The Gospel Unledded

The Gospel Unledded

70s rock behemoth, Led Zeppelin had no greater track than Stairway to Heaven. Indeed, so secure is its position at the apex of rock music that many radio polls on the greatest rock music of all time frequently exclude it from consideration simply because the battle is really for second place. In the seventies and eighties, it was also the track which many Christians regarded as absolutely anathema, with portentous lyrics that were allegedly Satanic. In fact, I would submit that the lyrics, while portentous, were on the whole meaningless drivel: but when combined with Robert Plant's voice, Jimmy Page's blistering guitar solo, John `Bonzo' Bonham's thunderously raw drumming, and John Paul Jones's all-round musicianship, the results set the bar so high that no other band - with the possible exception of The Who (my aesthetic prejudices showing through) - has ever come close.

While I regard the `Satanic verses' idea as a classic example of evangelical paranoia about pop culture, I would like to suggest that the generally meanignless lyrics do, perhaps inadvertently, touch on something deeply heretical and damaging in modern society. This is seen in the opening lines: `There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold / And she's buying a stairway to heaven.' It's this `buying a stairway to heaven' that is, I think, so interesting. How does one do this?

Probably most of us have come across those who lament the crass materialism of the present age. The money that is ploughed into the advertising industry, the houses that are full of good no-one needs or uses, the cars that get bigger and flashier - all of these things speak of how buying-power and the acquisition of goods is a significant part of modern Western culture and has come to inform and structure the way we lead our lives, the ways in which we perceive hierarchies and values. Some will also have reflected on the religious dimension of this. It is interesting, after all, to note how often shopping malls and supermarkets have an almost temple-like design and look, from the outside, like giant places of worship; indeed, the maverick Marxist intellectual, Walter Benjamin, was already making this point relative to the Parisian arcades in the early twentieth century; and it is often said that the compulsive need to accumulate goods indicates a spiritual void and longing at the heart of modern men and women. And this, one might add, is sometimes given an optimistic spin whereby this longing is seen as a genuine, if misguided, reaching out for something transcendent, or at least as an acknowledgment of the incomplete and unsatisfying nature of modern Western society.

I want to offer an equally speculative, but somewhat more pessimistic, interpretation of this compulsively acquisitive materialism. You see, the problem seems to me that, if it is the accumulation of stuff that is the significant thing, then the more stuff you have, the less will be your need to acquire. The compulsion will slowly but surely be satiated. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case: the more you accumulate, the greater is your need to acquire. I saw a TV chat show recently where a woman - a wealthy, professional woman - had had her life ruined by spending 10 to 12 hours a day online shopping.

What was it that drove her to such lunacy? She didn't need any of the stuff she bought; it fulfilled no need; and most of it lay around her house unopened in the packages in which it had been delivered; and yet she continued day after day, night after night, in her insane and insatiable purchasing, destroying her finances, her marriage and, arguably, her life. No, it was not accumulation that gave her satisfaction; it was the `hit', the `buzz', the `high' she obtained from the very act of purchasing; and, like some high she might have obtained from crack cocaine, the effects were only temporary, and when they had worn off, she needed to cut another deal, spend some more, in order to replicate the thrill.

But why does shopping give such a high? If it's not the ultimate accumulation that gives the buzz, what is it? The answer: the illusion of divine power which the act of buying brings with it. I cannot prove this; it is, if you like, a piece of speculation; but as a theory, it makes sense of the evidence as I see it in a way that is impossible for any account of shopaholism or manic consumerism which focuses on the goods accumulated. Every time I buy something, I come as close to making myself god as I can. I take a piece of intrinsically worthless plastic and use it to generate a pulse down a fibre-optic cable that turns into a book, a car, a house. I transubstantiate a piece of paper into silver or gold. I wave a $100 bill in a restaurant, and others come running to do my every bidding. In each case, for a brief moment, I fool myself into thinking that I am at the very least a priest who can use divine power as he wills; at best a god, master of the universe, the one who proposes, disposes, creates and sustains at his own will.

The idea is not dissimilar to Pascal's notion of distraction as he expresses it in the Pensées. There, he argues that entertainment for those who have no real and immediate worries is a means of avoiding the terrifying reality of their own mortality. `It is easier,' he says `to put up with death without thinking about it, than with the idea of death when there is no danger of it.' In my theory of consumption, the act of buying itself is a form of distraction, indeed, the ultimate form of distraction in that it not only distracts the consumer from the question of mortality; it also attempts to fool the consumer into thinking that he or she is not only immortal, but even divine.

What are the implications of this theory? Well, it offers the church a critical perspective on the consumer-driven behaviour we see in society around us. Two implications seem immediately obvious. First, it would seem that we need to turn on its head any attempt to see the rampant buying of goods as some sign of spiritual yearning within individuals, and thus, in a strange sense, as a point of contact or hope for the church with the fallen world. What we see is not a rootless, valueless world crying out for meaning; but rather the latest manifestation of the age old problem. How did the serpent tempt Eve in the garden? By offering her the chance to be like God. And that is what out-of-control consumerism offers its willing victims.

Second, when the mentality of consumer-driven behaviour, social and economic, is put in this context, the church must surely not capitulate her prophetic role by accommodating to such idolatrous narcissism but rather speak out firmly against it. And what I mean by this is that she should not so much preach against greedy materialism and excessive accumulation (though this should be done as and when necessary); but she should dare to be the church, and allow the Word of God to set her agenda, to shape her worship, and to inform her message. As soon as she makes the mistake of playing the consumer game, and of offering her wares simply as goods to be bought in a competitive market place, she has failed to see that the powerful thrills in modern society come not from the goods bought but from the buying itself. The appeal of Christianity packaged and sold as one product among others will be as fleeting and as ephemeral as the buzz from buying a new car, or the hit from a sniff of crack cocaine. When churches start (literally, in some cases) to look like shopping malls, they have lost the plot; they have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of modern consumerism, seeing it as a value-neutral form of social behaviour; and lost the ability to critique culture while yet standing within it. They have become not so much places to worship God as sad participants in the oldest profession of them all.

A Brief Postscript on Zen Calvinism

Thank you to all who wrote inquiring further about Zen Calvinism in the light of last month's column. Unfortunately, there is little literature I can recommend for further reading, though I am hopeful that the scholarly bibliography will grow over coming years. In the meantime, I am pleased to acknowledge that a stimulating and challenging critique of my position is soon to be offered by my old friend and former university colleague, Martin Kenunu, whom I regard as the ultimate postmodern theologian (for reasons too complicated to explain here). He tells me that his argument is that Zen Calvinism, in its claim to some form of truth which transcends the words used to express it, is hopelessly in thrall to Cartesian and modernist frames of reference and represents a perversion and betrayal of premodern Christianity. His position is to be laid out in detail in a forthcoming book, Now and Zen: Why the Church Must Embrace Post-Zen Calvinism. It will, I am sure, be a must-read for all post-conservative evangelicals out there who I know are eager to join in the conversation.