Friday, June 5, 2009

Dialogue on Market Values and Joy

I'm reading two books that are nicely dialoguing with each other. C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy and Cornel West's Race Matters. 

In the first chapter of West's book, he describes nihilism in black America, partly caused by corporate market institutions (25). Institutions want profits, and they convince people to consume. The goal of consumption is pleasure. Here's West on pleasure: 

"In the American way of life pleasure involves comfort, convenience, and sexual stimulation. Pleasure, so defined, has little to do with the past and views the future as no more than a repetition of a hedonistically driven present. This market morality stigmatizes others as objects for personal pleasure or bodily stimulation... especially evident in the culture industries-- television, radio, video, music..." (26) 

"These seductive images contribute to the predominance of the market-inspired way of life over all others and thereby edge out nonmarket values-- love, care, service to others-- handed down by preceding generations" (27) 

Why is this "market-inspired way of life" chosen by so many people? Consumerism thrives because we aren't satisfied.  

In Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis tells the story of his growing up and conversion to Christianity, and in one of the chapters,  he describes getting Joy and pleasure confused. 

"At the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a "lower" pleasure instead of a "higher." It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. The hounds had changed scent. One had caught the wrong quarry. You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. I did not recoil from that erotic conclusion with chaste horror, exclaiming, "Not that!" My feelings could rather have been expressed in the words, "Quite. I see. But haven't we wandered from the real point?" Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. Sometimes I wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy" (170). 

I haven't finished the book yet to know how Lewis talks about finding Joy in the end, but I'm guessing it has something to do with God. When we're not with God, we become vulnerable to other things that promise to satisfy us. They all lie, of course. This lie fuels advertising and marketing and business and provides jobs, but it also keeps a lot of people miserable. The problem with a "hedonistically driven present" is that we lose sight of everything that actually matters. We forget who we are. The life that we were meant to life isn't about pleasure as it's described by West. 

Like Lewis says, we can go to any of those other pleasure givers, it doesn't make a difference which one we choose. Afterwards, we know it doesn't meet the need or the desire that we have. Sometimes we get stuck in the trap of going back over and over again because we believe that it will, if we only give it one more try. 

Are all pleasures substitutes for Joy? How would our bank statements change if we were finally satisfied? How would we spend our time? 

We can't live like the market tells us to live. We need to recover "nonmarket values," love, care, and service to others. 

The problem I see in pockets of the Christian community is the loss of Joy and the sell out to pleasure, the objectification of the opposite sex, and an obsession with consumerism at the expense of the forward call of God and discipleship. We've settled into the nest of our culture, and we've chosen its worst parts. 

To get back to contentment and life in nonmarket values, we need to address the roots of our deep dissatisfaction and identify the lies that we believe, say with King David, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12a). 

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