A Meditation on Shopping and Desire

Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of choice. —Dave Barry

I love to shop. This questionable passion led me to write a book on shopping. I will also confess, like any good Catholic, that guilt is a motivator here as well. Plagued by a consumerist culture that defines our worth and value by what we spend, yet informed by a Christian ethical vision that attempts to undermine that very ideology, I sought to reconcile the two.

In addition, shopping is something that unites all of humanity—it is essential to our survival. But there is a significant difference between shopping for food and shopping for an iPad on Black Friday. And as we are deep into the Shopping Season (once known as the Holiday Season) I thought it only fitting to revisit my intellectual reflections, guilt, and love of shopping.

Anonymous Shopping

Shopping defines contemporary culture. We are constantly bombarded by goods and advertisements that tell us our life is not enough without that new phone, that new gadget, that new dress. And yet the minute you purchase your phone or laptop, it is obsolete. Every six months, fashion editors tell us our entire closet is out—our clothing is disposable.

Shopping is not only a lifestyle, it is a form of entertainment. Whether it is infomercials and shopping networks or makeover shows, we not only shop, we watch people shop. The act of shopping has also become increasingly depersonalized. In the age of the internet and smart phones, we can shop anywhere at anytime and have no contact with another human being. We can shop alone, in secret. I remember growing up going to my local drugstore with my mother. It had a lunch counter, the owner’s son was my soccer coach, purchases were written up on slips of paper and individuals paid at the end of each month. This was not small town America in the ’50s, this was Miami in the ’80s. Today I shop at drugstore.com. I shop anonymously.

We, Consumers

We should never forget that to consume is to devour. Whether it is the excess of our ritualized Thanksgiving meals or the “click, click, click” of the computer mouse in response to “free shipping!” “40 % off!” or “Buy one get one free!” in the United States, we are gluttonous consumers of material goods (and food, but that is a whole other subject).

The value and consequences of shopping in dominant US culture puts the consumer on a roller-coaster ride. One year we are told that excessive, unwise spending and its resultant debt have led our country into our economic ruin. The next year we are being pushed to shop and told that filling our shopping carts will be our country’s salvation. The very shopping that put individuals and families spiraling into debt is now being celebrated once again. While last year was the year of reserve and frugality, we are now back where we belong: in the season of spending. While not reviving the post-September 11 rhetoric of shopping as an act of nationalism, we are once again being encouraged to spend—and told that spending is good for us.

While disagreeing with this particular logic, I do agree that shopping is an ethical act. Today we live in a culture of cheap. We have an unprecedented access to cheap goods, yet we must recognize that cheap goods are cheaply made. I am not speaking of quality, I am speaking of cheap labor. We must recognize that through the act of shopping, whether it is for an article of clothing, a toy, a pint of strawberries, or even our morning cup of coffee, we participate in a global economy that values profit over people. Disposable goods are made by disposable people, faceless individuals whose backbreaking and unjustly paid labor produce the goods we consume.

What we buy and where we buy it is a political act. It is also, I argue, a religious act.

Consumer Theology

Religion and shopping may seem like an unlikely pairing, and yet as I dived into my own tradition, Christianity, I found a wealth of biblical scholars, Christian teachings, and Christian scholars that spoke to our consumerism. Oddly, I came to find the clearest answer to my quest to understand our current culture of shopping in the fourth century. Augustine of Hippo, in his poetically written spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, struggles with misguided desire in his long and arduous path to Christianity. As I searched for a theological category to come to terms with our context, the word concupiscence leapt out at me. A theme that emerges in Augustine’s corpus is how we have misguided desire, or lust and passion, in relation to the material world and other human beings. How does Augustine define lust and passion? He often describes it as concupiscence: strong desire, especially sexual, that sometimes implies sin or evil. Concupiscence refers to compulsive and pleasureless enjoyment. Augustine sees all desire as dangerous and evil, for passion leads to a loss of control. Concupiscence describes the culture of shopping.

As a Christian theologian Augustine will ultimately argue that ultimate satisfaction is found in God. As he writes in the opening lines of his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” We can fool ourselves into thinking that material goods and wealth are the path to happiness, but ultimately Christians argue that true human destiny is the sacred. Oddly, the culture of consumerism relies on a similar logic—its underlying assumption is that there is always something, bigger, better, and more satisfying out there. 

A common misconception surrounding Augustine’s view on concupiscence is that the object of desire is evil and seductive. This is not the case. For Augustine, it is not the material good or object that is problematic, it is our misguided desire for it. This is a significant distinction. I in no way want to suggest a vision of Christianity that is at its core anti-materialist. I am also not one to embrace an anti-body, anti-aesthetic vision of the human that demonizes the body. And yet, as I understand it, Christianity teaches us to value relationships over objects and embrace a communal vision of the human community over individualism. This is fundamental, for example, to the Catholic Social tradition, where the common good is foundational, as is the dignity of the human person.

As a few more weeks of sales loom before us I sit and wonder, as I always do this time of year, how to find balance in my shopping. Where do I draw the line? The answer will vary depending on who asks the question. However in writing my book and diving deeply into my own tradition, I have come to realize that the question is not “How much should I shop?” but more importantly, “Why do I shop?”

If material goods define who you are and how you judge others, then you have a problem. If you are constantly seduced into buying things you do not need and cannot afford, then you have been seduced by our consumerist culture. The saying “born to shop” is not entirely untrue. We all have to shop; it is part of our everyday lives and survival. However if we truly “live to shop” we may want to take a pause, and sit this season out.