Hugh Baker explains why the modern quest for perfection, inspired by consumerism, is a misguided attempt at achieving happiness and is incompatible with Christian values
I recently asked my congregation which TV programme they would ban, if they could. I am heartened to tell you that Eastenders easily came top of the list, followed at some distance by X Factor. No one voted for my least favourite programme, maybe because they aren’t so sad that they watch daytime television. Top of my hit list is Escape to the Country.
A word of explanation to those of you unacquainted with this broadcast: a Gushing Presenter begins thus, ‘Simeon and Jocasta have only an £850,000 budget as they seek to escape the big city’s rat race and find a quiet rural retreat – within an hour’s commuting time of Simeon’s job in London.’ Scene thus set, the restless pair are shown round three or so houses of such opulence that one of Jane Austen’s incumbents would be overcome by their grandeur. Rarely do they end up actually buying any of the rustic palaces on offer. Things may be going reasonably well until they arrive at the kitchen, at which point Jocasta throws up her hands in horror and proclaims, T couldn’t possibly live with those awful blue tiles! And look at those kitchen units! They must be all of three years old! Get me out of this tastefully designed five bedroom secluded yet not isolated executive retreat, before I become insensible with nausea!’
The gods of consumption
David Lyons Grace and Truth in the Secular Age tells us, ‘Where once Westerners might have found their identity, their social togetherness and ongoing life of their society in the area of production, these are today increasingly found through consumption.’
My mind instantly went to Doug, an old man I inherited here nearly twenty years ago. Then recently widowed, he wasn’t handling it, so not infrequently I would drop in to see him. Whatever we talked about, he would invariably mention his chief cause of pride: he never shovelled less than thirty-two tons of coal a shift. Poor, unlettered, unexceptional, his self-worth came from powers of production.
The pits he worked at are, of course, long closed. What do we have in their place? Why, the gods of consumption. The pantheon we now worship are those who, by whatever means, have money
to spend; Posh and Becks, Wayne and Coleen, celebrities, television personalities…it matters not whether they are upright, faithful in marriage, or decent in behaviour or language.. .if they qualify for an appearance in OK! magazine, they are part of the magic circle of beautiful people whom the rest of us, gazing longingly from outside the party’s windows, are meant to want to copy.
Mission-shaped Church expands on this theme by quoting Gabriel and Lang’s The Unmanageable Consumer: ‘Choice lies at the centre of consumerism, both as its emblem and core value.’
The good life, in consumerism, is you doing what you want to do; and how do you do what you want to do? You gain money, by whatever means. Never mind ethical means of (say) banking and finance; forget Prudence (well, we have, seemingly). As for ‘the hope of his calling, and…the riches of the glory of his inheritance’, that has disappeared off the screen of our consciousness. The proposed British Humanist Association bus poster message ‘There’s probably no God’ has long registered, in practical terms, in The Way We Live Now, and the message’s implications – ‘Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ – have been faithfully followed by the winners and the losers in the resulting debtfest, in which we have been competing with Simeon and Jocasta in the race towards unending economic growth and the Good Things of Enjoyment.
There is a strangely isolationist perfectionism that consumerism breeds. Since having things is the source of happiness, the hope is that happiness lies in having more, or better (for better, sometimes just read ‘different’) things. Thus Jocasta’s horror at kitchen tiles of an unsuitable hue: the girl needs to tell herself that she will be happy, if only she can bend the cosmos (or at least, the little bit of it she wants to wind round her soul as her personal scenery, hopefully screening herself from anything painful or ugly in the world beyond it) to her will. The hope of consumerist happiness comes from the hope of change; and so it is founded in choice.
I can change my world…I can change my husband and get another one; I can change the baby growing inside me into a corpse; and so on. Any corporate good is sacrificed to individual choice. Not that ‘choice’ is opposed to ‘religion’, you understand. I can build my own personal religion, justifying and nurturing my choices. The church (if any) of my choice will contain convenient co-believers who have made the same choices as me: we continually tell ourselves we must be right.
For the Consumer, only the perfect will do; perhaps because it is unobtainable, and in his heart he can only keep hope of happiness alive by imagining how life will be, once he has redecorated and replaced the carpets.. .again. The strength of Christianity is this: it does not, in this frame of things, expect the perfect. It is willing to live with an imperfect spouse, an imperfect church, an imperfect society.
The Christian lacks the drive to be compulsively changing things: firstly, because he regards the prospect of total happiness, in this vale of tears, to be a chimera of potentially Stalinesque consequences; secondly, because he believes that Jesus is Lord, and knows he should not question the place that Lord has put him in his army’s deployment; thirdly, he expects strength from the Holy Spirit to be able simply to get on with things.
Faced with the perfectionist demands of Consumerism, the average parish church can feel defeated by its inability to deliver anything more than the mundane. Powerless to reproduce the slick, money-flooded extravaganzas of televised competition, it can only offer ordinary, sometimes disheartened, people struggling to keep afloat a ship which looks likely to founder on the tides of society’s indifference. It is, however, real. We can only hope and pray that, in whatever form, it gains the strength to offer our nation a creative alternative to fantasy.