On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight

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Mark Clavier
Reading Augustine
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2018.
     168 pages.
     $36.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781501330919.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

How are Christian ministers supposed to engage with parishioners when the reason they come to church is inherently, albeit unconsciously, about themselves? What if adopting Christian beliefs or actions was only a result of shopping for an identity? Worse yet, most church cultures seem to be ineffective against consumer-based identities because they themselves fall prey to that which they seek to cure. In On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church, and the Rhetorics of Delight, Mark Clavier seeks to diagnose our contemporary situation through an Augustinian lens to navigate a way forward.

Chapter 1 situates all the major threads of the book, such as the history of advertising and the use of rhetoric, lifestyle as identity formation, and the relationship of consumerism and Augustine. Overall, Clavier’s thesis is “If rhetoric is the basis for [this] culture, then rhetoric is also the means by which the church can confront consumerism” (17). Chapter 2 begins by giving an overview of the history and importance of oratory in the Roman world, reflected in Augustine’s educational journey. Augustine’s rhetorical skills would later influence how he framed his theology, in particular, the “cosmic” Christian narrative, by advancing Cicero’s theory of rhetoric. In chapter 3, Clavier examines A. C. Grayling’s defense of consumerism by juxtaposing it with Augustine’s understanding of desire. Clavier successfully exposes the flaws in Grayling’s logic and argues consumerism has had devastating societal effects.

In chapter 4, Clavier analyzes how Augustine viewed salvation through a rhetorical lens. Salvation is never simply a binary choice. Humans are not in a neutral position but remain in bondage under sin. He writes: “For Augustine, to be free we must be swept up into God’s love, experienced as a ‘victorious’ delight that frees our wills not only to know righteousness but to desire it as well” (64). Salvation occurs by being inflamed with a delight in God through the Holy Spirit over and against a delight in the world (81). Instead of a single moment, it is a process. However, this is not to be confused with sanctification. The eloquence of God’s delight frees one to the extent that we begin to delight in God.

            In chapter 5, Clavier presents the problem of the church as impotent to overcome consumer culture, largely through the fault of “worldviews.” The cultural power of the church is weak. Comparatively, Christians spend the majority of their time in consumerist driven culture, which largely shapes their identity (86). This is also true for would-be “seekers” who may in reality only be trying to “add” to their identity, just as if they might shop for a new piece of clothing. The concept of worldview is too reductionistic to help here. The power of a worldview is not over the brain’s beliefs, but the heart’s desires. Clavier writes: “In short, worldviews inform without delighting, and teach without truly persuading” (94). Instead, Clavier argues, churches need to become rhetorical communities that challenge and undermine the appeals of consumerism while at the same time being communities in which people can belong and delight (101).

Chapter 6 again draws from Augustine and then turns to contemporary thinkers, such as Alasdair Macintyre, James K. A. Smith, and Charles Taylor. If there were only one lesson Augustine would have us learn, it is that our communities are shaped by our loves. Since the Romans who were shaped by love of self, it is no surprise that violence, war, and self-aggrandizement were byproducts. As for our society which is shaped by a love of personal freedom, it is also no surprise then that waste, fragmentation, and ecological destruction are not incidental either (115). Overall, Clavier largely follows Smith in how he approaches the church: as communities of faith formation that inculcate a habitus toward desiring and loving God. Historically, “conversion required the baptism of the imagination if the love of God was to be pursued amid a society of pagans” (114). Similarly, conversion should today move the converted person into a new “social imaginary,” centered on God and away from the self. 

Chapter 7 ends by answering the question, how is the church to function practically in face of collapsing virtue? Clavier writes, “for the church to prosper again, it shouldn’t engage in a ‘strategic withdrawal’ but rediscover how to proclaim the gospel in fast-changing circumstances . . . ultimately what the church needs isn’t another Benedict; it needs another Augustine” (129). In this statement, he refers to Augustine’s model orator in On Christian Teaching. Clavier isn’t recommending that the church follow Cicero’s orator, who espouses his own lofty eloquence, but rather an orator who is used by God and through the Spirit teaches God's wisdom. These orators are sacramental, outwardly pointing to God’s inward delight. It is the Lord’s orators that ministers should study (Paul, Cyprian, and Ambrose). The three essentials of such an orator are the diligent study of Scripture, the ability to communicate eloquently, and the devotion to prayer (135). They do not need to have the “exact” interpretation of a text, but one that leads its hearers to love properly.

While Clavier has written an excellent book, there are a few areas left wanting. Most readers will likely be disappointed with the lack of guidance for how to communicate God’s eloquence against the rhetoric of the market and the whispers of consumerism. While he excuses this as rebuffing any consumerist desire for another method (143), this still seems a major flaw. With no concrete examples (even from Augustine himself; perhaps, a sermon in which he did so), readers are left to struggle how to move forward. Nor does he specify any practices to help move communities away from a consumerist mindset and culture.

Overall, Clavier’s work is highly readable, avoids technical jargon, and is practical. This book is recommended for seminarians or clergy. This book will be especially helpful for students who may not have even considered how consumerist their culture is and subsequently how much faith as a whole has become consumerist as well (and how to handle that). This is not just a book to understand culture. It will not leave any reader’s own relationship to consumerism unexamined, an inescapable fate, thankfully.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Seth Pryor is a graduate student in Religion at Liberty University.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Clavier is Residentiary Dean of Brecon Cathedral in Wales, and Chair of the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales.

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