Mother’s Day, Termites, Advertising and Kikuyu Men. That Sort of Thing.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and that means we Americans are all busy spending money, just like we do with every holiday.  The latest estimates show Americans will spend $20 billion on Mother’s Day items this year, surpassing both Halloween and Easter.

I am sure you sense a critique coming, but before I launch into it, I have to confess that I am not a very good gift-giver.  What is worse, I haven’t always been as appreciative to my mother or my wife as I should be (on Mother’s Day or at other times).  So the questions about consumerism and holidays that I raise do not stem from my own virtue and righteousness.  Let me draw from some others.

First, it is worth noting that we Americans tend to turn every holiday into a spending spree.  I once met a fellow scholar from England who was visiting the United States over Memorial Day weekend.  He found the idea of “Memorial Day sales” to be very curious.  In Britain, Memorial Day (or Remembrance Day, as the Brits call it) is a somber event where one is supposed to honor and remember the many who have died in war.  It is serious business.  Why, my British acquaintance more or less asked, do we Americans think we should use the day to sell mattresses at half price?  Good question.

That raises the question of what consumerism does to the meaning, habits and practices of holidays.  Admittedly, as far as our holidays go, there is probably less self-indulgence in Mother’s Day as others.  It is more other-oriented than many.  Still, the economics of the thing has a way of shaping the meaning of the holiday.  Critics have argued that Mother’s Day is primarily an opportunity for florists, greeting card companies, restaurants and other companies to make a buck.

But has anyone ever been as ticked off about Mother’s Day as Anna Jarvis?  Angered by the “greedy” businessmen who dominated the holiday, she called them “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites.”

I like the “other termites” part.  It’s a nice touch.

Why was Anna Jarvis so mad?  Well, she pretty much invented the holiday.  Then she watched American consumerism kick in and take it places she did not want it to go.

Clever Title, don't you think?

Clever Title, don’t you think?

The story of the relationship between consumerism and Mother’s Day (and Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day) is told by Leigh Erich Schmidt in Consumer Rites:  The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.  (I received this book as a gift at Christmas one year — the ironies there make me happy).

Jarvis created the Mother’s Day International Association and convinced politicians, newspaper editors and church leaders to recognize the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1908.  A dedicated evangelical who grew up as a Methodist in West Virginia, Jarvis intended the day to be grounded in the church, where mothers would be celebrated not only for their domestic duties, (which, of course, is primarily how middle-class Americans thought of mothers in 1908) but to encourage others in their piety and roles in developing spiritual qualities in children.

And then, unintended consequences.  The very success of her movement ended up bringing her frustrations. Florists latched onto the day very quickly.  Jarvis had suggested that people wear white carnations to honor their mothers, a simple recommendation that sent prices for the flower skyrocketing each May.  By 1910, the floral industry began suggesting to customers that flowers also should be given to mothers as gifts.  And then, well, what the heck, why not decorate churches, homes, Sunday schools and cemeteries with flowers on the holiday as well?  Floral trade organizations encouraged aggressive marketing campaigns, while simultaneously advising their businesses that “the commercial aspect is at all times to be kept concealed.”  Americans, of course, are suckers for good advertising.  The catchy phrase, “Say it With Flowers” convinced many that spending money was the best way to express one’s affection for one’s mother.   By 1920, the holiday had been so deeply entrenched in the world of consumerism, that Jarvis despaired that the meaning of the holiday had been hijacked by commercial interests.  Hence the “other termites” thing.

Say what with flowers?  Do we know?

Say what with flowers? Do we know?

I can understand Jarvis’ frustration.  You may have noticed that consumerism bothers me somewhat.  That is fallout from living in Kenya for six years and coming back to the United States with new eyes.  Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out the implications of this system that envelops us.  I have been a bit suspicious that Mother’s Day is often more of a Hallmark-driven holiday than a grounded appreciation for important people in our lives.

You can imagine, then, that I was a bit nonplussed a few years ago when a Kenyan friend of mine told me about an African pastor he knew who had introduced Mother’s Day into his church.  This pastor had spent a number of years at a seminary in the United States and returned to Kenya with this idea.  Inwardly, I groaned a little, worried that it would end up simply embedding consumerism and materialism into this African church.

I should have known, though, that institutions that get transplanted in the soil of a different culture don’t grow into the same kind of plant.  Here is the situation:  traditional Kikuyu men were socialized into ordering around their wives (and other women) to do tasks. Like many traditional cultures, the Kikuyu have a fair amount of patriarchy embedded in the way they did things. One expression of this patriarchy was that husbands would not show any appreciation to their wives.  And that has all sorts of implications for how men and women related to one another, as well as how gender relations were structured.

We caught glimpses of this when we lived in Kenya.  There were times in public places when African men — strangers — would approach my wife and tell her how she should be parenting our young children.   And then expected her to act on those instructions.  Right there.

It takes a village to raise a child and it also takes a village to get women to act as the men want them to.

But the Kikuyu pastor, as my friend explained, introduced Mother’s Day as a way to instruct the men in his congregation that they were not only to do something nice for their wives, they were to recognize that women were important and valuable.  They were to tell their wives this and thank them for something they did.   These actions were quite different for the Kikuyu men in that church.  This pastor had not simply picked up the idea that Mother’s Day was about men buying flowers for mothers and wives.  He saw that the Christian faith had implications for gender relations — at the very least, men should not lord themselves over women.  There are far more implications for gender in the Christian faith than that, of course, but I find this a significant development for this church.

Whatever her flaws, (and she had them), Anna Jarvis would have been pleased, I think, with this Kenyan pastor.  She understood that the way we related to one another mattered.  Jarvis said that “any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter, than any fancy greeting card,” and she is probably right.  A card can prevent people from actually thinking about and articulating what is important in a relationship.

I’m not anti-gift (nor was Jarvis).  For many mothers, receiving gifts may be a meaningful way to accept the love of others.  But there are other ideas out there besides those we get in our advertisements.  Maybe we should think more deeply about whether gifts are the best way to express gratitude and honor those we love.  A phone call, a note, time together, making meals…I don’t know.  It probably depends.  I’m not very good at this, which means I need to think about it more.

I’d be interested to hear about any non-consumeristic ways you have of handling Mother’s Day.

Easter vs. Halloween

Well, I haven’t posted to this blog in a long time.  But now that Easter has come, I am going to get back into the routine of regular posts.

One might say that I gave up blogging for Lent.  There are, however, two small problems with this:  1) it is not true   2) blogging is not the sort of thing I would need to give up for Lent.

The reality is that I have had a rather rugged semester, in terms of demands upon my time, energy and commitments.  Something had to go.

But the aftermath of Easter seems like a good time to try to bring the blog back to life.

The aftermath of Easter seems like a good time to do this because I’ve been wondering about how Easter works in our holiday culture.  This hit me again after we drove out to visit my daughter in Boston over the Easter holidays.  This year Easter fell on the same weekend as Patriots Day, so Boston was all abuzz with the Boston Marathon and the Red Sox game and the anniversary of last year’s bombing.

Easter vigil with the Anglicans:  candles!

Easter vigil with the Anglicans: candles!

That was all well and good, but my daughter attends an Anglican Church, and the Anglicans were all abuzz with worship services:  a Good Friday service, an Easter vigil on Saturday night and an Easter morning worship on Sunday.  (We didn’t get there in time for the Maundy Thursday service).  High church Anglicans don’t skimp on these things:  communion each night, lots of singing, Bible readings, candles, bells, incense, sermons, responsive readings, etc. etc.  The three services added up to more than six hours worth of worship, which would make me seem super-spiritual except that I just had to let you all know that I was in church for six hours, so my worship-bragging negates any spiritual reward I get.

Actually, I was deeply moved and blessed by these services.

A lot of people don’t know what goes on inside different churches during Easter, even though Easter has a rather public presence.  And so, I began to think about how Easter compares to other holidays in the public imagination.  For instance, I had the impression in recent years that Halloween is gaining in interest among most Americans.

A little research indicates that our spending habits bear this out.  According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent about $16 billion on Easter this year, (mostly on the Easter meal, clothes, candy and gifts).  Meanwhile, we spent $7 billion on Halloween last year.  That’s  a little more than half of the Easter spending, which shows that — at least in monetary terms — Easter remains a bigger holiday.  But here is the kicker: that $7 billion on Halloween is up from  $3.3. billion 2005, which means that if trends continue, we will spend more on Halloween than Easter a few years from now.  (Christmas, of course, completely blows all holidays out of the water when it comes to spending:  $438 billion).

The economics of the thing supports my suspicions. Those of you who are close to my age probably remember that several decades ago Halloween was a low-budget event for kids.  When I was nine my parents spent a few bucks on red paint and white cardboard so I could make myself into a rocket costume.  (I usually dressed up as inanimate objects, probably for complicated psychological reasons that I still have not figured out.)  They then bought some cheap candy for trick-or-treaters.

Aren't we grateful that God has blessed us with so much prosperity that we can....put giant purple spiders in our yard?

Aren’t we grateful that God has blessed us with so much prosperity that we can….put giant purple spiders in our yard?

Think about the billion-dollar Halloween industry today.  Singles spend money by going to parties to get drunk and flirt in sexy costumes.  Major TV networks spend millions on Halloween TV events.  We plop down money for spooky haunted houses and corn mazes.  And what is up with the surge in Halloween lawn decorations?  I don’t know what your community is like, but does your neighborhood sport huge inflatable cats, pumpkins and ghosts in their lawn?  And do they string their houses in orange lights, in imitation of Christmas decorations?  Why do this, I ask myself?

It all makes me wonder why Americans are increasingly fixated on Halloween.

Maybe because it is a chance to revel in self-indulgence, romance, sexuality, and morbidity.  Maybe it is because, lacking any strong sense of regular worship, many Americans are trying to find meaning and contentment in annual festivities.  Maybe Halloween revelers are acting on religious impulses, but because these impulses are devoid of any specific theological content, they get diverted off into these other directions.  Or maybe, we subconsciously just have to bring the topic of death up in a non-threatening and non-serious way, because our culture avoids facing death everywhere else.  Or maybe it is just that we simply want an excuse to have fun — though given all of the other ways we have fun all throughout the year, I think there is more to Halloween’s fascination than that.

Halloween increasingly strikes me as about as fully pagan of a holiday that we have (“pagan” in the older meaning of the word, which refers to pantheistic, nature-worshipping religions, not the more recent meaning which is intended as an insult.)  If so, the rise of Halloween could be seen as another example that we live in a post-Christian culture.

The morbidity of Halloween bothers me a bit, but as I think about it, my concern on that point fades.  In the end, I am more concerned about the ways that consumerism has captured our hearts and souls than I am with how Halloween has captured it.

In other words, I don’t want Easter spending to grow.  I’d rather Easter be celebrated in churches than in shopping malls.  I’d rather the theology of Easter be worked out by pastors than by TV writers.  I’d rather we walked through the patterns and liturgies of Lent and Easter with the biblical story in mind than through the patterns and liturgies of haunted houses with nominally entertaining stories in mind.  Or to compare it to another holiday, I’m thankful that the Easter bunny just can’t compete with Santa Claus, who has co-opted Christmas in so many ways.

So I guess I’m also OK with all the money and media glitz being thrown at Halloween, if it means that it won’t be thrown at Easter.  It’s easy enough to get distracted in our holiday culture as it is.



Case’s Law #1: You Can’t Buy an Education.

(This is Part 3 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

My brother is a mathematician at another college.   As it turns out, students don’t always get great grades in math, especially if the flavor of math happens to be calculus.  My brother once received a phone call from a parent who was upset that his son had received a poor grade.  At some point in the conversation, the father asked, “Do you realize how much we are paying for this education?”

Now, how was my brother supposed to respond?  If the student really is a “customer,” and math is the “product,” I suppose he should have said, “Oh, that’s right.  I’m sorry.  You have paid full price for your college tuition and that means your son really did get all of those problems correct. I’ll just correct the gradebook right away and I promise it won’t happen again.”

New Picture

Here’s a great cost-saving idea for medical school! Since students are “customers” and education is a “product,” let’s stop pouring money into medical schools and just sell our degrees in surgery to the highest bidders! Let the market solve the problem!

This, of course, would be an absurd response.

But we are a bit absurd these days.  It’s more than a few complaining parents who tend to think that an education is something that can be purchased.  We don’t usually state it in these terms, but if you look closely you will see that many of our educational polices are built on assumptions that view education as an economic transaction.  In many policies in which money is invested in education, (either through tuition payments or government allocation) it is solely up to the provider to insure that students demonstrate academic mastery.  This can be seen in initiatives on higher education from the federal government.  Obama’s plan to lower the costs of higher education places almost all responsibility on academic institutions while doing very little to consider the role students play in the educational process.   The most famous Republican policy from the past decade – Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” – is guilty of the same problem in the way it emphasizes standardized testing.  These policies make sense if education really can be run like businesses, for the economic self-interest in capitalism pushes businesses to deliver better products at cheaper prices.

Education, however, is a different animal.

Now, it is true that some academic systems are better than others.  Some teachers are better than others.  All educators need to be held accountable to high standards.  And somebody has to pay for it.

It is also quite possible that my brother is a hack of a teacher and is failing at his attempts to teach his students calculus.  I hesitate to draw that conclusion, however.  For one thing, my brother has been able to consistently beat me in one-on-one basketball, tennis, golf, horseshoes, baseball trivia, Rack-O and War ever since he did every one of those things in the summer of 1982 when I was twenty and he was seventeen.  So I’m a little afraid that he might beat me up if I tell everyone he is a terrible teacher.

But I also hesitate to draw that conclusion because I know from other sources that he is a very good teacher.  I also know that his students do very well at math.  And I know that in the class with the aforementioned student, most of the other students were getting good grades and demonstrating that they were learning calculus.  Since they all paid tuition and were in the same class, how could it be that they received an inferior product than he did?

The answer:  education is not a product that you can buy.  This is Case’s Law #1.  My brother’s student was not going to master Calculus III simply because his father paid a lot of money for his tuition.

Education cannot be run like a business because purchasing a product demands nothing from the customer except money.  Education, however, makes demands on students.  And those demands come in many forms.

Education demands that the student master virtues and practices – or in common terminology, study habits.  Many students procrastinate, study sloppily, study too little or get distracted when they study.  Weekly intoxication hinders the academic performance of many of our college students. However, a person who purchases a Big Mac at McDonald’s owns that hamburger as soon as the clerk slides the tray across the counter.  One does not have to read, write, solve problems, or practice extensively to master the ownership of that Big Mac, much to the relief of the millions and millions who have been served.

Other demands are actually beyond the abilities of the student, regardless of his or her study habits.  I think it is fair to say that in the field of mathematics, for instance, every person reaches a level beyond which the math is just too difficult to master.  Many of us reach our limit with calculus.  Some cannot get beyond geometry.  But even the most gifted mathematicians reach limits.  Arguably, none of the most intelligent mathematicians alive today, including my brother, are as brilliant as Isaac Newton was.  Meanwhile, one needs no talents, skills or abilities to purchase a big screen TV.  Big screen TVs can even be purchased for two-year old who cannot yet talk, which may also help explain why they will later fail to master calculus.

The demands of life situations beyond the student’s control can also hinder education.  Students get sick.  Sometimes they have tragedies or conflicts at home that undermine their education.  Mental health problems very often first afflict individuals in their early twenties, when they are in college.  And yet, people in all of these situations still are able to buy iPhones, shoes and Netflix subscriptions.

I don’t know why the student in my brother’s math class did not receive the grade his father wanted.  It might have been poor study habits.  He may not have had the same ability as others in his class.  It might have been things in life beyond his control.  It might have been a combination of these things.  But tuition dollars alone were not going to make him solve the calculus problems correctly.

Educational discussions, proposals and policies will fail economically (and academically) if they assume the problems can be fixed simply by sharpening the economic incentives of academic institutions and educators.  We also have to consider demands on the students, demands that cannot be gained through an economic transaction.

Yeah, money can’t buy me love.  Or knowledge.  Or skills.  Or understanding.  Or wisdom.







Barlow’s Law: Students Don’t Want To Get Their Money’s Worth

(This is Part 2 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

We’ve all been students, so we recognize this scenario:  a professor announces that the next class will be cancelled.  Our reaction?

Of course, if we students are really “customers” and education is a “product,” then we are just pretty stupid consumers.  Think about it.  If we had purchased an 8-day package vacation in Aruba and the travel agent called us up on the beach and told us that one day of the vacation had been cancelled and we would have to fly back early, we would not be happy campers.  Or sun-bathers, as it were.

Then why are we so happy to miss a day of education, especially when higher education is so expensive?

Education is a different animal.

Students don’t want to get their money’s worth.  Barlow’s Law seems so common-sensically obvious (at least in American culture) that I probably ought to call it Barlow’s axiom, which would make it a self-evident truth.

Teachers know that they can please their students by giving them less instruction or less demanding education.  If a professor cuts an assignment, reduces reading, or eases up in any way, many students are happy.  Many students will try to sign up for easy professors.  Many figure out ways to get a decent grade with the smallest amount of work.  Many cheat. If we are let out of class early, we are happy.  Meanwhile, if extra reading and writing is required, we “customers” will complain and protest that the professor is being unfair.

Imagine striking a deal for a new Lexus and getting excited when the dealer says he will have to cut out the heated seats or the air conditioning.  Imagine complaining and protesting that the dealer is being unfair if he throws in a sun roof at no extra cost.

According to Adam Smith, society benefits under capitalism because self-interest leads businesses to produce better and cheaper products which is what customers, in their self-interest, want.  The problem is that self-interest is a complicated thing.  Yes, we know it is in our self-interest to get a good education.  But we also have immediate self-interests that run counter to the long-term habits required to obtain a good education:  we would rather play video games or hang with friends or eat nachos or check Facebook or sleep than study.  A truly stupid show on Comedy Central suddenly becomes absolutely fascinating when we have a paper to write.  Socialized from childhood as a consumer (see “Trix: cereal”), what’s a “customer” to do?

New Picture (1)Now, it is true that there are students who sincerely want the very best that an academic course can give them.  Many do not want easy professors or classes where they learn little.  In fact, most of us have probably gone back and forth between desiring a good, challenging class and wishing it were cancelled.  Usually, though, true academic desires and virtues are cultivated over time from parents or a great teacher along the way, but not from our economic system.  The desires for a challenging class stem from impulses opposite of those intensified by consumerism, such as immediate gratification, entertainment, comfort and self-indulgence.

You might point out that the economic desire for a well-paying job motivates many students to do well.  True, but I would question whether this is really the best kind of education one can get.  In fact, not all ambitious, highly motivated students deeply desire the best education they can get.  An undefinable number of hard-working, ambitious students highly desire the status or connections or economic opportunities that an education can give them, as opposed to the education itself.  In other words, many are more interested in a diploma from a prestigious institution or good grades than they are in what a given course will actually teach them.  And they will pay a lot of money for this.  A few years ago, a college in Pennsylvania did nothing but increase its tuition by a significant amount (several thousands of dollars) under the theory that students would perceive the school to have more prestige with an increased price.  Their applications from high-achieving students went up.

That points to another unsettling possibility: treating students as customers may actually be increasing the cost of higher education.  In their competition for “customers,” colleges feel the pressure to build single-person dorm rooms, lavish student centers, hip dining halls, and numerous support services to attract students.  Sometimes I ask non-athletes if they would be willing to have our college cut all intercollegiate athletics, if it would save them $1500/year on their tuition.  Most would not want to change – they would rather pay more to have athletics on campus, even if they are not competing themselves.  Socialized from childhood as consumers, (see “Trix: cereal”), students want a particular lifestyle in college.

When we treat education as a consumer item, we end up with an inferior product at a higher price.  This seems to be what “customers” want.

So, does it really make economic sense to run education on a business model?

Why it doesn’t make economic sense to run education like a business

If you have sent a child to college lately, or gone yourself, you know that high costs are a problem.

This situation has led a lot more people today to think that education ought to be run more like a business.  At first glance, this makes sense.  Education is expensive.   It often produces students with questionable academic qualities.  Businesses, meanwhile, are very good at cutting costs, increasing efficiency, and innovating to produce better products.  So, it is thought, we should think about students as “customers,” and education as a “product.” Apply business principles to education, and we will bring costs down and produce a better product!  Everybody wins!  Happy ending!


Apply business principles to education and we will produce a worse product.  In fact, right now we may be producing a worse product and making education more expensive because we are increasingly treating education like a business.

"Student" or "Customer?"  Stay tuned for the answer.

“Student” or “Customer?” Stay tuned.

Education is a different animal.  Yes, there are economic dynamics to education that we need to think about carefully.  But if we actually take a close look at how things work on the ground – in the classroom – we will see that students don’t behave like customers in a capitalist society.  Nor do we improve education in the same way that we improve economic products.

Adam Smith should be taught but not implemented in the classroom. Adam Smith (as you all remember very well from your history courses, right?) was the Enlightenment thinker who laid out many of the essential principles of modern capitalism.  According to Smith, all of society benefits if businesses operate with a free hand in a system of competition.  Because a business owner wants to make more money, he or she (Smith did not think about “she,” actually) will do what can be done to lower costs, increase efficiency and produce a better product.  Customers will get lower costs and better products.  The business owner makes money.   “He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” wrote Smith.  Everybody wins!   Happy ending!

But that doesn’t work in the classroom.  (Some would argue it doesn’t really work that well as a system of economics, but that’s a different issue).

To keep the reading more manageable, I’ll lay out my arguments over the next few blogs.  Tomorrow, I’ll post Barlow’s Law:  “Students Don’t Want Their Money’s Worth.”

(It’s my blog, so I was going to name the law after myself.  But I have to admit that I first remember hearing this phrase many years ago in a conversation with the late Jack Barlow, who was a history professor at Huntington University.  So I shouldn’t really name it after myself.  Rats.)

How Mad Magazine helped my Christian faith

I watched too much TV in my youth.  I know that now, because I have a frightening number of commercials from the 1970s branded into my head.  And they won’t go away.  A very small sample from this corner of my brain:

“When it’s time to relax…(when it’s time to relax), one thing stands clear…(beer after beer)…Mil-ler tastes too good to hurry through…”

Parrot squawks:  “Ring around the collar!”  Voiceover: “Those dirty rings.  You try scrubbing them out.  You try soaking them out.  And you still get…” Parrot, again:  “Ring around the collar!”

“It’s the Pepsi generation!  Comin’ at ya.’  Goin’ strong.  Put yourself behind a Pepsi.  You’ll be living.  You’ll belooooooong.”

Yes, when I’m 97 I’ll be able to sing the lyrics to a Mustang II commercial from 1974 but I won’t be able to remember the names of my daughters.  The fact that these ads are indelibly lodged in my brain is just one indication of how consumerism seeps into our souls.

But in my misspent, spent and well spent youth, I did have a resource that helped counteract the mind-numbing effects of consumerism:  Mad magazine.

For most of 6th, 7th and 8th grade I had a paper route that provided me with extra cash.  I chose to spend a certain proportion of that money on a Mad magazine subscription.  I also read every Mad  book from the 1950s and 60s that I could get my hands on.

Little did I know that this would help my Christian faith.

One may not think of Mad as an encouragement to holiness.  But God works in mysterious ways.  I read Mad because I thought it was funny.  But unbeknownst to me, it slowly sharpened my sense of satire.  Mad was the only place that I encountered a satire of consumerism and advertising.

Satire can be a useful thing, because it helps to point out the absurdity in things that we would not notice otherwise.  Mad developed in me a sense that there were certain aspects of American culture that ensnared us in ways we did not recognize — the lure of status symbols, the sweet deception that materialism will deliver a fulfilling life, the incessant banality of ads heard over and over, the subtle but powerful manipulations embedded in advertising – these are things that are really difficult to recognize.

In “My Fair Ad-Man,” Frank Sinatra is transformed from a beatnik to a Madison Avenue ad executive.








Mad made me laugh at them.  My younger brother and I then made our own jokes about these cultural forms:  who was Rula Lenska, anyway, and why should we think we should buy VO5, just because she said so?

I should point out that Mad magazine did not, by itself, strengthen my Christian maturity in this area.  Several other factors in my life played key roles, including an education at a Christian college and six years of living in a culture (Kenya) that had not yet been inundated with wall-to-wall consumerism.  And Mad also probably stoked my sins of cynicism and self-righteousness.  But I give it credit for giving me a lens that enabled me to see things in American culture that I might have been blind to, otherwise.

To put it in biblical terms, I’ll pull out Romans 12:2:  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Christians are not supposed to be conformed to this world.  Among other things, I take this to mean that completely conforming to consumerism can be harmful to our souls, our minds and our society.

This is a problem we all face.  Consider what emerging adults (ages 18 to 24) think about consumerism.  A study by Christian Smith finds that 61% of emergent adults are very content with consumerism and see no real problems with it.  Another 30% have some concerns, but believe that there is really nothing anybody can do about it.   That means that 91% are essentially conforming to this part of the world.  They do not see any reason why they should not unthinkingly embrace consumerism, or do not have any sense that there is anything that can be done about it.  Most emergent adults believe consumerism just makes them happy and that they’d be happier if they could afford more things.  Of course, those of us who are older cannot lay the blame for this on emergent adults, for they are reflecting the culture they live in.  This is us.

Some telling quotes from the study:

“If you want it, buy it.  There’s certain things that are just, I think, unnecessary. But, you know, if you think it’s necessary in your life and you can afford it, more power to you.”

“I think everyone has what they like…If you have a thousand shoes, that is all you.  If you want a thousand shoes, cool, that is all what you want…I don’t want to judge someone else and say you can’t or shouldn’t have that.”

“I guess I don’t really think about consumerism as far as its effects on society.”


I’m telling you, kids these days should be reading Mad magazine.



The Impact of Trix Cereal on Christianity, Marriage, Civil Life, Education and Just About Everything Else

In 1954, General Mills introduced Trix cereal to the American public.  This was the most significant event of the 20th century.

Really? More significant than the 1952 election? More significant than the 1929 stock market crash? More significant than Watergate?

OK, I’m overstating things here, but I’m actually pretty serious about this.  The introduction of Trix cereal may rank in my top ten list of most significant events of the 20th century.  Maybe the top five.

Why?  Because Trix was the first multi-colored breakfast food.

Get it?  Probably not.

Think about why General Mills produced a multi-colored breakfast food and why they marketed it with that advertising campaign familiar to all Americans, “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!”

Get it?  Not quite, I’m betting.

Think about this:  why did General Mills think that it would work to advertise to 4 year-olds during Saturday morning Bugs Bunny cartoons?  Do 4 year-olds have the means to run out to the grocery store and buy Trix?  Do 4 year-olds make the decisions about how the family income is spent?

Admit it. You want this.

Get it?  I’m guessing we’re starting to get there.  Remember what you were like at age 4 in the grocery store and you saw something you wanted?  Or have you have observed 4 year-olds in grocery stores?  It is a fascinating and rather unsettling sight.  Watching 4 year-olds in the grocery aisle with their parents is like watching wildlife documentaries of elks fighting fellow elks for dominance.  The fight may begin and end quickly, but in those short, dramatic moments, we glimpse a compelling struggle of power, will, wits and cunning, as we wait to see who will come out on top.

A little historical background to epic grocery store battles:  In 1854 and 1754 and 1654 (and earlier, in just about everywhere around the world) children were producers in the family economy, but they were not major consumers.  In other words, most children helped the family economy by working at tasks like herding livestock, sewing, gathering eggs, carrying water, etc.  They did not make decisions about how household money would be spent.  By 1954, that pattern was reversing in most middle-class families.  Children produced very little to help the family income while becoming major players in deciding how the household income was spent.  Even 4 year-olds.  Amazing.

In other words, thanks to Trix cereal (and Barbie Dolls and Hot Wheels and Kool-aid and McDonald’s) all of us became consumers at a very young age.

Of course, I am using Trix cereal to represent a whole host of larger consumer trends at work.  Targeting children in advertising began a number of decades before 1954.  Plenty of other companies besides General Mills were joining in on this.  Economic prosperity gave families plenty of disposable income. The growth of new forms of mass media – radio and TV, for instance – made it possible for marketers to reach children in their homes.  But I use Trix cereal and 1954 as my representative example because the 1950s was the decade when all these forces came together in a powerful way in American society.

Sometimes, 4 year-olds choose Cinnamon Toast Crunch instead of Trix. Why? Because they can! They are consumers!

We have to ask an even more important question than the sheer economics of the thing:  what kind of people do we become if we are shaped as consumers from the moment we can comprehend a TV ad?  What does it mean to have a society in which consumerism holds formative influences on us as persons?

It means that we may enter into Christianity, marriage, civil life, education as consumers, rather than as disciples, spouses, citizens and students.  As consumers, we are primarily interested in what we can get out of these things and are less likely to ask what we can contribute to them.  It means we value things primarily on the basis of instant gratification and have little patience for self-sacrifice.  It means that if we get dissatisfied, we may be quick to dump one option and go shopping for another.  Does this happen?  As that big red Kool-Aid pitcher used to say in the ads, “Oh, yeahhhhhh!”

A number of people have commented about how consumerism has affected American Christianity.  Let me just point out one.  Thomas Bergler has written an important book entitled The Juvenilization of American ChristianityOne of the things he points out is that since the 1950s, evangelicals have effectively adapted the faith to the youth culture – a culture that is steeped in consumerism.  As a result, evangelicals have been much more effective than other Christian bodies in attracting youth to church.  The downside is that this sort of juvenile faith has spread through the adult levels of the church (think about all the ways that evangelicals want church to be “fun” and “exciting”).  Christians with this kind of faith have a hard time moving beyond a rather shallow, self-centered faith based on immediate gratification.  Why?  Trix cereal.

Do we tend to view marriage relationships in terms of what we can get out of it?  Are we, as a society, too willing to dump a spouse if we see a better product come along?   I have heard evangelicals blame a number of things for the rising divorce rates of the last half century: the absence of prayer in schools, homosexuality, and something as vague as a “decline in morals,” just to name a few.  We’re looking in the wrong places.  We should start by thinking about our Trix cereal ads.

Civil society?  In 1960 John F. Kennedy said, famously, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  It was a view of civil society that resonated with many Americans at that time.  In the 2000 presidential debate, an audience member asked the candidates, “How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 34-year-old single person with no dependents?”  Think about this one.  It implies that as a voter I will make a choice based on a specific policy is tailored to a very narrow slice of the population who are just like me.  And did Americans in 2000 even notice that this is a very consumeristic approach to viewing civil life?  No, because this is an idea of civil society that resonated with many Americans, who all grew up enmeshed in consumerism.  “Silly President, tax policies are for 34-year old single persons with no dependents!”

Education?  Don’t even get me started.  I could describe how some students expect course offerings, class projects, and course expectations to conform to their personal schedules.  I hardly need to tell you that many students believe classes ought to entertain them.  Colleges feel compelled to offer a consumer lifestyle – good food, climbing walls, fun activities, stylish dormitories, exciting athletic programs – in order to attract students to come to their institution to get an education.  My daughter once received a postcard from a college whose entire message was that they were “#1 in Food and Fun” in Ohio. The postcard said absolutely nothing about education.  But food and fun?  Ah, yes, that is what college is all about, isn’t it, Silly Rabbit?

Trix cereal:  the most significant development of the 20th century.