationally speaking. As usual, Paul said it best (or, at the very least, the man new where to look for a good quote):

Ὦ βάθος πλούτου
καὶ σοφίας καὶ γνώσεως θεοῦ·
ὡς ἀνεξεραύνητα τὰ κρίματα αὐτοῦ
καὶ ἀνεξιχνίαστοι αἱ ὁδοὶ αὐτοῦ.
τίς γὰρ ἔγνω νοῦν κυρίου;
ἢ τίς σύμβουλος αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο;

roger flyer said...

It's Greek to me, but if you're referring to my 401 k, ha ha.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Spot on, Kim!

Theo said...

Maybe the shoppers are poor in spirit...

roger flyer said...

Exactly DW Funkhauser (Great name by the way!--if it's not a nom de plume, it should be!)

As Gob Bluth would say from Arrested Development... (shallow American sitcom, early mid 2000's)

Rubber nipple therapy? OK. We're a mess and we need help.

I get your high view, but really COME ON! Look at us! We're a mess.
I know you're 'concerned' but does God loves us or is He just plain mad?

I'd like to see you in action in my hometown mall (the Mall of America)
as they haul you off in chains for protesting Banana Republic's latest sale.

Anonymous said...

so, is it it now the standard theological orthodoxy to be anti-shopping. Give me a break - a mall is evil. I do hope you don't shop yourself.

P.S. fascinating, really. Theologians are for the poor and anti-shopping - but the first people hurt when the economy collapses and people do stop shopping is the same poor that the church is so interested in helping. But of course, don't expect theologians to offer any actual workable rhetoric. Doesn't matter whether or not an idea is effective, as long as it is 'trendy'

roger flyer said...

Come forth anonymous. Show us your face. You have nothing to lose amidst these gracious and grace-filled Christians...?

Fat said...

But of course, don't expect theologians to offer any actual workable rhetoric.

Anon - it is theology which leads me to the position that this Jesus fellow really was God right here among us.

Since this Jesus was concerned with the plight of the poor and the downtrodden we are shown that God is also concerned with the plight of the poor and the downtrodden.

Theology leads me to the position that followers of Christ should follow his teaching and his example so it also follows that we should be likewise concerned with the plight of the poor and the downtrodden.

I think the theologans have been doing their work and whether it is trendy or no our response based on our understanding of who Jesus is and what He did (our theology) should bring from Christians a real concern for the world - I don't believe you can be a passive observer.

Anonymous said...

Sure, but if you were concerned about the poor, you probably would not be interested in stopping people shopping. To do so is mere rhetoric. What is the point of saying, "lets help the poor" - when the way you say you intend to do that (railing against shopping) would actually contribute to poverty. But of course, don't expect a theologian to be willing to engage with the actual practical insights of economics.

By the way - i will keep my anonymity. There is nothing more intollerant than a liberal.

roger flyer said...

mmmm...I get the anonymous bit, then.

But I think your 'stripes' might be showing here.

Don't you think liberal theologians have engaged with actual practical insights of economics?! Liberation theologians?

Shane said...

"actual practical insights of economics?! Liberation theologians?"

A dash of marxism does not an insightful economist make. This is like saying that intelligent designer apologists have utilized the actual practical insights of biology.

roger flyer said...

Wrong headed, right?

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