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Commercial Calendar is Changing Our Identity

In Christ and Culture on November 29, 2014 at 8:17 pm

CalendarIt’s the first Sunday of Advent and I hope we are going to light the candles again this year. There is something cool about doing something that has its origins in the Middle Ages. I recently re-read Desiring the Kingdom by Calvin philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith. In it he says that rituals are very important because they shape who we are. For some reason repetition affects us very deeply–on the level of our identity.

Advent is the beginning of the church calendar. It is a time of expectation. It commemorates the hope that God’s people had for the Messiah, but it also reminds us that we, too, are waiting for Jesus. The Advent season reminds us that we are people of expectant waiting–that this world is not all that there is and it’s not as good as it gets. There’s more, much more, in store for us.

Christmas Day, when we celebrate the Incarnation, is our next stop on the church calendar.   It is an incredible thing that the material world was visited by the transcendent God. God has bridged the huge chasm that separates us from himself.

Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, and prayer as a way of preparing our hearts for Easter. This is often accomplished by “giving something up.” The idea here is that some form of deprivation helps us to attend more deeply to the sin in our lives and our need for salvation. A keen awareness of these can make participation in a Good Friday and Easter Sunday services very profound.

These are just the highlights. The traditional church calendar celebrates the Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Assumption, and more. The annual remembrance of these events is a ritual in itself, and these have shaped the people of God for centuries.

How might the rituals surrounding these important events in the church calendar have any formative influence on our identities? According to Smith, rituals aren’t just something we do, they do something to us. When we celebrated these annual events, we understand ourselves as sinners in need of salvation; we know ourselves to wait expectantly for something better, and that this something better is the person of Jesus Christ; and we know that we are beloved. Our “knowledge” of these things is not on a cognitive level, says Smith. It is a knowledge that resides in our bones.

Many Christians don’t really follow the liturgical calendar and are therefore not being shaped by it, but this does not mean they are not being shaped by rituals. There is another calendar that dominates our culture and it, too, is filled with repeated activities–it is the commercial calendar.

The commercial calendar does not begin with waiting, but receiving, immediately. (Well, almost immediately; you usually have to wait till the 25th to get your stuff.) Christmas is the most important shopping season of the commercial calendar. Where the center of the church calendar is God made flesh, the high priest of the commercial Christmas is Santa Claus who models a generosity that, for those of us without a workshop of elves, must be preceded by purchases. Not only do we buy gifts, we buy wrapping paper and bows, ornaments to dress our trees and homes, and enough meat to feed a non-Western family for a year. Out national economy is dependent on these weeks (months) of spending. And the day after we celebrate all our purchases, we go out (in Canada at least) to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales and buy more things.

The next significant event on the commercial calendar is Valentine’s Day. We celebrate romantic love through the purchase of a card, roses, chocolates, and dinner with Champaign.  At Easter, too, we have a list of ritual purchases–if not Easter dresses, then certainly chocolate bunnies and eggs, and, my personal favourites, Peeps. The stores have sales to encourage our consumption on or around each of our national holidays. And in August we engage in the annual ritual of Back-to-School shopping–not just for paper and pencils, but for a new wardrobe as well.  As soon as school starts the Thanksgiving and Halloween related products and sales are advertised, and then we arrive at American Thanksgiving.  This is the holiday where Americans give thanks by fighting over “door crasher” televisions.  This holiday is important to Canadians as well because merchants north of the border must offer Black Thursday Sales to compete with the American rock bottom prices that kick off the commercial Christmas season.

Rituals shape who we are. Which are the more powerful rituals in our culture? The consumer calendar is adding new rituals all the time–Presidents Day Clearance Sale!? The church calendar is down to about two events, and even then most Christians we are engaged in commercial rituals at the same time.

What is a human being? A beloved creature, helpless in sin, but saved by a loving heavenly father? Or a consumer that finds comfort an meaning in consumption? Even if we think (or even believe) it is the former, before long we will know deep in our bones that we are, in fact, the latter. This is the power of ritual.

Zombies and Consumer culture

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Zombie consumerThat the zombie is a reflections of modern man is apparent in Romero’s second installment of his zombie narratives, Dawn of the Dead (1978), where he “offers us a glimpse of a universe in which all spiritual values have been replaced by our awareness of the material realities of the corporeal and consumerism” (Russel 94-95).

In the beginning of Dawn of the Dead, heavily armed police are unable to evacuate residents and remove zombies from an apartment complex.  It is clear that government authority is breaking down along with all other social institutions.  In the face of complete social breakdown, the would-be-survivors seek solace in the modern spiritual temple—the shopping mall.

They find the mall occupied by animated corpses, the ultimate consumers, wandering aimlessly from shop to shop, apparently as unaware of each other as the crowds of shoppers on a normal day.  One puzzled survivor asks, “What are they doing?  Where are they going?”  These questions underscore the otherness of the zombies, but the reply from another survivor shatters the barrier between the self and the other: “They’re us” (Dawn).   The undead are just doing what they used to do in an important place in their lives, directed by the residues of memory and instinct.”  Romero is explicit; consumer culture is a culture of zombies.  Botting points out that the zombie/consumer “identification is reinforced by shots of survivors exchanging looks with zombies through shop windows, one group the mirror of another (Botting [in Gothic Science Fiction 1980 –
2010
] 48). 

So strong is the consumer impulse in the protagonists that, after clearing the mall of the undead, the survivors attempt to recreate and inhabit a pre-zombie world of consumerism.  They take advantage of all the material pleasures that the shopping mall offers.   Gradually, the ideal suburban home that they have created—including a TV that stays on, although it broadcasts only static—becomes not just a “safe haven,” but a “gilded cage” (Murphy 88); the material boon “is underwritten by emptiness as they lapse into frustration, bickering, anxiety and dissatisfaction” (Botting 49).  After deconstructing all sources of fullness in Night of the Living Dead, in Dawn of the Dead, Romero turns his critical lens on the consumerism on which society relies to cope with the lack of meaning in modern society.  The line between zombie and human is blurred as the undead are shown to be caricatures of the living.

Next zombie post: The Human Monster

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Celebrating Diversity?

In Rants on July 1, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I was settling down to watch the 2012 Euro Cup final and a McDonald’s commercial came on.  Have you seen this one?  Watch video

It is clearly exploiting the international flavor of the football tournament.  An American hipster approaches an exotically attired man on the street of some faraway land and says, “Excuse me.”  The response of the addressed indicates that no communication is possible for, being exotic, the man speaks no English.  The commercial cuts to various international locales and a variety of characters –old and young, male and female, rich and poor—being asked a question in English, but none can help the hipster.  The American’s question is, “McDonald’s?”   Then we begin to see a comprehension that transcends mere words.  The music swells as the barriers of language fall and the joy of a more profound commonality is celebrated.  These people from all over the world understand and point with beaming faces in the direction of the malapropos site – the common experience of humanity, it seems, is the McDonald’s experience.

This ad shows us, in very positive terms, the variety found in the world’s cultures.  But at its root, the philosophy of McDonald’s undermines difference.

In the 1960s, McDonald’s told us that we could eat the same hamburger anywhere in the United States.   This is just one key to McDonalds’ success, however.  What is truly remarkable is that they were able to convince us that sameness was a good thing.  We have been so thoroughly convinced of the necessity culinary uniformity that we will pass by unique and far better tasting hamburgers in order to buy one more of the billions and billions of inexpensive and identical sandwiches.

One of the things I most love about Europe is that you can walk past two bakeries within a few blocks of one another and enjoy a different lunch.  What both meals share is quality: the bread is fresh, the cheese is local and the pig that is in the sausage was raised on a nearby farm and not in pork a factory a thousand miles away.  This variety is in the same block and there are innumerable blocks in innumerable towns all across Europe.

. . . crossing (maintaining) the line between sameness and difference

The new McDonald’s commercial celebrates the diversity in our world, yet, the corporation intends to do to the world what it’s done to America—indeed, it is doing it right now.  I’d like to think that it won’t succeed—that maybe one of the differences between our culture and the rest is that they don’t value efficiency and monotony over artistry and uniqueness.   Sadly, I don’t think this is true.

If you agree with McDonald’s that cultural diversity is something to celebrate, then take the next step and oppose McDonald’s cultural homogenization strategy–instead cultural diversity by never eating at McDonald’s again.