The culture of consumption ranks as one of the main challenges that Christian faith confronts today. Therefore, this timely essay written by a Catholic theologian is very welcome. The book is devoted entirely to the rescue of religious experience from the destructive influence of consumerism, with the help of the best analytic and critical tools.
The central thesis, which the author repeats throughout the book, is that the impact of consumer culture on religious life goes further than has previously been thought, and determines in a negative way any communication of faith. The process reproduces in the religious realm the same tendencies that belong to the generic consumerist behavior: commodification (or taking religious elements as products to satisfy one's needs and desires), abstraction (or disentangling religious symbols from their roots in living communities and traditions in order to become shallow and meaningless), and fragmentation (or the loss of coherence of the many signifiers that belong to a religious tradition). As a consequence, religious elements or symbols are perceived as "floating goods", which become available and desirable, and are subjected to the mechanisms of the market: supply, demand, and publicity promotion. One of the consequences of this dynamic is the shocking incoherence associated with "religious consumerism" containing elements critical of capitalism, while reinforciong at the same time these structures through advocacy of consumption. Even dissent can become a "commodity" (18).
The revision of the consumerist culture is articulated around several nuclei. First, a detailed sociological analysis of the cultural configuration, referring to the most important sources in the field of Cultural Studies, followed by a description of the main facets of "consumption religion". The author sees even the new theology as affected by these dynamics, being submitted to the "market of ideas". Religious elements become "floating cultural items" available for consumption (84). This chapter includes an analysis of the displacements suffered by religious messages and their protagonists, as they enter into the logic of the media. There is a further chapter devoted to the phenomenology of desire, fundamental to the consumerist culture, and how it is cultivated in order to "produce desire". It is interesting to note how the consumerist desire displaces, in a secularized environment, religious expectations and transcendent desire. Two shorter chapters follow, dealing with the "politics of consumption" and with "popular religion in consumer culture". The first reminds us, with the help of Bourdieu and M. de Certeau, of the various levels of agency found among consumers, resulting in the practice of "bricolage". The chapter devoted to popular religiosity applies the ideas of agency to the development of new religious expressions, a creative processes able to select and combine elements from different traditions in order to create living theologies and praxis.
The book concludes with a more prescriptive chapter; a proposal of strategies to cope with the challenges described in the preceding chapters. The same consumer culture provides some solutions after revealing the fissures that allow for broader engagement and an effective rescue of the Christian identity. The proposed strategies aim at recovering the pro-activism of the religious experience as a lived guide, and at overcoming the reduction of religious elements to commodities submitted to individual tastes. The author suggests tactics embedded in three ecclesial scenarios: theology, the liturgy and "alternative communication and organizational structures". These are important, linking people again to their original traditions and communities, also connecting doctrines and symbols with lived practices (particularly in the liturgy). The aim is to "strengthen popular agency" (209), and to revise the relationship between clergy and laity, in order to impart greater agency to the laity.
Miller's book is, at this time, the best available analysis of the impact of consumer culture on Christian faith and practice. His skillful familiarity with the tools of cultural studies, and their application to the study of religion in a consumer age, makes this essay one of the best examples of inter-disciplinary methodology in the theological field. Perhaps the only thing lacking is the empirical data needed to verify the real impact of consumerism on religious practice, and the effect of true popular religion in its struggle for religious identity. Of course, more debate is needed in order to ascertain the value of the strategies described, especially since a dualism is implied by the proposed program: the call to a faithful return to tradition on the one hand,and the invitation to creativity, on the other. Indeed, it is hard to maintain the best aspects of both worlds.