Friday, December 29, 2006

PoMo Shopping and the Church

Those who know me realize that for many years now The Economist has been one of my favorite publications. The great thing about this particular news weekly is that it provides a huge array of background materials that help us understand the news and the culture against which the world economy is doing all sorts of things. Unlike so many of its counterparts it does not talk down to its readers, assuming that we have their capacity to digest and discuss serious issues is fearfully limited.

The Christmas-New Year edition of The Economist is always worth looking forward to because it provides what can best be called holiday reading in the shape of all sorts of op-ed style pieces. This year we have a multi-page analysis of the way the brain works, a charming piece on conversation, and a stimulating longish essay on advertising, shopping, and postmodern philosophy.

I have re-read this latter piece several times, because it seemed to have a message that we in the churches need at least to be listening to. Perhaps it could have been re-titled something like Foucault and the Demise of the Department Store, for the point it is making is that the old-fashioned way of selling goods is dead, gone, and buried, and radical new alternatives are being born out of the deconstruction of yesterday's way of retailing.

Let me confess that I rather like department stores, which makes me a less than post-modern person. Their orderly presentation of goods with lines of counters and a careful attention to understated decor always seemed somehow soothing, if an emporium dedicated to commercialism could, indeed, be such a thing. But, we are told, Selfridges, what in days gone by was the epitome of department store chic in London, almost went out of business in the 1990s, while that other British bastion of one-stop department store shopping, Marks and Spencer, is struggling to remake itself after a horrible nose dive.

If you go into a Selfridges store in England today you find that order and standard decor have given way to every brand being given its head to shout the loudest. "There is no hierarchy of goods; watches compete with perfume, luggage with high fashion, cafes with fast food. Shows, action and stunts break up the day. Selfridges calls it 'shopping entertainment.' So successful is it that two years ago a panel of style gurus voted it Britain's coolest brand."

The thesis of this article, Post-modernism is the new black, is that if you think of old-fashioned approaches to retailing as 'meta-narratives,' in today's market they have to be deconstructed, setting people free from externally imposed categories in which traditional retailers want to imprison them. The modern consumer needs to be free to choose... the mainstream has been shattered "into a zillion different cultural shards."

Mass markets are out, yet even as they are being blown apart and fragmented these fragments have wily marketers catering to them. A commentator by the name of Chris Anderson states that "When mass culture breaks apart... it doesn't re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways." How exciting, frightening, unsettling, destablizing.

The message is that in the post-modern deconstructed environment fragmentation is not a bad thing, indeed fragments become valuable niches, and we do not have some anonymous outsider 'editing' the choices that we want to make. The secret of success in this environment is knowing which niche you are attempting to market to. The possibility of an endless array of niches into which we can all dip gives the individual the chance to become "the artist of his own life."

As I read this, and it is one of those items where you aren't quite sure whether the author is being serious or whether there is a degree of tongue in cheek, I found myself thinking about the Episcopal Church. It seemed that some of the things being drawn attention to were a bit like what is happening to us.

If you think of the Episcopal Church as an old-fashioned department store of faith with declining market share, then could it be that what we are experiencing is its shattering into a zillion different religious shards? Each one of these shards is an individual group, congregation or networks of congregations becomes a niche reaching into a particular social or cultural grouping. In such circumstances the believer is free to make choices that suit particular perceptions.

But here's the problem, right now everyone only wants to follow this particular logic part of the way.

Those who hold the power (something postmodernism knows a lot about) think that while we can be creative artists of our own individual faith journey, we don't want to apply this kind of thinking of the structures and presentation of our faith. Like the seried ranks of counters in a traditional department store, there are particular interpretations of canons that are being used to keep us all in order -- their particular take on order. The truth is that when you destroy the meta-narratives you have laid the axe not only to dogma and beliefs, but also to the very tree that contains them.

On the other hand there are those who are happy to fragment, find a bishop of choice, be global, emancipating themselves from this rather tired Enlightenment way of being church, and concentrate on presenting the faith once delivered to the saints. However, these folks have their own likes and dislikes as well as theological convictions that hardly mesh at all with those who think it is entirely right that we can develop a mix-and-match approach to theological discipline.

I'm not one of the world's great shoppers, but I find the Selfridges approach to doing things rather refreshing. There is a huge DaDa-esque Selfridges store in the center of the English Birmingham, not far from my daughter's home. While it can be incredibly confusing, with top class fudge being sold immediately alongside leather briefcases, there is a sense of non-rational order that makes you believe that you are freer to make the choices that you want to make.

Perhaps the time has come to say that we have reached a total impasse in the Episcopal Church, that rather the ripping the whole thing to shreads, let's try and find a postmodern approach to our problems that embraces a similar semi-controlled anarchy rather than fighting against it and each other. This would then allow all the other Anglican jurisdictions in North America to get in on the act like creative mom and pop operations, plugging in to those components of each other and us that they think will work for them. I could go on pursuing this line of thought, but I think readers will get the idea!

In a setting like this there would be no need for General Conventions or the bits of Enlightenment palaver that are left over from the denominational age, and we could have a total free market. Then in that free market we would see what would sink and what would swim, with like-minded networks supporting and promoting what they believe in and all of us getting on, doing our own thing, being our own faith artists.

At first blush this seems more rational than the way we are carrying on at the moment. Those who have driven the agenda for years have been steadily deconstructing the received meta-narrative from our catholic Christian heritage, but for some extraordinary reason want to hang onto the structural meta-narrative. Open up the structural meta-narrative to freedom of choice, and a market-driven economy of faith, and we have a much more inclusive approach to doing things.

Now, I wonder, am I being serious, or is this a little tongue in the cheek?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Richard, I enjoyed this piece - you have articulated a tremendous irony within the Episcopal Church today. I attend a (shall we say) very liberal, theologically post-modern Episcopal church, but oddly enough they are rather uptight about liturgical structure, the format of services, the Church hierarchy, and so on. Meanwhile, not far down the road, there's a much more conservative Episcopal church, and - you guessed it - they are the ones with the more post-modern structural approach in their affiliations within the Anglican communion. It puzzles and amuses me that at the church I attend, many feel they can pick and choose only those passages in the Bible that suit them and ignore the rest, and yet at the same time get all worked up about the mechanics of the service, etc. I suspect what you are suggesting (about embracing post-modernism)started as a kind of joke while you were writing the piece but the joke began to make some sense after a while. It's hard to write about post-modernism without falling into some kind of ironic tangent, after all.