Born to Shop

DECEMBER 2008: ESSAY

by Todd Steen and Steve VanderVeen

Introduction

“Born to shop.” This is the credo of our consumer culture. According to the world, shopping is all about making ourselves feel good, and fulfilling ourselves through obtaining possessions. By default, without thinking about it, we take a humanistic perspective and try to satisfy our ultimate need for meaning by focusing on ourselves. Instead of remembering how scripture defines us, we let the marketing world define us. In a world where many Christians feel powerless to impact our economic system, we often abdicate one of our major sources of influence.

As Christians we can rightfully reject the materialism of our society, but we must not leave it at that. We were created to engage in economic activity and to serve God in all that we do. We need to transform our shopping behavior to bring it under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Although we can certainly take pleasure in the good things that God provides us, shopping was not intended to be “retail therapy.” Shopping was intended to be a calling, a way to bring God glory by making choices that demonstrate love of neighbor and care for creation.

To think of shopping as a calling is not easy. Like work, it is an expression of service and worship to God; but also like work, it suffers from the influence of sin. As Reformed Christians, we believe we are called to (1) use our “talents and energy to steward the earth’s resources” to meet our physical needs and the physical needs of others; in addition, we are called to (2) “present the good news about Christ’s redemption and all of its implications to people around the world” (Bakke, 2005). Those two callings have been labeled the “cultural mandate” (see Genesis 1:28-30) and the “great commission” (Matthew 28:18-20).

As Christian professors of economics and business, we are familiar with various strategies to implement the cultural mandate and the great commission. Many of those strategies revolve around the relationship of work and vocation. For example, some Christians believe that we should follow the Apostle Paul’s example and be “tentmakers,” meaning that we should earn money from our jobs and invest that money in evangelism efforts consistent with the great commission. Others believe that we are to use work to give ourselves access to unbelievers in order to present the Gospel to them. Still others believe that work itselfcan be redeemed if we work to meet both our needs and the needs of others. In terms of economics, these strategies focus on the supply side of the economic system. In contrast, we wish to focus on the demand side.

In other words, we wish to focus on what influences the demand for work–the engine that creates our jobs in the first place. Consumer demand is the primary source of fuel that drives the economy, and it is significantly influenced by our collective shopping behavior. Unfortunately, even though shopping is a significant part of the activities of our lives, little analysis of it seems to have been done from a Christian perspective. On occasion, Christians will boycott a company because they do not agree with its practices, or they may make a concerted effort to buy “green” or purchase “fair trade” coffee. However, very few of us have developed a systematic approach to shopping, either at an academic level or at a practical level. On a trip to a Christian bookstore one will find many books on work and investing money, but very few on shopping. We wish to focus on the why and how of shopping from a Christian perspective.

Potential strategies for implementing a Christian perspective on shopping parallel the strategies for implementing a Christian perspective on work. One strategy is to consider buying less to invest more in evangelism efforts. A second strategy is to buy from a particular vendor or retailer in order to give ourselves access to an unbeliever. While we don’t criticize these responses, our focus is more in line with the cultural mandate and asks how can shopping itself be redeemed? In order to do this, we first consider the question: “Why are we born to shop? ” After we attempt to answer that question, we examine the question “How, then, do we shop? ”

Why We Are Born to Shop

We believe that there is a Reformed Christian perspective on shopping. If the purpose of life is to glorify God in and through all areas of life, then shopping–like working–can bring glory to God if its values are consistent with biblical principles. The Bible says that we were created to bring God glory (1 Peter 4:11; Matthew 5:14-16; John 15:7-8). But here’s an interesting twist; in glorifying God, we will find the meaning in our own life. So how are we to glorify God? Unfortunately, we tend to equate shopping with consumerism and materialism, and we tend to categorize such “isms” as evil. Thus, some may wonder whether we can glorify God in the way that we shop. But shopping, we believe, is included in the list of activities where we can both love God with all our hearts and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Several passages in the Bible suggest that shopping is part of the creation order and is an activity that can bring glory to God. Proverbs 31:10-31 extols the virtues of the wife of noble character, a woman who “selects wool and flax” in the marketplace, and then “sees that her trading is profitable.” This woman brings honor to her family, and “her works bring her praise at the city gate.” In the Old Testament, God’s people were forbidden to purchase goods on the Sabbath, but were allowed to buy goods the rest of the week (Nehemiah 10:31). Isaiah 65 suggests that when the Lord returns we “will build houses and dwell in them, we will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” These activities presuppose shopping and exchange. Revelation 21 describes the new heavens and the new earth as being centered on a holy city, a New Jerusalem, where the gates will never be shut, and “the glor y and honor of the nations will be brought into it.” It is hard to imagine a city without exchange, and in this holy city all transactions will bring glor y to God.

However, in our current default mode of shopping, we pursue our own glory and seek meaning for ourselves through the things we buy. We believe that it is part of our fallen human nature to want to make a name for ourselves:

The desire to make a name for ourselves infuses everything we do. We long to be remembered, to do something supremely important or significant, and to feel that our lives are special, unique. We do not want to be forgotten. We do not want our lives to be trivial. Our quest for significance is a prime motivator behind our actions. We want to make a name for ourselves. (Clark, 1997, p. 125)

But if shopping is one of those things that is part of God’s creation, then even though shopping is often motivated by individualism and materialism, it like us is redeemable. Because of our redemption through Jesus Christ, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are now able to pursue anew the cultural mandate. Therefore, we are able to pursue shopping anew: shopping can be an activity through which we love God and neighbor and care for God’s creation.

The way that we shop now is certainly more complex than in the past, but choices about what goods to purchase have always entailed ethical decisions. For example, 1 Corinthians 8 discusses the consumption (and therefore presumably the purchase) of meat sacrificed to idols. Believers were exhorted to consider the impact of their consumption on the “weaker brother.” And although our notion of “shop ’til you drop” may seem to have originated in the West, with the advent of the Internet, shoppers worldwide face a bewildering array of choices of goods to purchase.

Pursuing biblical values in shopping is part of the process of sanctification–or growing in Christian character–and can also contribute to shalom. Nicholas Wolterstorff (1983, p. 70) defines shalom as both a future condition when “justice and peace embrace” but also something that we strive for now–goodness and delight in three inter-related sets of relationships. The first relationship we strive for is a right and harmonious relationship “to God and delight in his service.” The second relationship we strive for is a right and harmonious relationship “to other human beings and delight in human community.” The third relationship we strive for is a right and harmonious relationship “to nature and delight in our physical surroundings.” We believe that striving for shalom is an intermediate purpose of shopping that fulfills our ultimate purpose, which is to bring glory to God.

How, Then, Do We Shop?

If we are to bring glory to God by pursuing shalom, what does that mean for our shopping behavior? How do we actually engage in shopping from a Christian perspective? The golden rule of “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) is instructive in helping us make decisions about which products to purchase. If and when we buy a product, we are implicitly giving support to that company in all of its choices in bringing this product to market. If we desire to promote shalom with our shopping activity, we have to be concerned with many more things than “Always Low Prices.”

Alexander Hill, in his book Just Business (1997), provides us with a beginning framework. As imagebearers of God, Hill believes we must imitate God’s characteristics of holiness, justice, and love in all we do. We can apply this framework to shopping. Holiness, according to Hill, consists of zeal for God, purity in communication–including speech and behavior–and accountability for actions. Therefore, in the pursuit of holiness, we should be concerned with how a product is branded and promoted such that it reflects God’s demands for our holiness. This means that we should look for products that are advertised honestly and with wholesomeness. For example, if we believe that sexuality is a gift from God designed to be expressed in marriage, we don’t want to support a firm that overemphasizes sexual images in its advertising.

Secondly, to promote justice, we should be concerned about the impact on both the workers and consumers involved of how products are produced and distributed. If we are relentless in pursuing low priced products outside of the context of shalom, then we may be inadvertently supporting unjust business practices. For example, when pursuing low prices we have to be careful not to support corporations that exploit children or undocumented immigrants who have no recourse when they are cheated.

Thirdly, to promote love, we should be concerned with the effect of companies and products on the environment. For example, we should ask whether companies “love” the environment or abuse it. If we believe that God calls us to take good care of His creation, we don’t want to purchase and use products that unnecessarily cause damage to the environment. In addition, we might want to consider whether a company tithes its profits out of love for others.

These three examples are just some of the different factors that we must consider if we want to be holy, just, and loving while we shop. Obviously, shopping becomes much more complicated if we take our calling to shop with a Christian perspective seriously; the information requirements of shopping to pursue shalom are substantial. Thus, we should adopt a shopping process that is compensatory and collaborative.

First, this process must be compensatory. This means that as shoppers we must be willing to allow some product and brand attributes that we want to promote to compensate for some that we don’t. This is because it is rare to find products that universally and completely reflect God’s holiness, justice, and love. For example, is it wrong for all people and in all circumstances to purchase undergarments from Victoria’s Secret? What about Wal-Mart? Each brand and type of product has particular meanings that marketers and society give that product, meanings that are both functional and symbolic. Victoria’s Secret may have clothing of the best functional quality, but what about the brand’s symbolic meanings? Wal-Mart may not have the best functional quality clothing, but does it have better symbolic meaning? Are there both good reasons to purchase and good reasons not to purchase both brands? As we evaluate our purchases, we will have to weigh a variety of characteristics of a product, and there will almost always be difficult trade-offs.

Second, shopping must become more of a community process than it currently is. We tend to believe that how we spend our money is a totally individual matter, and we generally refrain from making formal judgments concerning which products people buy. In doing so, however, we miss the opportunity to help each other become more faithful in our shopping activity. We need to depend on others in the body of Christ–a neighbor, a community organization, or a scholar whose material we read on the Internet–as not everyone can be well informed about each product that we have to purchase. Discussing shopping behavior will not only help us let our lights shine, but will also help us keep ourselves and others accountable.

So what would that process look like? The first step is to transform the pattern of our shopping into a more highly-involved and reasoned approach, instead of just relying on impulse spending. We have to ask ourselves: how much of our shopping is influenced by the buying environment–for example, how merchandise is laid out in a store? How much of our shopping behavior is based on our feelings–for example, how the experience of buying makes us feel happy? Most of all, how much of our shopping is based on faulty or selfish reasoning–for example, I’m buying this because I deserve it–that goes unchallenged in our own minds? The first step in shopping from a Christian perspective is being committed to a transforming of the patterns of our shopping behavior due to a transforming of our minds (Romans 12:2).

The second step is to gather information. What characteristics about the products in question reflect–or don’t reflect–holiness, justice, and love? This information-gathering process will require much time and energy, but is absolutely necessary if Christians are to fulfill their callings as shoppers. We need to take this calling at least as seriously as we take our desire to maximize our investment and retirement income. There are thousands of resources available for those investors who want to figure out how to receive the highest financial return on money that they invest; when it comes to earning greater amounts of money, we have access to all the information we need. Christians need to take the lead in developing resources to help promote shalom while we shop, so that we have the same amount of information on shopping as we do on investing.

The third step is to begin to make choices, weighing the positives and negatives of each product and brand, and allowing certain positives to outweigh certain negatives–a compensatory approach. This is certainly a difficult task. As we examine products and make decisions, we will run into a number of ethical conundrums. A company may market one product honestly but market another product deceptively. A multinational conglomerate may have so many layers that it is almost impossible to determine its impact on the environment. The process of making choices may seem overwhelming, but we need to begin, because we cannot be content with leaving shopping outside the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Throughout this process, we need the help and encouragement of our Christian community.

Conclusion

Our world tells us every day that we were born to shop, and to fulfill ourselves with our purchases. However, we were not born to let the marketing world define us, but instead to impact our world for Christ with our buying decisions. Shopping is part of God’s creation, a creation made through and for Christ. We were indeed born to shop, but to shop in a way that promotes shalom. If we make stewardly choices in our shopping, this demand-side activity can elicit shalomenhancing behavior from the producers of goods.

The notion that we are our “brother’s keeper” certainly applies to shopping. Shopping unites buyers and sellers: economically speaking, we truly are all part of the same body and we all need each other. Both shopping and working are important callings for Christians, and they are dependent upon each other. What we buy impacts what someone else produces, and influences not only whether someone else has a job, but what that person does on that job.

Transforming shopping is a lifelong task for Christians who believe that every square inch of the creation belongs to God. Changing shopping into a calling brings about many of the same challenges that renewing our work entails; both areas are shaped by our culture and pervaded by our sin. Scripture says that “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (Genesis 3:19); by extension, by the sweat of our brows will we also shop to fulfill our needs. But in the end, the work of promoting shalom and bringing God glory will be worth the effort of making shopping a worshipful sacrifice.

REFERENCES

Bakke, Dennis W. (2005), Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job, Seattle, WA: PVG.

Clark, Kelly James (1997), When Faith is Not Enough, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Hill, Alexander (1997), Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1983), Until Justice and Peace Embrace, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

 

Todd Steen is a professor of economics at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

 

Steve VanderVeen is a professor of management at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.