Paul Louis Metzger. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007. 191 pages.$10.88 paperback. Click on the image to purchase Consuming Jesus from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
There has been a massive influx of Christian literature and criticism regarding the multifaceted behemoth of consumerism in recent years. What could be dismissed as a fad of cultural criticism has begun to take hold in Christian communities across denominational and confessional lines (insofar as such lines still really exist in Protestant Christianity).
Up until now, the bulk of such writings were by Roman Catholic theologians (such as Eugene McCarraher and William Cavanaugh) and mainline Protestants (such as Daniel Bell and Stephen Long). And with the addition of Paul Metzger’s new book, Consuming Jesus, we now have a distinctly evangelical contribution to this growing body of Christian literature. While some evangelical Christians from the more emergent stream of Christian thought have offered a great deal of reflection on consumer culture (see David Fitch’s book The Great Giveaway, for example), most of them have done so by taking leave of evangelicalism (at least as much as possible). Metzger, by contrast, clearly speaks from within the broad American evangelical tradition as a distinct voice of loyal opposition. Unlike many others, Metzger does not wish to leave evangelicalism behind, rather he wishes to help take it to new and better places.
In so doing, Metzger offers us an excellent book that deserves a wide reading among Protestant Christians who are concerned about the church’s unity and mission in our world of global capitalism and about the church’s veneer of bourgeois consumerism. In seeking to speak prophetically and practically to the evangelical churches who, by and large, remain segregated along racial and economic lines throughout the United States, Metzger draws from distinctly evangelical resources, particularly Jonathan Edwards’s theology of the religious affections
Framed by a forward from Don Miller of Blue Like Jazz fame and an afterword by his primary inspiration, John Perkins, the Christian social rights activist and community developer, Consuming Jesus begins as the story of evangelical withdrawal from such theopolitical issues as racialization and poverty by way of early twentieth-century fundamentalism and the persisting contemporary political agendas of the Religious Right (see Chapter 1). Metzger then goes on to explore how the invisible hand of consumer preference and affinity groups shape evangelical churches into segregated, unfaithful subcultures that seek to appeal to the “felt needs” of strikingly homogeneous bodies of believers (Chapter 2). Following these historical and theological excoriations of the evangelical tradition’s failure to confront race and class divisions in the church, Metzger concludes the four remaining chapters with a theological “reordering” of the evangelical church’s vision and practices.
He first discusses the dynamics of consumerism in shaping the life of evangelical Christians and how Christ’s defeat of the powers and principalities informs our engagement with the powers of consumerism and racialization (Chapter 3). He colorfully tells this story through J. R. R. Tolkien’s imagery of Gandalf confronting the Balrog of Morgoth in The Lord of the Rings. He then moves into an analysis of what is in many ways the central fixture of the evangelical identity: the experience of encountering Christ as one’s savior, a savior who transforms the heart of the believer to love God and others (Chapter 4). Through an investigation of the Trinitarian and affective theology of Jonathan Edwards, Metzger argues that evangelicals are unfaithful to their own distinctive spiritual legacy when they do not envision the transformation of the heart through the Spirit as impelling them to love all humankind and break down the divisions imposed between people by racialization and consumerism.
Following his discussions of the atonement and the heart-driven transformed life of Christians, Metzger turns his attention to the corporate life of the body of Christ. He explores how consumerism restructures the “sacred space” of Christian gathering and worship, leading us to trade “stone altars for coffee bars.” Metzger suggests that the purging of sacred symbols, such as the Lord’s table, from the places of Christian worship have had the deleterious effect of removing crucial elements of Christian social formation (Chapter 5). The eclipse of the Eucharist and the sacramental imagination of the church strips the church of its central call to unity and communion, which is more necessary than ever to the consumer church of racialization and classism.
Finally, Metzger examines the dynamics of how the church must embody its mission of “building beloved community” in the face of the market forces that seek to determine the shape of our lives (Chapter 6). In conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., John Perkins, and others, Metzger articulates a vision of “redistribution” that has the power to reshape the ecclesial social lives of evangelical Christians and to have a profound impact on building a more just society.
The book ends in a beautifully constructed vision of the great eschatological banquet that should animate the Christian social imagination and empower Christian witness and action in a world shaped by the powers of market forces and consumer preference. Metzger suggests that the final solution to the problem of consumerism lies ultimately in the banquet table of the Lord, the table to which all are called and at which all are welcome.
On the whole, the book is a distinctly evangelical tour de force, powerfully challenging the evangelical church’s acquiescence to the forces of consumerism and commodity fetishism in the United States.
Eugene McCarraher has written strongly about the sort of highbrow moralism that passes for prophetic critique in many Christian discussions of “consumerism,” and his cautionary words are well-grounded and necessary.1 Consuming Jesus, I believe, passes such tests. Particularly in view of its evangelical audience, the incisive critiques and searching questions put forth in this book are indispensable.
To conclude, I have something of a confession. I have had the privilege of knowing Dr. Metzger personally and offering what meager assistance I could in this book’s genesis. But because of my insider’s perspective, I can assure readers that these are not the abstract musings of an academic but the galvanized conscience of a passionate and grounded ecclesial Christian. These reflections on the consumer church come from no ivory tower but from the trenches and the tears of ecclesial life and practice. Consuming Jesus definitely has much to teach Christians of all traditions, but most of all, I hope that evangelicals will take its message to heart and begin to learn anew how to embrace the sacramental imagination that tends toward unity energized in the pursuit of justice. I hope that Metzger’s work may help us find a fresh vision of the church’s catholicity and that through it we are helped in our call to embrace the church as the space where the Triune God longs to draw people from all races, classes, and backgrounds together into a beloved community, bound together in God’s liberating mission. It is this vision that animates this book, a vision of missional unity-in-love in which difference leads not to separation, but to communion, feasting, and joy.
1. See Eugene McCarraher, “The Enchantments of Mammon: Notes Toward a Theological History of Capitalism,” Modern Theology 21:3 (2005): 429-61. See also Chris Keller’s interview in The Other Journal with McCarraher, “Britney Spears and the Downward Arc of Empire.”