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”

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