Originally published in 1981, this is the second revised and updated edition of Kavanaugh’s critique of America’s addiction to and adoration of all the things money can buy. In the preface to this edition (xlvi), the author confesses that he has “somehow gotten more patient with the world and more forgiving of our culture.” If by this he means that he has attempted to tone down his criticism of the consumer society, it’s clear that he has not watered it down. But there’s more to the book than critique. It also offers an antidote, as evidenced by the subtitle: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistence.
The book is divided into two parts: The Commodity Form and The Personal Form. The use of the word form suggests a form or way of life which, according to the author, is revealed by two antithetical and competing “gospels” or “books of revelation” as well as the cultures they inform.
The gospel of the Commodity Form is proclaimed by our consumer society. Its message is that the worth of persons is to be measured by their marketability and productivity. Persons have no intrinsic worth. They are in fact things just like the all the other things advertisers tell them they must have to be happy and fulfilled. As gospel, it discloses ultimate reality: possessions and a value system: hedonism. Believers in this gospel and its form of life are self-loathing (too fat, too thin, too unattractive) and because they cannot accept their worth and worthiness of love, they avoid meaningful relationships and commitments, preferring instead to fill the personal void with a display of power they achieve from their possessions. Hence the addiction and the idolatry.
The gospel of the Personal Form is the Gospel of Jesus Christ whose revelation was not just the disclosure of God, but also God’s disclosure of what it means to be authentically human. Kavanaugh sees this gospel as counter-cultural and revolutionary in that it values men and women “as irreplaceable persons whose fundamental identities are fulfilled in covenantal relationships. (75)” The culture envisioned by this gospel, the author asserts, is in conflict with–indeed subverts–American culture. The hallmarks of the Personal Form are illustrated nicely by the example of the hypothetical middle-class mother of three and her pattern of life which he says can be applied to all believers who want to resist the commodity fetish (179-190). She will: experience her interior poverty and God’s unconditional love for her in prayer; find her deepest self revealed in the relationships she fosters inside and outside her family; live as simple a life as she can; demonstrate her commitment to social justice teaching by committing herself to the work of a group or organization; embrace in a personal way the wounded and marginalized by visiting the sick and dying and attending to the needs of the poor, the lonely and all those the Commodity Form deems expendable.
Readers will find the two column comparison of the Commodity Form and the Personal Form helpful (124-126). It serves as a useful summary of Kavanaugh’s thesis in that it illustrates the contrasting values and behaviors of what he calls “thinghood” which characterizes the former and “personhood” which is characteristic of the latter. Readers will also appreciate the extensive annotated bibliography (205-232) which Kavanaugh expanded and updated since the publication of the 1991 revised edition of the book.
Though he can be somewhat repetitive, Kavanaugh serves up rich fare for anyone who grapples with the perennial question of the relationship between Christ and culture or with questions about what counts most for being a human person. The book is particularly well suited for courses in ethics, Christian anthropology and spirituality. I have assigned the second edition in my Christian anthropology course for several years with a caveat for students: “This is a book you’ll either love or hate.” I’ll keep caveat when assigning the 25th anniversary edition with the assurance that however they respond to Kavanaugh’s reading of what ails our society, the book will provoke much needed debate and discussion, perhaps now more than it did twenty-five years ago.