Greed which Is Idolatry: Following Jesus in an Age of Consumption

In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges describes the city of Las Vegas as a “spectacle.”  It is a place designed to cater to the fantasies of those who visit.  It amuses, or perhaps bemuses, those seeking to find some sense of happiness, however fleeting, or to enjoy, even for a moment, a virtual reality…an illusion…filled with (false) promise and hope.  Those who dismiss Vegas as a place of perversion to be avoided if not eliminated miss the point: Vegas is not an aberration, but the logical conclusion of a system built to feed insatiable human desire.  As Hedges notes, “Las Vegas strips away the thick moral pretension and hypocrisy of consumer society to reveal its essence.  The commodification of human beings, the heart of the consumer society, is garishly celebrated in Las Vegas.  Here there is no past, no history, no sense of continuity, and no real community.”  

Through its over-the-top extravagance Vegas becomes “the American market ethic stripped completely bare, a mini-world totally free of the pretenses and protocols of modern consumer capitalism” (Marc Cooper, The Last Honest Place in America).  While there is certainly an illusion in Las Vegas, there is also a blunt honesty about the place.  Whatever hope those who sit down at a blackjack table might have of winning, there is as pervasive sense that loss is inevitable, and that luck will ultimately run out.  As such, “All the pretense, all the sentimentality, the euphemisms, the hypocrisies, the come-ons, loss leaders, warranties and guarantees, all the fairy tales are out the window.  You’re out of money?  OK, good—now get lost” (Cooper, The Last Honest Place in America).

The digital world we carry around in our pockets is, in many ways, the antithesis of Vegas.  It is subtle and seemingly mundane in the ways it influences our behaviors and nudges us toward more consumption.  Our desires become its raw material for the development of new products sold to online advertisers and savvy investors.  We are not subject to advertising, but to “continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale” (Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now).  In a consumer-based economy fueled by new information technologies, our unchecked, misdirected desires become entry points by which we are converted into human batteries energizing an economy that demands growth.  

Worse, as industries compete, even the sectors we trust to provide honest, deep, well-researched, and nuanced accounts of reality have adjusted their tactics to increase page views.  We can no longer accept the “naïve belief” that “If news is important, I’ll hear about it” because “…it’s mostly the least important news that will find you.  It’s the extreme stuff that cuts through the noise.  It’s the boring information, the secret stuff that people don’t want you to know, that you’ll miss.  That’s the stuff you have to subscribe to, that you pay for, that you have to chase” (Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying).  What we see (what we are shown) is not all there is, yet, even having realized that, our brains tend to make sense of the world with little regard for “the amount and quality of the data on which the story is based” (Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking, Fast and Slow). 

Commenting on his experience with the press in the U.K. which errantly summarized his perspective on climate change based on a “tangential comment that lasted twenty seconds” within a fifty-nine minute talk with David Cameron, Nassim Taleb suggests, “There is no difference between journalism at The Guardian and the restaurant owner in Milan, who, when you ask for a taxi, calls his cousin who does a tour of the city to inflate the meter before showing up.  Or the doctor who willfully misdiagnoses you to sell you a drug in which he has a vested interest” (Nasim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game).  Taleb is highlighting the potential influence of selfish ambition that might lead journalists to skew the truth for their own benefit.  Yet, as ge goes on to note, the problem extends beyond journalists per se.  The problem is systemic: “I was less frustrated by the misinterpretation of my ideas than by the fact that no reader would have realized that 99 percent of my discussion with Cameron was about things other than climate change.  If the former could have been a misunderstanding, the latter is a structural defect.  And you never cure structural defects; the system corrects itself by collapsing” (Taleb, Skin in the Game).  

When decisions about what to say and when to say it are conditioned less by slow, deep, Spirit-led discernment than on what will drive page views, greed rules the system.  When we consume such messages and, through our likes and shares, request more of the same, greed becomes the logic of our systems.  But what are we greedy for?  It seems we are greedy for the security that comes from stories that confirm our beliefs, reduce or eliminate ambiguity, and remind us that there are people out there who are far worse than we are.  We are greedy for information that confirms our understanding of reality and, thus, confirms our preferred understanding of God.  As we feed this greed by consuming endless amounts of media, “…we become self-absorbed, seeking in external goods a satisfaction for our inner emptiness” (Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words).  In seeking such satisfaction, we cultivate an “appetite for the ownership of new knowledge” (Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite ).  Yet, as Griffith notes, “The appetite of the curious is in that way closed, seeking a sequestered intimacy: the knowledge they seek is wanted as though it were the only thing to be had, and this means that the curious inevitably come to think that the only way in which they can be related to what they seek to know is by sequestration, enclosing a part of the intellectual commons for their own exclusive use, and thus mastering it” (Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite ).  

Media, even some Christian media, and our consumption of it, threatens to form us into something other than Christ.  Christians seem willing to accept such an assertion when it comes to pornography or certain forms of violence but have not reckoned with the fact that pornography is not the only genre of media capable of distorting reality and feeding misdirected desires.*  When Christian media is driven less by having something to say and more by having a deadline to say anything, we submit our collective commitment to truth to the economic models that drive Christian media.  When its message is driven by the concerns of the market and the concerns of the gospel, it becomes a conduit that both feeds and cultivates desires that arise from human greed.  Our interaction with and desire for the messages we embrace within a consumer-oriented information marketplace result in a nearly imperceptible idolatry in which the god presented becomes “real” and the real God is increasing lost in the noise.  Our collective greed puts us at higher risk of becoming “Masters of subtle religious ideological manipulation” who produce “a gradual metamorphosis of the God of Jesus Christ into the god of this world” (Miroslav Volf, “In the Cage of Vanities: Christian Faith and the Dynamics of Economic Progress,” in Rethinking Materialism).

As interesting and important as it may be to evaluate the connection between greed and our current media environment, particularly Christian media, the reality is that the sizzling story “that leaps out ahead of the evidence, that is surer than it has reason to be sure, that pontificates, spouts, hazards guesses, or ‘tells’ when it is indeed ‘too soon to tell’,” is not the root problem( Mitchell Stephens, Beyond News).  We are.As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is my suspicion that “when we have not offered a faithful digital presence, it is, in part, because we did not have a good idea of what it meant to offer a faithful ‘analog’ presence” (James Spencer, Thinking Christian).  More specifically, we have always had a desire problem..a problem with greed.  We seem to want the wrong things for the wrong reasons, thereby losing any reasonable grip on what it means to choose God over greed.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that exaggerated spectacles like Vegas and the gossip-column-framed-as-investigative-journalism have something in common: they draw a crowd.  They wouldn’t exist without us.

Greed runs in at least two directions.  Suppliers exploit opportunities to “sell” product to ready buyers whose desires are seemingly endless and certainly escalating.  The greed of suppliers reinforces the greed of consumers through “the organized creation of dissatisfaction,” which keeps buyers thinking they absolutely need the newest and shiniest product in order to feel their lives are complete (Erik Larson, Naked Consumer)  The greed of buyers and suppliers is reciprocal allowing capitalism to “shape people in its own image” (Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism ).  Capitalism may, in this sense, be framed in religious language as creating disciples dedicated to an unending cycle of economic life in which what we don’t have becomes far more significant than what we do have.  Our desires begin to form us spiritually through economic systems in which we are, to one degree or another, willing participants.  

Greed often results in the accumulation of wealth.  The fact that greed often results in wealth, however, should not blind us to other objects of greed.  Even the poor can be greedy.  Greed, we might say, is about the incessant pursuit of something deemed so valuable that obtaining it becomes more important than our calling from darkness to light. We no longer “seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness” but set it aside in order to chase what has become the object of our misdirected desires.

For instance, as Lawrence Peter famously quipped, academic quarrels are “so vicious because the stakes are so small” (Lawrence Peter, Peter’s People).  The capital of academia is not primarily economic or monetary.  Academia often involves the pursuit of “rewards” like academic reputation, prestige, and influence.  While developing a reputation as a scholar is not inherently bad, it can become an object of greed when one opts to marginalize God to pursue it.  Greed is not limited to the trappings of the material world.  It extends to any of the treasures the earthly realm has to offer.  

Our desire to (1) be fulfilled by something other than God, (2) overreach God-given boundaries in pursuit of our own aims, and (3) set agendas for God that relegate him to second (or third, fourth, firth, etc.) position, reflect the sort of self-centeredness that allows greed to flourish.  While Paul may rejoice at the spread of the gospel even when it is motivated by selfish ambition (Phil 1:15-18), selfish ambition stands “over against God, whose Son fully displayed God’s character when he took on a servant’s role” (Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians).  Greed is rooted in our unwillingness to take direction from our Creator so that as we identify the objects of our desire we give ourselves over to reflect the glory of those objects rather than the glory of God (G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship).

Arguably, even our most legitimate desires when left unchecked and redirected by God and the community of faith can “effectively act as a screen between God and us” (Bruce Ellis Benson, Graven Ideologies).  If we (either individually or collectively) allow our unbridled desire for “goods” such as truth, justice, accountability, holiness, love, etc. to reduce God to little more than our authorization to pursue our own particular passions at any cost, we offer an idol to the world and encourage others to bow down to it.  As Rieth notes regarding Luther’s interpretation of Psalm 5:10, 

“Luther strongly criticized greedy people and idolaters inside the church…These impious masters do not point to God’s way with their teaching, but maintain their self-interest under the appearance of serving God.  The best interpretation, according to Luther, comes from the situation of his own time, namely, the material exploitation of the people, mediated through the preaching of work righteousness by a complicit clergy.”  

Ricardo Willy Rieth, “Luther on Greed,” Lutheran Quarterly 15

Greed is idolatry combined with desire.  It is that distinct combination of want and illusion that hides God beneath the “quasi-religion” of greed (Brian S. Rosner, Greed As Idolatry)

Greed lies in the wanting rather than in the getting.  Augustine states, “…we call the greedy poor, who are always craving and always wanting.  For they may possess ever so great an amount of money; but whatever be the abundance of that they are not able but to want” (Saint Augustine, The City of God).  In connecting greed and idolatry, Paul points to the underlying dynamic by which greed orients our way of being in the world.  Our unbridled desire for some sort of coherent understanding of the world, some sense of security apart from God cultivates greed.  When we forget that there is nothing apart from God that will ultimately bring security and satisfaction, we subject ourselves to an endless, hopeless life of consumption.  Our insecurities and sense of loss cannot be sated without a true knowledge of God.  Whether we pursue “mammon” or collect the accusations and innuendo that so often characterizes the popular stories in the news, we succumb to greed and embrace a god of our own making.  

When greed becomes our way of being in the world, we forget that when we serve the God of the scriptures, we have the time to be patient and discerning.  We have the security to wade into the complexities of a fallen world and to discipline ourselves to find truth no matter how difficult, painful, or costly.  We have the hope that God will make all things new and the faith to obey God even if doing so seems not seem to fix the world.  We have the confidence to submit our misdirected desires to the Lord knowing that he will sanctify our desires and “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20).  In essence, greed, as insatiable as it may be, is insufficient.  Not only is our greed misguided, it is also severely limited in its capacity by our own human finitude.  If, after all, we are unable to comprehend the depths of all that God desires to do among us, how could our desires ever match God’s fathomless generosity?  Greed is not easy to comprehend.  It sneaks up on us, yet greed is avoidable if we are willing to accept all that God has given as all that we will need.  Contentment is the antidote to greed and that contentment is rooted in a right understanding of God.  It is “learned as we acknowledge our insufficiency and Christ’s full sufficiency” (Spencer, Thinking Christian).  God crowds out greed.  When we embrace God, we have no need to want for anything more than more of Him.

* I am not arguing here that pornography does not pose unique dangers.  The neuroscience research suggests that habitual interaction with pornography can have irreversible effects on the human brain.  See Gary Wilson, Your Brain on Porn).  Note, however, my discussion on internet addiction and addiction more generally in Thinking Christian, chap 3.  The point is not to make pornography somehow more palatable, but to recognize the other, very real challenges associated with media consumption. 

**There is no sense in which I wish to demonize Christian journalism.  To do so would be to miss the core concern of insatiable desire that the Christian community as a whole cultivates and sustains.  I have offered some thoughts on these matters in my blog post entitled “Cleaning Out Our Cupboards: Social Media, Mass Media, and Christian Consumption of Information.”