by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke
I have been told by more than one book publisher that only paid church professionals will buy or read books about theology. I disagree. Eve Poole’s Buying God: Consumerism and Theology may just prove my point, and theirs simultaneously. In the introduction, the startlingly self-aware and delightfully frank author gives explicit permission for certain kinds of readers to skip to the most pertinent part of the book for them. Perhaps I should have listened to her.
Picking up the book for its title and subject matter, I could probably have jumped right to Part 2. I am ready to trust Dr. Poole by default, and ready to dig into her insights as both a theologian and academic whose day job is managing properties for the Church of England. I am ready to say from the outset, that she will have something to teach me about consumerism and God. But as a parish pastor, I know there is always someone who will need 60 pages of evidence that the expert has indeed done their research thoroughly, and that I have thoroughly digested it also in order to lead discussion on it.
For the sake of argument, let us call this illustrious someone Larry. When we launch a 6-part series at church based on the content of Dr. Poole’s book, Larry will need to have his own copy, and let’s be honest, I will likely need to have a one-on-one discussion with him about Part 1 beforehand so he can share all his (Dr. Poole’s) insights before our first session. Larry has a life of expertise in his own career field, but may have some trouble trusting the author’s or discussion leader’s credentials up against his own anecdotes, especially if she is a woman or under the age of 50 (two demographics in which Dr. Poole and I share). A Pastor Larry will likely be among us should we decide to discuss this book at a gathering of clergy. And although the emotional labor involved in dealing with Larrys can be a hindrance in tackling a topic that will feel like an attack on the American identity because capitalism is so core to our rugged individualism, the time is now for this crucial discussion. As any doubt over the far-ranging consequences of different views on economic matters color our upcoming presidential election, our theology and civil engagement are absolutely intertwined. Lay people need to be doing theology, in and around the ballot box. Dr. Poole’s references to the Church of England and the extra “u” in many words will remind us all that she is not addressing Americans directly, so it is perhaps easier to side-step our defensiveness.
In Part 1, titled “How To Do Theology,” readers find enough famous and obscure theologians to satisfy the name-dropping needs of any Larry, along with jargon-y analysis and examples of their typologies, the systems they use to organize their thinking about God. Dr. Poole herself describes this section as a “long clearing of the throat,” reminding us that “we all need to be able to articulate our warrants and backings” (65). Poole organizes all the typologies into those addressing worldview or etiquette, balancing both honesty about the contexts in which we are doing theology and establishing good manners for doing so. The aim is to establish how to “speak respectfully and with integrity to those who do not share your worldview” (56). Yes, please. This all comes in handy later when we actually get to Section 2, to set Dr. Poole’s analysis in established streams of thought. But Part 2 is the book that most of us are here for
Claims like “competition is not just mathematically questionable, it is sexist, too” (72) may make Larry clutch his pearls, but readers like myself just want to hear more. I expected Part 2 to be more accessible, like the introduction, but alas it was not. Still, I want us to have this discussion in the parish, and to have it in depth, so carefully following Dr. Poole’s arguments here could get us there. She again quotes major thinkers in theology and economics, doing the work for her readers of sifting through what would certainly be even more dense reading than what we have before us. A major thesis is that desire is not an evil to be resisted, since both faith and consumerism depend upon it. But to be informed about and not manipulated in our desire, we will need to closely examine it, the purpose of this book. The Church must re-claim our theology of desire and apply it towards saving our planet and all upon it from destruction by consuming desire.
“So rather than competing head-on, or applying Christian therapies like sticking plaster to repair the wounds of consumerism, it is time to reclaim our basic theology of desire, recently colonized by consumerism but not conquered by it. Like Einstein, we should leap upon its beam and go for a fast ride. Desire is part of the human condition, and our spiritual task is not to resist it, but to curve it away from materialism back towards God.” (99)
The conclusion of the book returns to a story-telling vernacular style, and could actually do well as an introduction to the topic for group discussion. Where do you imagine yourself in your dotage, as the author does, if consumerism were put in its proper place? The resources section includes a consumption audit, consumer’s prayer, virtue workout and relevant Bible passages for preaching or Bible study. These bones of a curriculum may be worth the price of admission right there (although the useful websites are focused in the UK) but we also have Part 2 for thoughtful discussion, and Part 1 for Larry, the complete package.
Buying God: Consumerism & Theology
by Eve Poole
Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an ELCA (Lutheran) pastor and writer. Her first book Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God is forthcoming from Church Publishing in fall 2020.