Rockefeller Center sprawls for 22 acres in one of the densest cities on earth, its highest tower stretches 850 feet into the sky, and it has over 8,000,000 square feet of office and retail space. Within this complex dwells a seven-ton bronze sculpture of Atlas. He carries the celestial vault on his back as punishment for fighting the Olympian gods. His countenance is stoic, and he glares, not at the Greek gods but at the Christian one as he stands directly across St. Patrick’s Cathedral. To him all gods are the same, all distasteful. Even in his punishment, he refuses to buckle, bend his knee, or beg for mercy. Instead, he endures and carries. He has been doing so since Lee Lawrie sculpted him with the help of Rene Chambellan in 1937.

Six blocks uptown, another Atlas rests on top of the entrance of Tiffany & Co. He is nine-feet tall and carries a clock. Charles Tiffany’s friend, Henry Fredrick Metzler, a carver of nautical figureheads, carved him in 1853. Metzler’s Atlas is not a hulking figure; instead, he is tall, trim, and taut. More importantly, this celestial clock does not bow his back. His punishment looks effortless. He looks as if he is going to take a step onto Fifth Avenue with one foot off his base. This Atlas projects dignity, an apt image for the world’s most famous jeweler.

These Atlases are like bookends. They circumscribe a place. Between these titans: Patek Philippe, Saks Fifth Avenue, The Regis Hotel, Victoria’s Secret, Rolex, Harry Winston, and the list goes on. There are few stretches of retail space more luxurious and outrageous. Here we enter into the heart of consumerism where its blood enters and exits. If we take a more spiritual perspective, this space is the inner sanctum where the ark of consumerism dwells. Instead of cherubim with outstretched wings, two Atlases stand proud with celestial orbs. Instead of the presence of Israel’s God on the mercy seat, Mammon appears. And inside the ark, there are no commandments, no manna, no budding rod. Instead, this ark contains licentiousness, hunger, and covetousness. Here consumers get a chance to dance with the devil who promises the world but takes their souls. If you want proof, walk this stretch with eyes and ears open. Hear, see, and feel the allure of consumption; and consider its outcome.

A Prototype

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Religious arks have always existed in different iterations. In Zechariah 5, the prophet has a vision of a basket with a lead cover. Zechariah asks the angel what is in the basket. The angel says that the basket contains the iniquities of the people. When the lead cover is removed, Zechariah sees the content and is taken aback to see a woman seated, the personification of wickedness. At this point, the prophet sees two people with the wings of storks. They hold this basket midair as they await the building of a house in the land of Shinar to place her.

When she takes her place, she will be the goddess of that region, and her house, a temple; her inner sanctuary, a Holy of Holies; her basket, an ark. She will also have two cherubim in the form of people with stork-like wings. She will control Shinar of Babylon, the paradigmatic city of pleasure and materialism in the Bible. It is no wonder that the Bible sees Babylon as the city that most opposes God; a rival divinity dwells there. It starts in Genesis 11 in the plain of Shinar where the people come together to build a tower to reach the heavens. By the time of the book of Revelation, it is the setting for the last battle and the final victory of God.

Hallelujah!

Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,

for true and just are his judgments.

He has condemned the great prostitute

who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.

He avenged on her the blood of his servants. (Rev. 19:1-2)

The book of Revelation may not have a basket with a lead cover, but it does contain the framework of hieratic architecture where space is circumscribed and depicts how it works in the lives of cities.

Consuming Babylon

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Most modern consumers are sophisticated and mature; they know that material things don’t satisfy. And most don’t consume for conspicuous display. Instead, the thought of being satisfied or the hope of it, no matter how fleeting, is what matters and what allures. In other words, it is not the capture but rather the hunt that moves people to consume. The thought of a new bag and the search for it is better than the bag itself. This illusion must never be broken. The first rule of consumerism is not to talk about the unseen logic of consumerism.

Consumerism may seem like a feeble house of cards, but it is one of the most powerful forces on earth. It possesses the power of absorption. If someone fights it by emphasizing quality, then the spirit of consumerism will commodify quality. If another attacks consumerism by touting the beauty of simplicity – less is more – then the marketplace will commodify simplicity, and consumers will quickly learn that simplicity is expensive and complex. Even consumerism’s most trenchant critic, Karl Marx, can be reduced to a blowout sale on Amazon Prime Day. The outcome is that we are enslaved. But we don’t see it as such because the shackles are made of cashmere, gold, silk, and desires. In the end, consumerism is a false divinity.

The problem with consumerism is paradoxical. Because it constantly craves, consumers are always hungry and develop stamina for covetousness. They think about further gains, which renders present joy an impossibility. John Milton made this point in his description of Mammon in Paradise Lost.

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell

From Heaven: for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts

Were always downward bent, admiring more

The riches of Heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,

Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed

In vision beatific. (1.678)

Always to covet more severs the jugular of joy in the present. No wonder those who value wealth in the epistle of James already have moth-eaten clothing and corroded silver and gold (James 5:2-3).

We know these points both intellectually and experientially. So, the question is why does consumerism grow? We must consider that a spirit of consumerism holds power over most of the world. Fifth Avenue possesses spiritual sway, just as other stretches of consumeristic space in other cities. These arks exist and rival divinities sits enthroned. There is more than meets the eye.

The Showdown

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Consumerism is the intercontinental champion of thriving cities. He waves his belt like a fighter in the ring in Istanbul, Seoul, Hong Kong, Paris, and London. But it has one Achilles’ heel, and God has entrusted that neutralizer to the church. The only thing on earth that consumerism cannot absorb or purchase is the grace of God. When Philip, one of the seven deacons in Acts, arrived in Samaria, he came across a practitioner of magic, Simon. Simon saw the miracles that God wrought through Philip and was impressed. He was even more impressed with John and Peter, who came from Jerusalem and laid hands on the Samaritans, who received the Holy Spirit.

When Simon saw this power, he wanted to purchase it. “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19). Direct and succinct, Peter answers, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:20). What a response. You can’t buy it; you can’t have it.

The fundamental tenet of Christianity is that you cannot buy God’s grace because it is too costly. Here Christianity crushes the spirit of consumerism. The moment you think you can purchase grace or barter for it, no matter the currency or the perceived exchange rate, you walk on the road that leads to perdition. Bankrupt people don’t have purchasing power. As St. John says to the Laodiceans, who thought they were faring well, “you are naked, poor, and blind.”

Hope, however, exists because even though we cannot purchase or merit God’s favor, there is one who has merited it for us. To use the words of 1 Peter, we were not purchased with gold or silver, but “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19-20). When consumerism understands this point, it falls to its knees, helpless and powerless, and kneels, like Dagon, before God. Consumerism will be consumed. This fall starts with the confession of a beggar, and it is sweet music to the ears of all because we receive what we need through the merits of Christ.

Consumerism, on the other hand, is an audial mirage, a Siren’s call. It says we can find joy by acquiring, but in the end, we are dashed onto rocks of buyer’s remorse, eschatologically charged. Gold and silver perish, and what it purchases spoils just as fast. Hence, Christianity says God saves by grace alone through faith. When the church communicates this grace, she sets people free.

The Mission

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As long as the church can overcome the spirit of Simon, she can defeat consumerism. The problem is that Simony has a long legacy in the church — the dangling of spiritual blessings for profit. Dante has immortalized those guilty of Simony in Circle VIII of his Inferno. There Simonists are upside-down in holes that resemble baptismal fonts, sinking deeper into hell. They flail in pain while flames lick their feet. Dante even has a conversation with one of them, Pope Nicholas III, who mistakenly believes that Dante is another pope, Boniface. It seems all medieval popes are Simonists.

Dante uncharacteristically rails at Nicholas and shows little compassion. He even points out that Peter did not pay Christ to obtain the keys of the kingdom and did not ask Matthias for gold when he was added to the apostles. Vergil approves of Dante’s words and so should we.

Today, the church does not sell offices to the highest bidder through Christie’s or a more modest venue, eBay. However, money is very much in the minds of pastors, elders, bishops, and the like. In the age of the megachurch, money is central. For example, Sarang Presbyterian Church in Seoul built a complex for 210 billion won ($173,000,000). Choongsung Presbyterian Church is another congregation with a behemoth of a building (280,000 square feet of office space and a 3,000-person auditorium). The difference is that this building is up for auction after defaulting on mortgage payments. According to The Korean JoongAng Daily, many churches in South Korea have overextended themselves because of easy access to credit. Who says bigger is better? Apparently, Presbyterians.

What is true of Seoul is true of other cities. St. Thomas Episcopal Church in the heart of New York in 2009 spent $22,000,000 to restore her stained glass windows. According to the New York Times, the church plans to finish the restoration, which will cost another $10,000,000. Church planting data is also illuminating. According to Stephen Gray, the author of Growing Fast-Growing Churches, the average church plant costs $200,000 to $300,000. According to the Lewis Center of Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary, that number is much higher; new Methodist churches cost $300,000 to $500,000.

Churches may not sell titles, offices, or indulgences, but they do need money to grow their campuses, pay their growing staff, and maintain their buildings. Herein lies the issue. Financial need, sometimes great, is structurally built into the church. Simply put, church just costs too much. I’m not suggesting all churches must be barebones and aesthetically denuded. Moreover, I acknowledge that there is a place for extravagant worship. All we need to do is remember Jesus’s acceptance of the woman with the alabaster jar. But if churches can only stay solvent with big budgets or even start, then something has gone awry.

Perhaps the church unwittingly has become a mirror image of the world with its crass slogans — time is money, greed is good, and cash is king. The church looks like any other organization; she loves money, is too polite to talk about it, and is afraid to speak against it, all the while the spirit of Simon is alive and well.

The New Testament witness grates against these trends. Jesus talks about the deceitfulness of wealth (Mark 4:19), the conflict of serving God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24), the importance of holding onto wealth lightly (Matthew 19:21-26), the challenge of giving to those who can never repay you (Luke 6:32-35), and the foolishness of greed (Mark 8:36). The epistles develop these points further. 1 Timothy states that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:6-12), 1 John warns readers not to love the world (1 John 2:15-17), and James pronounces woes upon those who exploit laborers (James 5:1-6).

The church, therefore, must have a prophetic voice. Like Elijah and John the Baptist, she must be a voice calling out in the wilderness even if only a few hear. For a season or two or three, the church may have to offend economic sensibilities and consumeristic impulses to be faithful in her calling. Because the church has been catering to people’s appetites instead of challenging and redirecting them, she may lose people when it commits to being a faithful witness. Like Peter, she may have to say “May your silver perish with you.”

For the church to succeed, she must have faith that what people need is the message of grace. She can’t sell it though, not even at a discount. She can only give it for free to those who know they have nothing. With people no longer cast as consumers, they can take their first steps towards becoming worshipers. At that point, they will begin to understand something counterintuitive. They are rich because they are poor, clothed in the finest garments because they are naked, and see because they admit that they do not see.

Postscript

Pandemics and events of this scale level things – lives, plans, schedules, and the semblance of control. Without a doubt, Covid-19 is tragic. I live right across the street from Mount Sinai hospital in New York City. A few hundred feet away the medical tents of Samaritan’s Purse are pitched. I hear sirens from my living room with my family as well as the metal blades of helicopters cutting the air, hovering over my building. However, I know not a maverick molecule exists in God’s world. Also because God can bend even the most tragic events towards good ends, we should pause, reflect, and listen to what the Spirit of God might be whispering in the stillness of our homes.

The economy has stalled, shops have closed, and the markets have plunged. Mammon is down for the count. What we could not do, God has done through an invisible pathogen. We have an opportunity now to reimagine the world. When Covid-19 passes, and it will pass, God may give us a chance to reshape our priorities and society.

Ecclesiates 7:2 says: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.” Wisdom lives in these words as we weep now. May God grant us discernment and courage for the days that lie ahead.

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Posted by John Lee

John Lee is the Head of Upper School at the Geneva School of Manhattan. He is ordained in the CRC and serves a church in the East Village of Manhattan. His PhD is from Yale University, and loves writing, meeting new people, and connecting diverse communities.

  • Kiyoshi01

    It’s an interesting take. One could just as easily view the same stretch of shops as a display of craftsmanship. Sure, the tourists who flock there are probably not thinking of things in quite that way. But, in a lot of cases, the prices are justified. As for the watches, consider that many of these companies were founded by Huguenots who fled to Switzerland. Their expression of craftsmanship was an expression of their faith.

    I agree that Christianity can help us put our culture into perspective. That said, I don’t have much hope for the institutions that make up the remains of Western Christendom. Trump Tower stands within that same stretch between the two statues of Atlas. The building and its most famous resident represent much of what you describe. And there’s little craftsmanship that one can find in and around the world of Trump. From his ill-fitting suits to the tacky faux gold on his buildings, everything about Trump is cheap and tacky. Even so, the most influential conservative Christians in America have prostrated themselves before him. The choir of the SBC’s flagship church sings paeans to MAGA, and, this week, Al Mohler backtracked on his prior criticisms of Trump and has now embraced him.

    The timing seems odd, given that much of the pain we’re currently enduring is the result of a ten-week period during which Trump was more interested in playing golf, holding Nuremberg-style rallies, and parroting right-wing conspiracy theories than in preparing to respond to the pandemic that was headed our way. Countries like Germany and Korea are in much better shape because their leaders were not so driven by personal vanity and narcissism. So, what is Mohler and his Gospel Coalition suggesting to us? I’d suggest that we’re at the point where Western Christendom and its institutions have largely become the enemy of Christianity. When those who claim the mantle of orthodoxy prostrate themselves willingly before before a man who embodies all of the worst aspects of Fifth Avenue consumerism (without any of the good), I’m not sure what the church has to say to those who line up to buy an Hermès scarf. At least the scarf embodies a high degree of craftsmanship, which cannot be said for the taco bowl at the Trump Tower cafeteria.