Dec 8, 2011
Sevens Interview: Ben Verble + Trinity in Consumerist Christianity
Why I’m Interviewing Ben Verble?
Because Ben Verble and I have some history. And it goes back to the Old Testament. Literally.
In 2007, I taught a fifteen week course on the book of Exodus in the Old Testament at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Having never taught the course, I felt my self sheepishly begin the experience. From the first week on, sitting in the same spot every week, Ben Verble proved to be a thoughtful, engaging, witty, and kind student who deeply loved the biblical story and its meaning for the Christian life. In the years following, Ben served as a teaching assistant for me in a course on the New Testament at the same school. Then, last year, Ben and his wife Nina decided to join the church I serve, Theophilus church in SE Portland.
Ben has this to say about himself:
“My name is Benjamin Preston Verble and I am married to Nina. Nina is from the Palm Springs area originally and loves her exercise classes and being creative, especially in decorating and gift-giving. Nina and I were made for each other because I like to sound really interesting and have an opinion about everything and she possesses the valuable talent of not taking me too seriously (among other amiable traits). We also live with another married couple named David and Amy. They have a cat named Tulley and we have a cat named Lucy.
I come from Spokane, WA originally and currently live in Southwest Portland. I belong to Theophilus Church and participate in various ways in that community. I graduated from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in April with an MDiv. I roast coffee and play some guitar. I listen to U2, Bon Iver, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews, The Decemberists, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and after all of these years I still listen to Jars of Clay.
Since I am the stereotypical overeducated Oregonian who works in the customer service industry, my “successful” part of my career is still ahead of me. My favorite authors are Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis. I am interested in seeing the Christian Church begin to slow down relative to the speed of the world. I believe in slow food, slow growth models, and slow evangelism (with the anticipation of sudden miracles, of course).”
To connect with Ben further, find him on Facebook.
There’s that. This is a great interview about a very important topic. What I love about Ben is he is brilliant but has a wonderful undertone of humility. His theological passion pervades every area of the thought life of Christian spirituality. When I asked him to do this interview, he knew exactly what weighed on his heart: consumerism in Western Christianity.
I thought a couple questions could spark a hearty discussion on the topic.
The Interview: Trinity in Consumerist Christianity
Q1: In your experience, is American Christianity consumeristic?
A1: My interaction with American Christianity has been consumeristic. One example in my life is church-shopping. My decisions in this area have usually relied on consumeristic questions and answers: “is this the best Church for me?” I find scenario this to be a place of common ground when I begin to talk to other Christians about whether or not the American church is consumeristic. I think we start by looking in the mirror on this issue.
Q2: How did Western Christianity arrive at this place in its consumeristic attitude?
A2: The church got into this attitude because consumerism is tempting and good at marketing. For example, in the past few decades, people in various traditions got fed up with “traditional church” and created some new, often helpful ways of doing church. They shared these ideas and eventually someone marketed them (seeker sensitive, Emergent, etc.). This is merely one small area where it is possible to get caught up in this consumeristic mindset.
Q3: How might the gospel of Jesus Christ help the church reverse this?
A3: Matthew 6 has much to say about this issue. It speak directly to material goods and wealth, teaching us that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” and “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:21, 24 NRSV). When it comes to applying these verses, we need to be careful not to merely give them an internal meaning only. Yes, they are about the heart, but they are about our embodied lives as well.
Q4: What are two ways the normal “every-day” Christian can reverse the trend of consumerism in the church?
A4: I think the first step in reversing this trend is to integrate the problem of consumerism into one’s ongoing spiritual discernment, both communally and individually. Pray and spend time contemplating this issue. Talk with your pastor, spiritual director, and community. Second, pay attention to marketing and then turn it off whenever and wherever possible. Going back to Matthew 6, both the internal and the lived-out aspects of this issue are important.
Q5: What is the opposite of a “consumeristic” ecclesiology (theology of the church)?
A5: Simplicity and relationships function like opposites. They occupy space and time in our lives, displacing consumerism. Theologically, Miroslav Volf offers an excellent alternative to a consumerism-laden ecclesiology in After our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. In this book, he balances individual and relational identity and being by developing the church as an image of the Trinity. This is prophetic against the consumeristic impulse that is so focused on individual fulfillment.
Q6: Unpack a little more how our theology of the Trinity undermines our consumeristic attitudes?
A6: I’ll have to lean on Volf a little more. For him, a Trinitarian ecclesiology affirms community and personhood (individual liberty) equally. Ideally, this prevents both overbearing conformity and me-centered theology (which consumerism exploits). More radically, a Trinity-derived concept of community that undermines consumerism is the idea of mutual submission. We see a glimpse of this submission in the life of Jesus: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NRSV).
Q7: Q7: Last question, Ben. What does the story of Jesus and his Advent help the church do this year that we need to be reminded of?
A7: Perhaps advent should remind us that gifts are primarily for Jesus and not for us (Matt. 2:9–11). In the midst of a gift-obsessed holiday season, it seems to me that if the advent story has an explicit reference to gifts at the actual birth of Jesus, we should pay attention to that. The wise men were “overwhelmed with joy” at finding Jesus and gave gifts to Jesus as an act of worship. My hope is that we can model this story in our actual traditions during Advent and Christmas.
To be honest, Ben brings up something I have wrestled with for years. How could a movement started by a homeless guy who claimed to be God become so consumeristic? And what are the consequences of this consumerism in the church?
How can people not be consumeristic. Look at some of the stuff we force ourselves to look at on television day after day. My friend Andy Campbell has posted some, I believe, gut-wrenching videos that drive this sort of culture. A culture in which Black Friday has become the new Good Friday. We are more willing to find our salvation in things.
As a pastor, I can think of many occasions where part of the conversion process for new Christians is simply coming to terms with the fact that their lifestyles don’t match in any way shape or form the simplicity that the gospel calls us to. Part of this conversion is learning to not only love God but accept church for what it is: broken. The church simply can’t keep people happy anynore, writes Andrew Jones, whatever form of church it be. And that’s never been its job. A second part of conversion is not envisioning our communities as Abercrombie & Church. Rather, seeing them for what they are. Not the mall. They are local places where Jesus gathers his people and offers grace to the world. In the end, the church is segmented into market shares rather than being one big body of Christ.
Consumerism is idolatry with a barcode. It hurts everyone. EVERYONE.
Jesus came to not only save us for heaven, but to save us from world. Not earth-world, rather, world-world. The way we think. The man. The system.
And part of being a Christian is sticking it to the man. In love, of course.
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