Tag Archives: consumerism

Christmas presents and paradoxes

By a weird quirk of timing and the way the Presbyterian Church works, I landed in the Courier Mail’s ‘religious round-up’ Christmas story yesterday. I was asked to provide around 300 words reflecting on the significance of Christmas. Here’s the story as it ran.

Here’s what I said in my 300ish words (I’m pretty happy with the edit).


Holidays. We Aussies can’t get enough of them. While more of us than ever before are letting go of religion, especially the institutional variety, we cling to these days of celebration and rest. There’s nothing we love more than to eat, drink, and be merry with our family and friends; so we will still raise a glass to the birth of the Christ once a year to keep this holiday in our shared calendar.

The western calendar — and thus, our public holidays — once marked the passing of a year through a series of ‘holy days,’ now our retailers mark the calendar for us according to a new “religion”; the belief that consumer choice is ‘Christ’ (which means king), and that the key to joy, and to salvation from the mundane, is “more good things. Christians have often been accused of stealing pagan ‘holy days’, but now our ‘holy days’ have been co-opted by this religion. Shopping centres are the temples for this religion, and you can be sure their halls will be decked with Halloween merchandise each October, then Christmas paraphernalia, and as surely as the sun will rise on Boxing Day, we’ll find Hot Cross Buns in the bakeries.

This raises the question: does this religious vision satisfy? Does it do a better job than what it replaces? Does it bring salvation or joy? Can we escape the irony of the carols that blare through our shopping centres at Christmas time? Carols like ‘Joy to the World’ that proclaim the subversive message of Christmas: that Jesus alone is king and saviour? That he alone brings real joy. That the things we turn to on our ‘holy days’ won’t deliver the goods? The rest we enjoy on our holidays is short lived if we have to keep working to buy our salvation and joy. Fight Club had it right; the things we own end up owning us. This new religion of consumerism is not freedom, but exactly the sort of joyless drudgery and captivity to the mundane that Jesus came to save us from. Why not ponder what makes your holiday ‘holy’ this year? Merry Christmas.


Which is all to say I’m now ‘on the record’ about the crass materialism of the ‘secular Christmas’… and yet, I’m a big fan of Christmas being ‘material’ and gifts being generous and even impractical (ie things a person doesn’t ‘need’ but things that are fun, delicious, or beautiful). I think the commercial takeover of Christmas is pretty terrible — but this isn’t because Christmas isn’t about material things; it absolutely is. That’s the whole point. Creator in creation. Materially.

The problem with the modern disenchanted, secular, Christmas is not that people are materially generous, but that we have flattened the paradox of Christmas. Christmas isn’t just material, or just spiritual. The magic of Christmas is the fusing of material and spiritual — the Christmas story is the story of the divine, the transcendent, the infinite, or the Spiritual — the ‘other’ — entering the realm of finite, fleshy, earthy, material, existence. It is an awful, gnostic, mistake to push back against the hyper-physicality of the consumerist Christmas by totally hyper-spiritualising our response, by de-crying material generosity and gift-giving, or looking for less material alternatives because we ‘have stuff already’ (and I loved how Megan Powell Du Toit and Michael Jensen discussed this in episode seven of their podcast). Christmas is about abundance and sacrifice, it is about riches and poverty, the spiritual and the material… it is about a generous physical gift from God — from Jesus himself — who gives up an eternity of ‘spiritual’ existence to become fully divine and fully human, for the rest of eternity.

Nobody grappled with paradox in the Christian faith better than G.K Chesterton who called Christians to remain ‘orthodox’ on issues of extremes by holding both extremes and holding them furiously… he wrote lots on the paradox of the incarnation, and especially of Christmas. And it’s worth sitting with these words while navigating an antidote to consumerism that isn’t an over-correction that wipes out the material generosity of God to us in Jesus — such that our Christmas gifts to one another are tangible, tactile, celebrations of the God who in Jesus became tangible and tactile, a taste that God does not loathe the material but creates, sustains, enjoys and renews it.

“The idea of embodying goodwill—that is, of putting it into a body—is the huge and primal idea of the Incarnation. A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed. Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.”

But it’s not just luxury and riches, either. This generosity can’t just be for the ‘haves’, but our generosity to one another should push out to hospitality and generosity to the ‘have nots’… Here’s more Chesterton exploring more of the paradox of God’s entering the story as a king born in a stable, turned aside and rejected by all.

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

So, I hope you got some wonderful presents that point you to God’s wonderful present to you, that teach you the joy of giving wonderful presents to others, to point them to God’s wonderful present (you get the picture — our gift giving and our gifts have a purpose beyond themselves). Merry Christmas.

You aren’t as clever as you think you are…

And this blog is here to tell you why not… You Are Not So Smart.

This is one of my favoruites – the myth of not conforming to capitalism by buying non-mass market products.

“You needed to self actualize, to find your own way, and you sought out something real, something with meaning. You waved your hand at popular music, popular movies, and popular television. You dug deeper and disparaged all those mindless sheeple who gobbled up pop culture.

Yet, you still listened to music and bought shirts and went to see movies. Someone was appealing to you despite your dissent.

If you think you can buy your way to individuality, well, you are not so smart.

Since the 1940s, when capitalism and marketing married psychology and public relations, the free market has been getting much better and more efficient at offering you something to purchase no matter your taste.”

Unknown bands are a special sort of commodity. Living in a loft downtown, wearing clothes from the thrift store, watching the independent film no one has heard of – these provide a special social status which can’t be bought as easily as the things offered to the mainstream.

In the 1960s, it took months before someone figured out they could sell tie-dyed shirts and bell bottoms to anyone who wanted to rebel. In the 1990s, it took weeks to start selling flannel shirts and Doc Martens to people in the Deep South. Now, people are hired by corporations to go to bars and clubs and predict what the counter culture is into and have it on the shelves in the cool stores right as it becomes popular.

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The disloyalty card

One of the issues plaguing the local tourism industry in the time I’ve been working in Townsville has been convincing people that the best way to grow their individual operation is to grow the pie for their “competitor” at the same time.

It’s as true in coffee as it is in tourism… and it’s probably true in ministry too.

In tourism your goal is to develop first an appreciation of a destination and then compete for the attention of the people who holiday in the region.

In coffee your goal is to develop first an appreciation of great coffee (compared to the average coffee served in the average cafe/diner/McDonalds).

This “disloyalty card” that has been produced by the current World Barista champion is a sensational idea.


The coffee guys are onto something with their focus on cooperation rather than competition. Strong competition and an educated market is a great thing for everybody competing – it’s not great for those left behind with a shoddy product.

The ministry application is probably tangential – but important… obviously there’s a Biblical compulsion to stay with a particular body of Christ (local church) – it’s not a matter of continuous shopping around while you look for the church that best suits you.

Izaac wrote about Godcasting the other day – the act of downloading and listening to sermons from quality preachers.

He envisaged a day where we will be warned off listening to sermons from gifted men by preachers jealous for the admiration of their flocks (or perhaps, more charitably, sensitive to the possibility that listening to exceptional preaching will cause discontent).

I think we should be encouraging Christians to listen to, read, and consume as much great teaching as possible. Chances are that those Christians keen enough to seek out great teaching will be the ones who are keenest to serve their church – rather than critique. And the idea of learning everything from one flawed vessel is scary. I’ll be encouraging everybody who comes to any church I preach at to seek a second opinion on whether my teaching is faithful to scripture. That’s the model we encourage when we’re training preachers and teachers at college isn’t it? Who wants to go to an institution with one lecturer.

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Mallrats

I was walking through Pacific Fair today. It was jam packed. From carpark to K-mart – everywhere was teeming with busy consumerism. And I liked it. Despite what the hippies might say. I buy therefore I am. With that out of the way (and without revealing any purchases made ahead of my family-in-law’s Christmas celebrations in the brighter hours of this morning), I was struck by a thought as I ducked and weaved through the crowds holding tightly to my wife’s hand. Nay. I was struck by three thoughts…

1. There are literally billions of people in this world who I will never ever meet, but may walk past fleetingly in a shopping centre. That could be my sole interaction with them. Ever. Being in the same place at the same time. Competing for that single spare space in the car park – a coincidental intersection in the space time continuum. That is mind boggling. Each of these people has a life, a history, a story of their own… and each has a different reason for being at the shops at the same time as me. Robyn and I were sitting in one of Pacific Fairs many food courts tittering at the idea of standing on the table and doing some street evangelism. What would the police say as they dragged me away on trumped up public nuisance charges? I do like to watch people as they walk around and judge them by their clothes, snippets of conversation and the way they discipline their children. I like to speculate what their life story is. What life is like for them. Why they’re buying 50 rolls of no frills single ply toilet paper in one go (that sentence could do with some hyphenating). Nobody needs that much TP. People watching is fun. I can almost understand the tantalising appeal of reality television at that point. Almost. Only real life is more fun.

2. Krispy Kreme deserve to be famous for their coffee – not just their donuts. Their stores are always immaculately kitted out with cutting edge coffee machinery – and staff who seem to know their way around a Mazzer grinder and aLa Marzocco machine. I guarantee Krispy Kreme will produce a better coffee than any other global franchise. They leave Starbucks and Gloria Jeans for dead. Every Krispy Kreme store I’ve been too has the same coffee kit – and it works like a charm.

3. If I ran a candy store I would be as happy as a kid in a candy store. Lolly shops are great. I’ve only been to one or two in my time that had an owner straight out of Roald Dahl’s “Boy” – a sour, dour old person. Lolly shops seem to attract nice people. How could you not be happy surrounded by so much sugar? If I weren’t so enamored with the other careers I plan to pursue then I would quite happily start up a lolly shop/cafe.

3a. Simply because I want to add an extra point while adhering to my “three points” promise – I’d like to point out that cookie shops always smell the best of all. I love the smell of fresh cookies at cookie man. That must surely be their sole marketing pitch. Krispy Kreme at Pacific Fair hand out little paper hats to children so they’ll wear them as their parents shop. At least their unruly behaviour may draw the eye of passers by. Cookie Man doesn’t need such trivialities. They have an aromatic weapon that works like the pied pipers flute. I did hear at a tourism industry workshop with Tom O’Toole – owner of the Beechworth Bakery – that one of their successful initiatives was to pump the smells from the bakery kitchen out onto the street. If I were to start up a lolly shop/cafe I’d have to think up a similar scheme.