Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How to think about Black Friday theologically

It seems to be a general trend on Black Friday for hoardes of us to go out and shop, but then flagellate ourselves for being so conspicuous in our consumption. Other folks avoid shopping on that day (they don't like the crowds, they wish to remain morally superior, etc.). In all likelihood millions participate in it without even pondering the moral or spiritual implications of the day. They just want to go out and accomplish their holiday shopping list on a day with big discounts, and they enjoy the drama of late night/early morning shopping.

This blog post is specifically challenging those who reflect on Black Friday from a spiritual (and perhaps especially a Christian) perspective. Here's my assumption: that many of us are secretly judgmental of such a day, find something problematic with the Advent season opening with such a secular and consumptive event, and think something ought to be done to remember the "reason for the season," bringing renewed focus to the spiritual dimensions of the season rather than such a crass practice of shopping till we drop.

Here's where I think this secret judgmentalism goes astray. First, it strays in being so quickly judgmental, almost hypocritical, for even those of us who don't shop on Black Friday still do consume plenty of material goods. The true ascetics among us are few in number.

Second, it strays because it lifts up a particular spirituality as being a Christian and theologically astute one when in point of fact it is not. It is helpful to remember that it is the assumption of Geek paganism and philosophy, not Christianity, that all knowledge of God comes through the activity of the mind purged of impressions received by the senses. Ancient philosophers believed that "only when freed from the perception of tangible objects can the mind lift itself to God" (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought).

One of the more famous and quoted versions of this comes from Celsus in his criticism of the Christianity he encountered in his studies:

If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God.
However, Christianity does not approach spirituality in this way. Christianity is earthy, materialistic, tangible, precisely because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came down to earth in Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary. There is absolutely nothing in the entire Christmas narrative that expresses spirituality according to the view of it espoused in ancient philosophy. Just the opposite, Christianity was so earthy that it was roundly condemned by all early ancient philosophers who encountered it.

So, what this means is that whenever we preach sermons or lift up laments against days like Black Friday in a way that buys into the detachment philosophy, completely misses the point, and drifts from classical Christianity.

This does not mean that Black Friday is a crypto-Christian liturgy. Christians do have something to say about Black Friday; it's just that what we have to say about the day isn't what we typically say about it.

What we should say about Black Friday is that God is active in and through Black Friday. God is at the mall on Black Friday. It is much more interesting to try to read the biblical narrative while at the mall on Black Friday than to sit apart from it, detached, and express condemnation of all those fools who went out shopping at 3 a.m.

How precisely, or where precisely, is God on Black Friday? Well, for one, God is working in and through all the craftspersons who have designed, with love and fidelity, art and goods that serve their neighbor. Stores all over the world have lots of material goods we can purchase that honor God as a material creator who has given the vocation of craft and art to those created in God's image. We fail to honor our neighbors who work in factories and design items for the holiday season when we simply scoff at holiday shopping without realizing that this is how they make an honest and meaningful living.

Second, God is concerned for the poor who are suffering because we have not attended to how and what we purchase with more care. God is concerned for the underpaid workers at the kiosks. God is concerned about how we treat each other and speak to each other while we're at the mall together. God may be especially concerned for those who are unseen, working in the background, who clean the floors, repair the shelves, and in every way do the hard work of making sure we can celebrate this holiday season. God is certainly concerned for any underpaid or unjustly employed workers who made the items we purchase, and God cares about the quality of the items we purchase. God made a beautiful and wonderful creation, and the "stuff" that we make should echo God's creativity and beauty.

Finally, from a theological perspective, there actually is something appropriate about buying stuff in honor of Christmas. God in Christ "bought" into material creation. We participate in this in some small ways through our own purchasing and gifting. We should not overlook this, and we so seldom say it that it's almost like we all go shopping without ever believing that shopping is an appropriate and faithful activity, within proper limits and according to ethical norms we can learn in Christian community.


  1. Interesting. A few thoughts while I wait for the rice to finish cooking ...

    Your point about materialism and Greek philosophy is a good one. Yet that is not the only critique that Christians make about Black Friday and consumerism in general. Too often our goods become false idols in which we put hopes for happiness, fulfillment, success and social status. To rebuff a day celebrating consumption - when so much of our consumption is a chasing after false hopes, a building of houses on shifting sands - seems perfectly appropriate within our faith's teachings. This is not a radical asceticism vs. indulgent consumerism dichotomy ... but something more subtle. Bring in the ends of both of those extremes, and we have ourselves a good - and realistic - discussion.

    Accepting that the basic system of commerce - the buying and selling of goods - is itself morally neutral, the way in which it is conducted on Black Friday is quite sad and morally questionable. Big Box retailers cut prices on goods that people of modest means might not otherwise be able to afford. However, in order to get those goods, the retailers require those folks (of modest means) to get to the store early, rain or shine, warm or cold, and wait outside just so they can buy their stuff. Sometimes, they literally have to run through the store to be among the first few at the counter. Injury and even death has been a part of the Black Friday game in years past. Meanwhile, television cameras capture the image of folks huddled outside of Wal-mart and Best Buy waiting to get that great new item, and broadcast these images for widespread mockery.

    Meanwhile, middle and upper class folks shop leisurely later in the day, or later in the season, not having to put themselves through the physical and emotional (and spiritual?) abuse of waiting outside in the cold on a holiday evening just so that their child could get the newest toy, or the family could get the best plasma television.

    And of course, I think we can and should critique the culture that equates owning stuff to being a real person (see the housing bubble, mortgage crisis, Black Friday, etc. etc.). The less you have in this culture, the less real you are. We step over the homeless, but we pay attention to the wealthy. We pay attention to the person who accumulates houses, businesses and degrees, but we give little attention to the person who has very little. Critiquing this system is part of the calling of our faith, for the system devalues people and pushes them to hold claim to false gods, sending our whole society into a reckless cycle that in turn benefits only a few and perpetuates the plight of the poor.

    Finally (my rice is ready), your point about judgmentalism is a good point. Even if we do not partake in the rat race of Black Friday, we surely do consume day in and day out. Taking potshots at those who shop on Black Friday is more often than not a classist sneer.

  2. This is a great post and very Confessional and Lutheran.

    Luther´s insight that started the Conservative Reformationn wasn that the Holy Apostle St Paul´s contrast, in Romans 8 between flesh/body vs spirit/Spirit was not the movement from vice to virtue , the profane to the sacred as the scholastics imagined , who had baptized aristotelian thought into the church, rather the contrast is a movement from Virtue to Faith, alone, in Christ alone.

    This was, in fact, the seed of the Lutheran distinction of Law and Gospel that our Confessions are really intended by it´s authors to be a live "how to" demonstration from cover to cover. Every treatment of every single section of every confession can only be understood when seen as an exposition of law and gospel.

    But to see this, we need to see exactly what your article points out. The Old Lutherans to show the point you make use two other modalities of Law and Gospel: 1) Two Kingdoms, and 2) Two Kinds of Righteousness. These are really just two other pure forms of law and gospel. The Earthly Kingdom includes EVERYTHING we can see and do in our bodies, including the civil estate, but especially including the churchly estate. And so true earthly righteousness also includes everything we can see or do as well, and that fully includes the Holy Liturgy and administration of word and sacrament. FC art VI "these are all things that pertain to our earthly existence and will not be needed in the resurrection".

    And then we see that Law and Gospel are not merely a form of systematic theology where we learn to properly sort bible passages. It is instead something far more radical and elegant, and more contrary to Reason:

    The entire purpose of Law and Gospel is this:

    We include EVERYTHING we can see or do in our bodies into the earthly kingdom of earthly righteousness where the law and mortification make love (aka "daily bread) happen, so that we can see to include only ONE thing, invisible faith alone, in Christ alone, in the Heavenly Kingdom of the Holy Gospel. "This faith is meaningless in that earthly kingdom, except to God and a troubled conscience" (Luther in his sermon referenced in art VI of the FC www.thirduse.com)

    God bless you with your work here. It will be a great blessing. You see clearly the neo-scholasticism that we modern american Lutherans suffer from that can see no difference between the Lutheran and calvinistic view of sanctification and the 3rd use of the law.

    bless you!