by Emily Hill
Quite often our journeys with God take us to unexpected places.
About five years ago I quit a successful corporate marketing career to go back to graduate school and study theology and social justice. The sudden change in my life circumstances—including income level and perceived societal standing—combined with my studies led me to a painful conclusion: my life and faith were much more influenced by American ideals and culture than they were by the life of Christ and witness of the church in history.
Unfortunately, our culture is often simply the air we breathe. We don’t notice all the ways it affects us, nor do we consider all the underlying values and assumptions it carries. We need to stop, extract ourselves from our culture for a moment, and examine it to see how it actually fits with our faith.
One particular aspect of American life that needs to be investigated more fully is economics. I know—stick with me.
In God We Trust?
The experience of quitting what I sometimes refer to as my “old life” and beginning a new area of study was the start of a new journey which has led me to pursue the intersection of theology and economics. I have a prior education in economics, so it is an interest area for me on its own—but ultimately I chose to study it further because I think it’s an issue that matters for all Christians as we work out what it means to follow Christ.
You can tell a lot about who our god really is based on where we place our trust and expectation.
The market has become an idol in America.
Theologian Harvey Cox deftly analyzed how the language of the markets, as described in the news and throughout the business world, has taken on god-like characteristics, including omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. He writes, “The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament—not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must be universally accepted and who allows for no pretenders.” Cox’s analysis, combined with my own experience and study of the issue, led me to realize that the market has become an idol in America. And, as James K.A. Smith has pointed out, we are formed by our worship—even when we don’t know that we’re doing it.
Economics is more than statistics, the stock market, or The Wall Street Journal. In our culture, the truth and rationality of the market is natural and self-evident. We talk about what the market thinks, how it will react, how to act according to its logic, and we depend on it to provide for us and make decisions about our lives. It affects how we are motivated, our personal desires, how we value others, and the relationships we have with our neighbors, both locally and globally.
Theologian Daniel M. Bell has analyzed how capitalism distorts desires that should properly be directed toward God—it forms our view of ourselves, others, and God in a way that conflicts with God’s intention for humanity.
We Become Commodities
Let me give some concrete examples. One of the ads that frequently circulates in my Facebook feed is for BestSelf Co. The company sells tools to help increase productivity. OK, that’s not all bad; some of us can use more structure and guidance to help us get things done. However, their mission statement says: “We are BestSelf Co, human performance junkies who translate the success, strategies, and habits of high performance into meaningful yet simple tools that will guide you to become your Best Self.”
I’m pretty sure that’s not how God sees us or hopes that we see ourselves.
William Cavanaugh describes the formative power of consumerism as a “type of spirituality…a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people” that contrasts with how the Christian tradition teaches us to find meaning, identity, and connection.
They say my identity
is based on my consumption.
As another example, take a recent advertising campaign from Delta Airlines entitled Keep Climbing. Delta’s advertising agency describes one of the campaign's TV spots “4 AM” as embodying “the spirit of its customers and their determination to venture out into the world and take ownership of opportunities every day.” On the surface, this appears as simply a positive, motivational message along the lines of BestSelf Co: carpe diem. However, the intention of this messaging is to cause me to identify qualities in Delta with qualities I possess (or wish to possess) and to express myself by flying Delta. In this way, my identity is constructed based on my consumption. In addition, the imagery in the commercial, along with the message Keep Climbing, distinctly encourages the idea of upward mobility, calling me to measure my success in life against this standard.
The idea that my “best self” is found in ever higher levels of work and productivity is rooted in the organization of our economy. Under contemporary capitalism (often referred to as neoliberalism) there is a focus on competitive enterprise and individual responsibility, with life oriented around the market. In this scenario, humans become self-entrepreneurs, making their way according to their own means, ability, and resources in a competitive marketplace; the self becomes a constant project of creating and development. As individuals investing in our own capital in a competitive marketplace, we ultimately become focused on our own saleability.
In other words, we ourselves become commodities. Zygmunt Bauman writes that while increasing one’s saleable market value includes a focus on gaining skills and education, one must also demonstrate membership in the society of consumers. “Becoming and remaining a sellable commodity” is what Bauman identifies as “the most potent motive of consumer concerns, even if it is usually latent and seldom conscious, let alone explicitly declared.” Regarding this motivation, he writes, “Let us note, making oneself, not just becoming, is the challenge and the task.”
Pursuing Life = Pursuing God
An economy oriented this way, and the marketing it employs, sends me a message: just keep trying to make yourself a little better, a little faster, a little richer. It encourages self-creation, self-justification, and transcendence in continual progress that never delivers. But my identity is not based on what I do, what I achieve, or what transportation I choose; it is in Christ alone.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:5-7). As followers of Christ, we are called to bear witness to the reality that our identity and hope are secured and our truest freedom and fullness of life is found in taking the form of Christ.
Our truest freedom & fullness of life
is in taking the form of Christ.
Trust me, I haven’t figured this out yet. We can’t escape the market. Even though it’s not “natural” or created by God, it is nonetheless a reality we find ourselves in. Of course, to trust God for my identity and not measure myself according to productivity doesn’t mean food and money are just going to fall from the sky. Perhaps one simple thing we can do is to thoughtfully consider how to treat those we interact with and come in contact with on a daily basis as actual humans—not the means to an end. Have a conversation with the cashier at the store rather than treating them like a robot who is only meant to give us our change.
I think learning to live more like Christ is less like coming up with principles to live by and more a process of coming to terms with the ways in which the world is not quite the way it seems on the surface. It means continually returning to Christ and orienting our lives in worship of Him alone. Ultimately, as the logic of commerce invades our lives, we must pray for the ability to discern a truly good word from God so that He can direct us in the way of life. While the American Dream calls us to the pursuit of a better future on our own terms, Psalm 119:33-37 reminds us that to pursue life is to pursue God in His Word:
Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
that I may follow it to the end.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.
posted on March 5, 2018
Meet the Author:
Emily Hill is a former marketing research consultant turned theologian. She is currently working on her PhD in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen. She loves hiking, cooking, music, This is Us, her nephew Caleb (and probably a few other people!). She is passionate about helping Christians incorporate economics into their discipleship. Though she spends most of her time writing for her PhD, she occasionally blogs and tweets.