I Shop, Therefore I Am

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 19, 1999

Nearly all my Christmas shopping is finished. Yesterday, with a little help from my daughter Kirsten, I wrapped my presents. I still have one or two small items to purchase, but the important thing is that I have made my last trip to the shopping mall. Last Friday night I emerged, triumphant, from the Court and the Plaza at King of Prussia. I had finally tracked down the first volume of Patrick O’Brian's “Aubrey-Maturin” novels and found something suitable for my mother—always the hardest person on my list. I also bought a gift for my wife, Lisa. This year she made herself even more helpful than usual: she actually picked out her gift for me! (No doubt you will be relieved to know that I did at least pay for it).

I'm glad my Christmas shopping is finished because I like to get it done as early as possible. A couple of years ago I had a bad experience at Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve, so now I try to go before the toy shelves get empty and the crowds become overwhelming. And the crowds do get overwhelming. If you go shopping this week, you will have plenty of company.

At Christmas, more than any other time of year, it becomes obvious that shopping is our national pastime. This is partly because Americans are so rich—richer than ever, in fact. Over the last decade the median household income has risen from thirty-five to fifty-five thousand dollars. Of that fifty-five thousand, the average adult spends one thousand dollars on Christmas presents. And the best may be yet to come. Financial analysts disagree about our long-term economic prospects, but Peter Schwartz claims that “We are riding the early waves of a 25-year run of a greatly expanding economy… on a scale never experienced before.”

And so we shop. The more money we have, the more money we spend. The more money we spend, the more time we spend at the shopping mall. One might even say that the mall is where Americans go to worship. In a recent book called Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), author James Twitchell argues that Americans live to shop. Our current spending spree, says Twitchell, is not simply the result of a record-breaking stock market, it is a cultural commitment. In a way, it is also a religious commitment. The shopping mall has replaced the church building as the center of our worship. Many of the reasons we shop are religious. We shop to be happy and to feel good, sometimes even to give meaning to our existence.

This theme was recently echoed by a writer for Christianity Today, who admitted,

I belong to the Cult of the Next Thing. It's dangerously easy to get enlisted. It happens by default—not by choosing the cult, but by failing to resist it. The Cult of the Next Thing is consumerism cast in religious terms. It has its own litany of sacred words: more, you deserve it, new, faster, cleaner, brighter. It has its own deep-rooted liturgy: charge it, instant credit, no down-payment, deferred payment, no interest for three months. It has its own preachers, evangelists, prophets, and apostles: ad men, pitchmen, celebrity sponsors. It has, of course, its own shrines, chapels, temples, meccas: malls, superstores, club warehouses. It has its own sacraments: credit and debit cards. It has its own ecstatic experiences: the spending spree. The Cult of the Next Thing's central message proclaims, “Crave and spend, for the Kingdom of Stuff is here” [Mark Buchanan, “Trapped in the Cult of the Next Thing,” September 6, 1999, pp. 63-72].

The problem with turning Christmas into a shopping event is not simply that we miss the true meaning of Christmas; the real danger is missing the true meaning of life. If we do not worship God, we are prone to worship things, especially things that come in shiny packages. Some people worship idols made of wood and stone, but the idols Americans are tempted to worship often come wrapped in cellophane and advertised two-for-the-price-of-one.

Given our love for things, it should not surprise us that the beast in Revelation tries to worm his way into the marketplace. The Book of Revelation, which we have been studying in our morning worship services, describes what God showed John the Evangelist when he saw heaven opened. One of the things John saw was a beast who “was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation” (Rev. 13:7b). The Bible says that the beast “forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name” (Rev. 13:16-17).

In recent decades, Christians have wasted their time trying to figure out the name of the beast and speculating about his deadly mark: Is it a credit chip surgically attached to your hand, or is it a bar code branded into your forehead? But what really scares us is not so much the mark of the beast, or even the beast himself, but the terrifying prospect of being unable to buy or to sell. The beast knows that the best place to catch us is at the shopping mall. The reason we are in danger of falling under his deadly spell is that we have already sworn allegiance to our consumer culture.

I am not opposed to shopping in principle. There is nothing wrong with buying presents at Christmas, or at any other time of year. Gifts are a tangible way of expressing love and friendship. Few experiences in life are as wonderful as receiving a thoughtful gift.

But understand that shopping, like everything else we do, is a spiritual activity. What we buy, and why we buy it, says something about our ultimate spiritual commitments. For example, How many of the gifts you buy this year will be for the poor, for people who are unable to give you anything in return? Perhaps it is not surprising that we speak of “exchanging gifts,” which implies that we will get as much as we give. But it is worth remembering that the wise men did not “exchange gifts” when Jesus was born. Instead they brought their gold, their frankincense, and their myrrh and laid it all at Jesus’ feet.

Sometime this week you may find yourself waiting in line at the cash register. Before you hand over your credit card, remember that there is more to life than shopping, that you do not belong to the Kingdom of Stuff, that you buy what you buy and give what you give as a follower of Jesus Christ.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org