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Part 1 is here, introducing the idea of relating reading scripture to hearing music, searching for what is spiritually significant in both. My last post pasted in my appendix on reading scripture from my 2003 book, Consuming Faith. My writing of that appendix already signaled my realization that I needed to account theologically for my use of the Bible in that book. But I was not done thinking about what kind of reading produced what kind of theological knowledge, especially in this case of consumerism/branding and spirituality. So when it came time to write an updated preface for the paperback edition of that book (2006), I wrote this:

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Preface to the Paperback Edition

The need for a paperback edition of Consuming Faith is a reminder that unbridled global American capitalism remains devastating news for much of the world’s poor, and that Christians and all people of good will have yet to feel this stranglehold for the violence that it is, not to mention voicing sufficient protest against it and imagining different worlds in the face of it. The occasion of this edition is but one tiny index of the absence of economic apocalypse toward which Christians, anyway, should be leading the United States.

This book was my attempt to show that corporate branding, a major feature of the young adult cultural landscape, should be a profound offense to those who hope to be worthy of the name Christian. Branding provides a structure for living similar to that of spiritual disciplines, and branding does so through an attempted and continually renewed psychological violence toward us, the “consumers.” And though the most ironic and media-literate among us may in some measure avoid this corporate address, no one can contest that branding depends to a monstrous degree on physical and other forms of violence against those who make the products for the fabled array of American brands.

Indeed, in many ways I failed to see the basic point of Consuming Faith when I wrote it: that our branded economy depends on the violent branding of the world’s laboring poor. Violence is the subtext of this book, violence for which most of us in the West share responsibility, and violence for which globalization continues to provide a false sense of innocence. Globalization’s unrelieved devastations: exploitation of the poor under capitalist rhetorics for “them,” and a corresponding learned helplessness for “us.” (It is instructive that the most common response to this book in the last several years has been: But shouldn’t people of good will be grateful that corporations create jobs for the poor around the globe?)

Anemic American Christianity is the great enabler of the abusive capitalism to which branding is bound. Whatever blame the Europeans deserve, by contrast, at least they experiment with other economic models, and no longer try in the main to call themselves Christian. Since Consuming Faithwas first published, we have learned that one of American Christianity’s chief sports, baseball, has used balls sewn from maltreated Costa Rican hands; American Christianity’s premiere holiday, Christmas, elevates the sale of toys made under noxious conditions in China; one of American Christianity’s great retailers was found to have employed illegal immigrants for poverty-wage janitorial jobs; American Christianity’s great warriors, the U.S. military, were revealed to have abused and tortured prisoners, and to have allowed legal room for torture in the first place.

This is not to blame American Christians for all the excesses of capitalism, but only to call out, from within the family, something deeply broken with Christian allegiances to American institutions, something ugly and shameful about American Christianity itself.

Should I say Christianity itself? Is this faith tradition to which I am heir, and to which I continually consent, a sop for whatever cultural powers are able to persuade it to exchange courage for loyalty? I would like to think that Christianity can and should resist corporate branding in particular and abusive capitalism in general, because Christianity takes economic relationships seriously—or it does so if you read the New Testament, anyway. I try to make this point strongly in this book: that Christians cannot be Christians without making their economic involvements, local and global, a test of their faith.

Several years later, I have some hesitations. By appealing to the New Testament, have I really found the common Christian denominator for which I was looking, a way to show (especially North American) Christians the relevance of corporate branding for New Testament Christianity? In basing my case on a reading of the New Testament, and especially Jesus within it, am I really hitting Christian bedrock in a way that should make a claim not only on Christians but on those who are open to Christianity’s message about a truly human life? I am no longer sure.

I now think of the claims made in Consuming Faith about Christianity as a plateau on which to rest, momentarily, rather than as a scan of something fundamental to Christianity’s many oceans. Why? Something about the New Testament’s strangeness is lost in the attempt to show its relevance for this “social issue” (and, perhaps—but who can say?—all “social issues”), and not because I am in danger of missing the “true message” of Christianity through making it speak to branding, and not because Christianity eschews “social” intervention. Rather, I no longer think such a weird multi-story as the New Testament can be accessed with stability from one clear direction. Read and heard as poems, dreams, adventures, aggressions, love letters, “reports;” read and heard by believers, half-believers, disbelievers, nonbelievers; read and heard in the Greek, the Latin, the translations of translations—of translations, and never in the “original;” read and heard by those in need of rescue, insight, salvation, wisdom, amusement, distraction, argument, survival, answers; read and heard between the covers of other sacred texts, amidst other ancient Christian writings, amidst one’s memories of childhood, amidst the incitement to explain one’s life, or through the need to change it; read and heard in varieties of sequence, out of sequence; read and heard backwards, set to music, in a cave, to one’s future self, to an animal, to someone dying. Yes, I use the New Testament tactically in Consuming Faith in a plateaued attrition with and against other American Christians, but I do not really know what it means.

But one way the New Testament and Christian tradition can be read and heard today, with respect to economic questions, and especially branding, is as a resistance against those powers and people who use Christianity to shore up something Christianity cannot be made to support: “America,” American branding, abusive capitalism. Christians can stand up for the weirdness of their texts against those who have wrung the “final” policy from them: a Socratic, psychoanalytic, genealogical Christianity: Christians showing other Christians and the general public what is not known about Christianity, in the hope for a radical Christianity that not only resists America’s Christian capitalisms, but prepares a Christian way of life whose coordinates cannot be found on the theological map today, a Christianity, if nothing else, beyond the desire for spirituality.

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My next post will say something about the difference between these editions and return to the question of whether there is a “right” way to read scripture and a “right” way to hear music.

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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