Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book Review: Being Consumed

Okay here is the issue: I have a huge stack of books sitting throughout various locations in my daily life (my office desk, my night-stand, a dresser drawer, my backpack, the basement floor, etc.) and I have wanted to read each one. However, when I get busy with the everyday life of being a pastor it often means I choose to "vegetate" by watching the DV-R episode of CSI: New York instead of reading. However, the pile has grown to massive (thanks to Christmas gifts, etc.) and now I want to start winnowing it down. So I have decided that I needed an "external" motivation to help me get through the stack and thought that a weekly (okay I will be honest, semi-weekly to monthly) book review would be a good motivating factor to get through the pile. So various readers who happen upon this site, enjoy the first installment.

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh

Quick Summation:
Cavanaugh makes the claim that "desire" is at the root of both economics and Christianity. In essence "to desire" is to be human (which he points out by drawing upon Augustine). Cavanaugh throughout the book details the competing "narratives of desire" held by economics (market, capitalism, "free" market, etc.) and Christianity. It all boils down to this. Economics is a system based upon the "limitless" desire of individuals and seeks to guide those desires in a way that benefits the whole (or at least in theory it promises to). This desire is satisfied and driven by the consumer and consumption. However, Cavanaugh contends that this desire has no "telos" or end upon which it is predicated which makes it fundamentally a different narrative of desire than that of Christianity. Cavanaugh argues throughout the book that "limitless desire" is not met until it finds its eternal resting place which is God. Basically, Cavanaugh gives a theological recap of Christian desire and then frames that in an argument that points to a different economy, "God's economy," and what that could look like.

Readability and Time Requirement:
The book is an easy read. Complicated "theological" terms and "economic" terms are explained so that one does not need an advance degree in either field to understand the subject matter. The book should be engaging to all whether clergy or laity. The book is also a quick read (100 pages), which can be both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it sparks insights and questions that can help a person down a path to discovery of new ways of thinking about economics and the intersection of this field with theology. However, it also can be a curse because those who desire more in depth analysis and explanation will have to turn to others for further detail (of course this can be done by looking at the footnotes and creating an extensive list of readings).

The Added Bonus:
In each of the four chapters, Cavanaugh gives concrete examples of a "God's Economy" being done in practice. From Fair-Trade Coffee to Church Supported Agriculture. These examples are wonderful because they allow the reader to see how "theory" is already in practice. (Most of the examples I had heard about in some form or another, but others I had no idea existed. These examples actually made me long for an extensive narrative account of more of these practices and how they are accomplished, etc.)

Notable Quotes:
"The key question in every transaction is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God." (page viii)

"Humans need a community of virtue in which to learn to desire rightly." (page 9)

"The key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating the right desires." (page 11)

"In 1980 the average CEO made 42 times what the average production worker made; by 1999 that ratio had risen to 475 to 1, and it continues to rise." (pages 20-21)

"As Aquinas says, we should regard property as a gift from God, a gift that is only valid if we use it for the benefit of others." (page 29)

"From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place." (page 32)

"We are, nevertheless, invited to participate in the Trinitarian life through Christ and the work of the Spirit. But in order to do so, we cannot grasp, we can only submit. We cannot stand back from the world and survey it; we must simply take our role in the drama that God is staging and give ourselves to it." (page 81)

"If in consuming the Eucharist we become the body of Christ, then we are called, in turn, to offer ourselves to be consumed by the world." (page 84)

"Economics will always be the science of scarcity as long as individuals continue to want. And we are told that human desires are endless . . . The solution to the restlessness of desire is to cultivate desire for God, the Eternal, in whom our hearts will find rest." (page 90)


Published in March of 2008, this book is a must read in our current economic situation. Cavanaugh gives a compelling case for a counter-narrative to current economic understanding. If anything it will spark questions and a desire to possibly see economics in a new way.


joe fischer said...

I'm curious about how to groom "right desires," as I've become more and more skeptical about how much rational control we actually have over our desires.

I'm also curious if Cavanaugh draws any contrast between Christian conception of fulfillment through "right desires" and, say, a Buddhist conception of fulfillment through the abandonment of desire.

I enjoy your reviewing style--it makes the thesis of the book very clear.

Pastor Justin said...

Cavanaugh does draw a contrast between the two. In fact one of his chapters deals with "attachment vs. detachment" and talks about that and relation to "the market."