“If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Tim 6:8) So said the apostle Paul, speaking for himself and not many western Christians. In our defence, in a later letter he asked for reading and writing materials.
There was another round of this familiar tussle when Deb and I worked out what to put on our wedding gift list. Regardless of your perspective on big fat gypsy weddings, to get married is to invite rampant capitalism into your life. I’m surprised the government hasn’t done more to promote marriage as a means of kick-starting the economy because there is clearly so much money to be made from it. Even breathing the word ‘wedding’ in some shops makes them double all their prices. We’ve done fairly well (we think) in avoiding many of the cash-splash traps by spending a lot of our budget on food and entertainment for our guests, and ignoring enticements that begin ‘Don’t forget to treat yourself...’. But the gift list is about things for us, so how could we escape materialism here?
Before we went to the department store, we took stock of the things we already have and tried to keep as many of them as we could. We like the plates I got from Ikea when I moved in to my own place, so we haven’t asked for new ones. We’ll keep using the 15-year-old TV my parents passed on to me until someone makes us a better offer. Here we felt free from the claws of consumerism and looked with pity on those spending their time in agonising in the glassware. If we have something that holds our drinks, we will be content.
But then suddenly I stumbled into my blind spot, where luxury became necessity and the logic of my arguments was obvious only to myself. The freedom from stuff I supposed I have is perhaps just a facade: having laughed at the credulity of others I was now doing the same thing. For me it’s kitchen tools. My Sainsbury’s saucepans lasted ten years, an excellent effort; I’d like the next set to last thirty so I’ve asked for some that are a little pricier. The best kitchen knife I’ve ever used cost as much as a whole range of its ‘value’ equivalent but it does the job so much better than they could. Here’s the sneaking angle I take: I try never to waste money but here it feels like spending less would be wasteful! ‘Buy cheap, buy twice.’ Unchecked, this attitude creeps elsewhere, though I remain confident that the glassware sales team will never celebrate the day I came to the store.
I can see the traps so easily when they are a designer label on clothes, why can’t I when they’re on baking trays? Deb is more clear-sighted here than I am, so embarrassment and materialism has largely been avoided, I hope. If we have food, clothing, books, a roof over our heads, and each other, we will be content. Usually.
All of which sounds pathetically trivial in comparison to the immense things that Christians are supposed to wrestle with. Except that the Bible is very concerned with wealth and what we do with what we’ve been given. The quote I started with is from one of the many discussions about money – Jesus has more to say on this issue than He does about sex, not that you’d know it from the amount of attention those two topics are given by many of His followers. What we do with money is an indicator of what we’re really like, that’s why it’s important. If lavishing money on myself is normal and giving to others is abnormal, then there must be a fault somewhere inside. The desperate tactics used by companies to persuade me to give them money must either have fooled me or more likely pandered to a tendency that was already there.
Phil Whittall is graciously relentless on this subject, as his blog and this article demonstrate.
Much less gracious or hopeful, and with much more swearing, Charlie Brooker’s How TV ruined your life: Aspiration is one of the best and most awful things I’ve watched in ages. (Only available until 19th February.)