Christmas is a season that now comes pre-packaged with critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Although carefulness and concern over hyper-consumerism is always appropriate, in our desperate efforts to disassociate ourselves with Black Friday materialism, too often we push too far, yielding to a creeping dualism that’s unproductive for our economic culture and hazardous to Christmas cheer.
Over at Values and Capitalism, Elise Amyx provides a great critique of one such manifestation, Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album, which seeks to expose Christmas for what he believes it’s become: “an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.”
Again, critiques of a “festival of consumerism” are on target in certain respects, but by taking us through a variety of Stevens’s “carols,” Amyx demonstrates how Stevens falls into the trap of taking these themes too far.
Her conclusion: (1) “he confuses the market economy with consumerism,” and (2) “he elevates the spiritual above the material.”
As she goes on to explain:
Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy…When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism.
Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and known inside—not material traditions…
Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ…
…Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.
In the same vein, though without reference to Stevens or capitalism, Douglas Wilson offers a similar perspective, noting that “a godliness that won’t delight in fudge and eggnog is no godliness at all”:
Do not treat this as a time of introspective penitence. To the extent that you must clean up, do it with the attitude of someone showering and changing clothes, getting ready for the best banquet you have ever been to. This does not include three weeks of meditating on how you are not worthy to go to banquets. Of course you are not. Haven’t you heard of grace?
Celebrate the stuff. Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper. Embedded in many of the common complaints you hear about the holidays (consumerism, shopping, gluttony, etc.) are false assumptions about the point of the celebration. You do not prepare for a real celebration of the Incarnation through thirty days of Advent Gnosticism.
At the same time, remembering your Puritan fathers, you must hate the sin while loving the stuff. Sin is not resident in the stuff. Sin is found in the human heart—in the hearts of both true gluttons and true scrooges—both those who drink much wine and those who drink much prune juice. If you are called up to the front of the class, and you get the problem all wrong, it would be bad form to blame the blackboard. That is just where you registered your error. In the same way, we register our sin on the stuff. But—because Jesus was born in this material world, that is where we register our piety as well. If your godliness won’t imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness.
Some may be disturbed by this. It seems a little out of control, as though I am urging you to “go overboard.” But of course I am urging you to go overboard. Think about it—when this world was “in sin and error pining,” did God give us a teaspoon of grace to make our dungeon a tad more pleasant? No. He went overboard.