Monday, August 4, 2008

Spiritual consumerism

Buying is such an American pastime. Where else can going to the mall be an actual activity instead of a simple necessity when we actually need a new shirt or pants?

But the buying impulse can include more things than the latest gadget or clothes. It can take such the form of buying too many books or spiritual items, and that is the problem I struggle with frequently.

As my previous post indicated, I was much into pick-and-choose religion during my teenage years. If I thought the book was interesting, I'd buy it. If it looked "deep" or thoughtful, I'd buy it. Most of these books were related to some kind of spiritual idea like the I-Ching or the book was written by a beloved writer such as the Dalai Lama. Each new book promised that I'd find a beautiful spiritual gem inside or some new way of thinking about the world.

Two problems arose: one, frequently I wouldn't actually read the book; second, I'd get nothing of lasting value out of it.

The first problem, not actually reading the book, seems really silly. Why buy a book and not read it? We buy a lot of things we don't actually use, though. The latest gadgets which boast all these features we don't really know how to use or that one exercise machine which will finally get us in shape... we buy those with great frequency, so why isn't it that strange that someone would buy books and not read them? At least with books I can pretend I'm a great reader and be able to point to the bookshelf as proof.

This problem is rooted deeply in sloth. I'll admit it: I can be horribly lazy, and there's a lot of other stuff I'd frequently rather be doing. Sitting and reading a book sometimes is less appealing than watching yet another episode of Law and Order: SVU. It's true.

The second problem, getting nothing of value, shows that not all things are necessary, good or beneficial. There are good, useful books and there are silly, nearly worthless ones. I've bought "New Age" books filled with pop spirituality and with the lingering odor of a scam or cult. There are lots of books which promise a more fulfilling life but which give us little in the way of new or truly inspiring thoughts (a lot of stuff which passes for 'inspiration' is much, much too saccharine to be truly inspirational).

This problem is really about being a smart consumer. Instead of buying right into the promises which any product gives, we should look for a few things.

One is good word of mouth. For books and spiritual items, we should see how tradition has treated them. If it is strongly rooted in our Christian tradition, then it might be something of value. If it's a "fly by night" project or a spiritual fad, it might not be of great value even if it has good word of mouth right now. It's sort of like the admonition in Acts: if it lasts, it's of God. Such a good rule of thumb!

The second is to read what people you agree with and people you disagree with say about the book or spiritual item. Find the pros and cons from a variety of perspectives. If you're Anglo-Catholic, read what an evangelical has to say about it. Or a charismatic. Of course, just because they disagree with you doesn't make them or you automatically right. Someone could be seriously misled, so do some research and fact-finding to verify claims.

The third is to not buy it. I'm serious! For example, instead of buying a book on the rosary with the intent to integrate it into your spiritual practice, find free resources on the internet and try out the rosary first. If it becomes a strong part of your spiritual practice, then buy the book if you still need it. Or if it's a rosary itself you have your eye on, don't buy it right then. It might be a simple case of "Ooh, pretty, I want it!"

A lot of these would've saved my pocketbook. I myself have a lot of books I have yet to read, even after I converted to Christianity. The rest of Tillich's Systematic Theology goes unread while I buy a book on Aelred of Rievaulx.

Now I try to buy only as much as I need. I want to finish my birthday books before I even think of buying new books, and even then I want to work on some other books I own but have yet to read.

Do you have any experiences in spiritual consumerism?

No comments: