Tag Archive: Desire

A student brought up in class this week that during a visit to the Nike campus here in Portland, one of the employees mentioned that Nike basically “tells us” to buy their stuff. They actually “know” how to get us to want their stuff. They told my student their strategy: simply put their products on celebrities, and then watch the trickle down effect.

In Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he describes our experience at the http://regainingparadise.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/anticonsumerism.jpgmall as one in which the “good life” is one display before us in the “icons.” Those “icons” are actually quite familiar objects–they’re the mannequins dressed in the season’s newest threads and designs placed in each store’s front windows for you and me to see as we walk by. We’re invited to imagine an alternative future for ourselves, the “good life” as it is embodied in those icons and how it could be embodied by us. All that is required is the religious transaction of making our offering and receiving the blessing of the priest.

Similarly, Nike seems well aware that the good life can be on display on the living icons that are today’s celebrities.

I’m using Smith’s book in my classes to teach my students about how culture shapes us to be particular kinds of people–people that perhaps we did not know we were before we thought about it in class. We’re learning just how substantially we’ve been shaped by culture, rather than how much we think we’re immune to outside influence. Contrary to how we might imagine ourselves, we’re not autonomous, deliberative, rational, choice-making creatures. Often, we’ve been habituated into certain ways of being and doing in the world, before we’re even aware of it. You were saying the Pledge of Allegiance before you had much of a choice in the matter. And by the time you had a choice, you simply would have chosen to keep doing it because you would have been habituated into the story of why it was good to do so.

Learning about this phenomenon of our cultural formation is a strategy to help us think about how we might participate in the counter-formative efforts of influencing the world in manners that are faithful to the ways of Jesus, rather than damaging and destructive ways of culture. Consumerism–the sort that Nike seems able to foster–is often damaging and destructive. It makes us competitive–we start comparing ourselves with each other and our relationships get bent way out of shape. It messes with our desires to the extent that our sense of satisfaction becomes insatiable and we know no contentment. It even replaces religion, and we end up chasing transcendence by means of consumption. The theologian William Cavanaugh describes this phenomenon well:

Although the consumer spirit delights in material things and sees them as good, the thing itself is never enough. Things and brands must be invested with mythologies, with spiritual aspirations; things come to represent freedom, status, and love. Above all, they represent the aspiration to escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movement of desire promises the opportunity to start over. (William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, 48)

Desire in consumeristic culture is endlessly deferred, such that obtaining one object of desire is perhaps momentarily fulfilling in an almost religious sense, but soon replaced by further desire—for the next new innovation or improvement, the next new fashion, the next invention.

Not a single one of us is not damaged by this.

When I was in elementary school, Nike released its classic Air Jordan line of shoes. I never owned a pair of those shoes. But I knew kids who did. And I was jealous of them. I wanted a pair of those shoes so bad. I don’t know why. And I don’t know where the desire came from. I didn’t play basketball, nor did I care much for watching the sport. But Nike did something to me and my peers. They created a world. They made culture.

In the video below, the artist Malkemore tells the story of a kid who was sold the vision of the “good life” contained in the mythology of Air Jordans. It was ultimately a vision that failed. Like with most art, what happens in this 5-minutes video, with its rich imagery and poetic lyrics–far more is said than I could ever communicate here. But a few key lines and scenes stand out. I list them below.

–Notice the littlest kid in the video, shooting baskets in the plastic kiddie basket hoop—he’s already being inculcated into the way of life that will allow him to be made captive to the lies of what Nike will inevitably try to sell him.

–Notice the line: “The commodity makes us want it” — how does a commodity have power over us?

–Notice the words that the children’s choir is singing in the background — they ultimately tell a tragic story.

–Notice one of the final lyrics: “Consumption is in my veins”


In a world of commodities and the ongoing competition over our desire, where is the space for God?


My Ongoing Project

Many of you who know me personally have heard me say out loud that what I’m working on in general is an attempt to bring postmodern philosophy and theology into conversation because I believe both disciplines have something they can learn from each other. As a Lutheran, I believe my tradition in particular has some helpful things to offer to postmodern philosophy (and Lutherans in particular, strangely, seem to be missing from the conversation – the Reformed and the Catholics are already there and they tend to be who I’m reading), and at the same time, that postmodern philosophy can lend us some grammar to help flesh out some of the things that we take as elements of our rich theological heritage.

I anticipate that this may be something of a lifelong effort. It will most likely make me some enemies. As of late, the church is generally afraid of postmodernism, unfortunately as a result of contemporary apologetics which teaches that the primary problem of postmodernism is relativism, and thus that Christians cannot be postmodern because postmodernists do not believe in Absolute Truth. (Apparently believing in Absolute Truth is constitutive of being a Christian these days [and it’s treated as if it’s always been this way – no it hasn’t], but the strange thing is the requirement to believe in Absolute Truth doesn’t appear in the Christian tradition earlier than in the last century or so.) If you don’t believe in Absolute Truth, you’re not a Christian – or so the argument seems to go.

Well, I don’t believe in it. So there.

But as you might expect, I definitely have my reasons for not believing in it. Maybe I’ll post some of them some day. As a thought-provoking statement, consider this snippet from Martin Luther: “When however, the Word of God truly comes, it comes as the enemy of our thinking and desires. It does not allow our thinking to stand, even in those matters which are most sacred, but it destroys and eradicates and scatters everything.” (Lectures on Romans) Anachronistically, Luther was a postmodern deconstructionist.

Back to my original issue however. I recently came across a quote that captures well what I’m up to. My various projects and my upcoming-currently-in-progress dissertation, will each be an instance of the larger ongoing project of bringing the two disciplines into dialogue. Here’s the quote that struck me.

“Systematic theology and philosophy of religion each suffer from a mutual condition of contemporary isolation. The split manifests itself in how systematic theology is largely carried out without taking much notice of what is taking place in post-metaphysical and postmodern philosophy of religion, which tries to develop an interpretation of religious issues without immediate recourse to conditions beyond history [which means only appealing to what has already been said in the church tradition]. Often, it instead develops its insights with reference to past philosophical positions and established church teaching. On the other hand, most of postmodern philosophy, including postmodern philosophy of religion, seems to take little or no notice of the major elements that structure the content of Christian traditions, and instead focuses on the abstract, formal, and/or metaphysical elements that these traditions have brought about [like defining God using strictly Greek metaphysical concepts and reading them back into the Scriptural narrative, like omnipotence, omnipresence, etc]. Can these two disciplines then be brought into a more fruitful relationship with each other, and if so, how? I think they can, and this book is an attempt to make this happen. The major reason for doing this is that I remain convinced that the central content of the Christian tradition has much to gain from a close encounter with postmodern philosophy. By ‘the central content,’ I mean the story of Jesus Christ and how he can justifiably be thought to reveal God (given that we later specify more extensively the understanding of ‘reveal’ and ‘God’).”

Jan-Olav Henriksen, Desire, Gift, and Recognition: Christology and Postmodern Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 3-4.

For those of you wondering what I mean when I talk about what I’m up to, maybe that will help.