Letter from the Editor: Consuming Ourselves to Death

John Calvin famously called the human heart an idol factory, due to its seemingly innate ability to crank out countless baubles to adore and worship. Generally speaking, we must consume in order to produce. Just as the production of a tangible good requires massive amounts of input—natural resources, components, labor, and so on—the human heart is also running on a variety of inputs. We take the raw components of all we consume and, unless we are mindful, we become quite efficient in our idol making.

Whether we are consuming food, entertainment, philosophy, wealth, or status—or even religion—these inputs can fuel our basest longings. Anything can become the raw material for shaping something our hearts crave.

The challenge we have is halting the production line to consider the course of our actions. What if our consumerist behaviors are setting negative consequences in motion? What if our food and clothing choices are detrimental to the environment or the laborers involved? What if our biases and prejudices contribute to systemic oppression? What if our entertainment choices reinforce ideals that are contrary to human flourishing?

We take the raw components of all we consume and, unless we are mindful, we become quite efficient in our idol making.

Short answer: yes, they do. What we consume and how we consume it matters because we are interdependent. We are fundamentally connected to one another, which is why our consumption practices—of body, mind, and soul—are not merely personal preferences. In this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, the feature essays and support articles prompt us to think deeply and carefully about the our consumerist behaviors.

In “All the Foods I’ve Failed to Eat,” Abigail Murrish addresses the tragedy of food waste, which

“is deeper than statistics about greenhouse gas emissions and money wasted. The story of most food waste is poor stewardship. The creation mandate of Genesis 1 calls humanity to steward and exercise dominion over the earth, which includes wisely using natural resources for the flourishing of our neighbors and our world.

“Food waste ultimately takes valuable resources—such as land, water, and human labor—that are used in the food chain and discards them. These inputs could have been beneficial for our society. How could we have used the land that grew the wasted food? What other creative, worthwhile work could the woman have done who processed my now-expired canned tomatoes?”

Our grocery stores, with their endless aisles of always-stocked shelves don’t help us in this regard. We can waste food, because there is always more. Trudy Smith picks up this same concern in “Feeding Consumerism: The Hidden Costs of Cheap Food”:

“For millennia, food has been woven into the fabric of every society on earth as an important marker of cultural identity and belonging, a means of building and maintaining relationships, and a way for communities to grieve, celebrate, and worship together. In many parts of the world, gathering, growing, and preparing food makes up a significant portion of daily life: people are intimately involved in the process of bringing it to the table. For most of us in Western cultures however, food has increasingly become a commodity or a consumer experience. We want it cheap, we want variety, and we don’t want to have to do the dishes. Fast food and pre-made meal services abound; we are disconnected from the places our food comes from, detached from the people who grow and prepare it, and ignorant about most of its journey to our plates.”

Smith holds our ideals of cheap and convenient up to the fire, calling us to consider how these values negatively affect the way we view each other and how this ultimately starves our souls. In “God of the Belly: Wasting away in the World of First Reformed, Travis Roberts warns of this very thing:

“In the end, we consume ourselves.

“At least, that’s the idea. You eat and drink, and that fuel settles into fat. Your body uses that fat to power your muscles and organs. If you don’t take in enough calories, your body wastes away, and literally devours itself. The same thing happens with the mind: We consume ideas, thoughts, and art, and we convert them into inspiration, and that inspiration becomes action. Cognitive Behavioral Theory frames it this way: we have thoughts, which become feelings, which become actions. That’s why, when our mental intake is comprised of lies or trauma, our psyches turn inward and destroy us through depression or anxiety or OCD or eating disorders.

“Does something similar happen with the spirit? If we ask Paul Schrader, director of First Reformed, I think we’d get a yes.”

Most of us would agree, it’s the spirit deep inside us that is starving for nourishment, starving to be made whole. But it cannot be made well by mindless feeding. We are what we eat, even in a spiritual sense. Preston Byrd points out a more mindful approach to our usual pop culture fare in his feature titled “Choosing Our Cultural Cakes and Eating Every Last Crumb”:

“One year I ate an entire cake in a single day. Slice by slice it disappeared throughout the course of the day until I realized what I had done. I was sick for days, a tangible reminder that too much of something, even a very good thing, could have disastrous results. Frequently, it seems our approach to consuming culture and faith operates in a similar fashion; we pick what we like and gorge ourselves on ideas which only serve to reinforce them, but without the benefit of sickness to serve as a limitation until it’s too late.”

Without the benefit of an immediate physical reaction to our poor cultural choices, we do keep on with our usual menu. But the effect of our choices compound over time, whether we see it in the moment or not. So we need as many eyes and ears as possible to help us become aware of the long-term place our consumerist tendencies will lead us. If human flourishing is our aim, then we need to get ourselves pointed in that direction. We hope this issue gets you there, one step at a time.

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In This Issue

All the Foods I’ve Failed to Eat

The tragedy of food waste is deeper than statistics about greenhouse gas emissions and money wasted. The story of most food waste is poor stewardship.

by Abigail Murrish

Feeding Consumerism: The Hidden Costs of Cheap Food

When convenience is the highest good, we’re minimizing the time that we spend preparing and eating food, but it’s unclear what we’re saving time in order to do.

by Trudy Smith

God of the Belly: Wasting away in the World of First Reformed

The question isn’t if Schrader should have made First Reformed a more uplifting movie: the question is if Schrader is right or not. Are we doomed to consume ourselves?

by Travis Roberts

Choosing Our Cultural Cakes and Eating Every Last Crumb

If it seems like our consumptive practices have a near religious-like quality, it is because the two are closely linked: the way we partake in culture can directly influence our approach to faith.

by Preston Byrd

The Bachelor and the Weight of Voyeurism

The Bachelor did what the WWE did years ago—they stopped insisting on the totality of their own illusion.

by Val Dunham

Stunt Food and the Desire for Perpetual Novelty

Stunt food, pursued in the name of novelty, turns out to be more of the same old, same old.

by Chris Fouche

Less Is More? What Minimalism Can (and Can’t) Teach Us

Minimalism shows us that owning more stuff cannot satisfy, but the idea of minimalism by itself will not satisfy in the long term either.

by Liz Wann

Shopping for Religion: Corinna Nicolaou’s ‘A None’s Story’

The most striking theme in Corinna Nicolaou’s book ‘A None’s Story’ is the consumeristic mentality.

by Andrew J. Spencer