Judaizing and Consumer Society Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 27 November 2009 10:01

Traditional Protestants regard the New Perspective on Paul with some suspicion, partly because it seems to rob Paul’s letters of their timeless relevance.  Protestants read Paul as the most vigorous opponent of works righteousness and the most insistent advocate of sola fide – in short, as the most “Protestant” writer in the New Testament (surely, more “Protestant” than that troublesome James).  When he attacks the Judaizers’ attempts to be justified by the works of the law, he is attacking the perennial temptation for sinful human beings to draw God’s attention by their brilliant moral purity.  On this reading, Paul addressed the same problem as Luther did in the sixteenth century, and Paul is as relevant in the twenty-first century as the first.  But if Paul is dealing with the more specific problem of Jewish identity markers, what relevance do they have for us now?  Surely Judaizing as “boundary marking” is not a perennial temptation.

Or is it?  A glance at some of the dynamics of what is called “consumer society” tells a different story.

Consumption, of course, is as old as man, and as old as production, yet it has long been given secondary status in economic theory.  Insofar as it paid any attention to consumption, classical economics assumed consumers were rational utilitarians looking for the best buy.  Classical economics therefore gave only scant attention to the way that social pressures, beliefs, habits, fantasies, moods, and other non-rational factors influence what a consumer chooses to consume.

Today social scientists pay more attention than ever to the consumption side of the economic equation, and to the various factors that influence consumption.  In “consumer society,” boundaries between social groups, and bridges from one group to another, are constructed through consumption.  As David Lyon points out, consumption expresses a “system of symbolic rivalry,” where consumers form their identity “through acquiring commodities that make them distinct from others, and seek approval through lifestyle and symbolic membership.”  Piercings or tattoos often identify the pierced and the painted as  participants in some variety of “cool,” but rivalries are “also visible in preferences for yogurt over ice-cream, four-wheel-drive jeeps over family sedans, and attending live music over listening to the radio.”

Already in the middle of the twentieth century, Thorstein Veblen described some of the social dynamics of consumer society in his works on the “leisure class.”  Instead of viewing consumption as merely a matter of rational economic calculation, Veblen argued that, for leisure classes with excess wealth, conspicuous consumption offered social advantages.  Consumption is the capitalist way to play the game of competitive honor that men in earlier ages played with lances and broadswords.  To buy unnecessary and unnecessarily luxurious goods, and to do it in a public way, buttresses one’s reputation as a Big Man or Woman, erects a symbolic barrier against the reeking working classes.

Goods are not only sensually but socially pleasurable.  That bottle of Pinot Gris is tasty to the palate, but the ability to purchase and appreciate it places the connoisseur in a different realm of humanity.  Porsches and Ferraris are, no doubt, fun to drive, but they also function as admission tickets into an exclusive club.  These goods and practices are quasi-sacramental badges of belonging that put a visible difference between us and the rest of the world.

Which brings us back to Paul and the Judaizers.  Contrary to the fears of some Protestants, the new reading of Paul does not rob Paul of contemporary relevance or consign his letters to the dustbin of intramural debates within first-century Judaism.   To Christians who proudly wear the badge of Tommy Hilfiger, or look snobbishly at those who drink boxed wine, or keep their distance from other Christians who prefer Grisham to Coetzee, Paul would have much to say.  He would urge them to love one another.  But also, in exasperation, he would respond as he responded to the Judaizers: O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you!

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Last Updated on Friday, 27 November 2009 10:06