I recently finished an academic work by David Cloutier called, “The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age.” The title screamed my name when I saw it on the shelf of a university bookstore, for it tapped into a growing discomfort I have with our culture’s obsession with consumerism… and my inability to live differently. I preach that the stuff we buy does not satisfy our deepest longings, even as I stuff my house to the brim with toys, books and clothes, and spend exorbitantly on bubble tea (think Starbucks, but for tea drinkers, and best served cold).
Cloutier’s book was far more academic than I counted on when I purchased it, so it was a challenging read. Yet I appreciate his premise and his conclusions. Cloutier wants to move beyond the dichotomies over which we fight — such as the ongoing argument over whether consumption is the best thing for our economy or the worst thing. Rather, he wants to frame our economic choices in such a way that we know we’ve gone too far. Not all spending for ourselves is bad. But, how do we distinguish between self-serving luxury and spending for basic necessities and for the sake of justice?
I won’t do Cloutier justice in trying to summarize his argument. Instead, I want to name questions, based on his book, that help me discern whether my consumption is worthwhile or detrimental to my spiritual formation. Here are some of those questions:
- Why do I want to make this purchase? Is it for the sake of building up my status in the sight of others? Or, is it for genuine need or some other kind of creative enrichment?
- Is this purchase for my self-care? If so, is my self-care self-serving, or does it help me live out my vocation to love God and serve my neighbor?
- What’s the trade off in this purchase? For example, by spending more on my bubble tea (or Starbucks latte), have I traded off a purchase that could be more justice oriented? Does my “bubble tea” budget line item encourage me to buy cheaper food, which is produced in a way harmful to the environment?
- Does this consumption build a community of reciprocity? For example, while checking books out from the library is less convenient than buying books, it may build community by being a shared resource. The same could be true for a lawnmower shared between neighbors.
- Do I really need this thing? Or am I trying to fulfill a desire that is more sufficiently met by less tangible things, like friendship and beauty?
- Is this purchase for a special occasion or feast day? By making every day a feast day, do I cheapen the experience of genuinely beneficial celebratory excess?
None of this is simple or cut and dry. Over and over again, Cloutier comes back to the significance of community in our spending habits and choices. Not only should we consider others when making our purchases, but he encourages us to invite like-minded others to see and evaluate our spending habits. Others can help us see if we are giving in to the vice of luxury or choosing to prudently spend with restraint. While not an accessible read, the concepts of this book are vital to our culture today — inside and outside the church.
RACHEL YOUNGis the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.