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Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire Paperback – March 17, 2008
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— Wycliffe College, Toronto
"Many Christians vaguely sense that all is not well with their relation to consumer society, but find it difficult to name just what ails them. In Being Consumed William Cavanaugh offers the clearest, most helpful diagnosis I have ever seen. No liberal guilt-tripping here, just some serious theological reflection on matters like God, desire, justice, pluralism, and the nature of human freedom. I especially like Cavanaugh's concrete examples of economic practices consistent with life in the body of Christ. This book will be required reading in my introductory theology course."
— University of Bristol
"Rampaging retail therapy in our Western economics requires a radical analyst. We have an Augustinian prophetic voice in William Cavanaugh, who subjects the free market, consumer culture, globalization, and scarcity to Catholic interrogation. He employs the traditions of Augustine, Aquinas, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and John Paul II, proposing an alternative desire that transforms the church and our practices. Envisioning a eucharistic justice that leaves us rich in community-caring and prosperous in our constant sharing, Cavanaugh is lucid, personal, practical, and theologically wise."
— Marquette University
"Can a book free Christians from the ‘invisible hand' that seems more and more to dominate every aspect of our lives? William Cavanaugh provides a much-needed how-to manual for just such a liberation. Clearly written and even entertaining, Being Consumed frees us from the ironic position of ‘having no choice' but to live by the rules of free-market consumerism in a globalized world of scarce resources. . . Cavanaugh makes clear that the everyday economic life of Christians can be different and can make a difference. And he sows seeds that could, if taken seriously by Christians and churches, produce well over a hundredfold — produce, that is, a revolution."
"Being Consumed is a thoughtful look at a difficult set of issues. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand better how we might apply Christian teaching within our modern economic framework"
“Cavanaugh provides a nuanced, yet accessible theological analysis of consumer culture.”
Religious Studies Review
“An ecclesiologically informed economics whose capacity to transform our lives, if we would heed its various concrete suggestions, should not be underestimated.”
“This is a highly readable and incisive book. Cavanaugh boldly engages contemporary economic assumptions — and some of their theological shortcomings — with wit and vigor, and he proves to be a knowledgeable and thoughtful guide.”
New Theology Review
“In four accessible chapters Cavanaugh deals with issues that constituted this decade’s social, economic, political, environmental, and human rights crises. . . . [The book’s] brevity is attractive, but that in no way dilutes its compelling depth.”
"Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire is a deceptively short yet theologically deep book. . . .Thoughtful and well-timed.”
Catholic Books Review
“Cavanaugh’s treatment of a complex subject is filled with insights, careful analysis, and helpful suggestions. . . . This book is a must for Catholic and Christian college libraries.”
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Modern economics is based on the assumption that human wants are infinite whereas resources to satisfy them are limited. The scarcity of resources creates an over-riding imperative to use resources efficiently (including human beings) and leads to conflict, whether military or monetary, over the rights to those resources. But Cavanaugh wants to tell a different story about consumption, one in which human desires can be directed towards a common end, the vision of God in community with other human beings and the natural world. Instead of people being impelled to constantly consume more and more things (where satisfaction is derived more from the pursuit of material goods than in their acquisition), they can attain a way of life in which desires are rightly ordered and where true happiness can be had in service to others in the body of Christ. The story of Christian economics is a story of abundance, because Christians become transformed to view service to others as their primary obligation, and not simply a 'charity' done during one's free time.
Cavanaugh reveals some truly disturbing facts about supply chains ranging from food to clothes and other consumer goods. We rarely question where the items on supermarket shelves come from. In fact, clothes for designer labels are often manufactured by workers earning 30 cents an hour in dismal conditions and the majority of mass-produced beef comes from calves which are artificially and horrendously fattened to reach 'maturity' in much less time than is natural, wallowing in their own feces and barely able to stand upright because of their weight. If that doesn't disturb you, it should. One way to make economics more human is to increase transparency about our supply chains and insist only on buying products made in accordance with good environmental and health standards, for both human workers and animals.
This book is simply packed with disturbing, challenging insights as well as suggestions for how we can create spaces in which human beings can flourish in their work and consumption. Though it is aimed primarily at Christians, anyone who is dissatisfied with current practices of consumption or economic justice will profit from reading it. It will also resonate with environmentalists (another book I recommend from a more secular perspective is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future) and anyone else looking for alternative ways of living that emphasize human well-being rather than mindless consumption. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Chapter One introduces the working concept of "freedom," contained in the Free Market, utilizing Milton Friedman's (in)famous definition that a transaction is free if 1.)it is informed and 2.)it is voluntary, indicating that a truly "free market," is free from the "restrictions," of any common telos, and that any desire is equally valid and free should it meet these two conditions. Cavanaugh argues that this freedom is too "negative," that is to say it is void of any discernable content, and more importantly in practice it can justify almost any of the multifarious and horrendous conditions of e.g. miniscule wages, outsourcing, and a whole plethora of other economic and dehumanizing maladies. Rather, using Augustine as a dialogue partner Cavanaugh argues that our economic transactions need to be viewed from our humanizing telos in God, and that freedom is not merely "freedom from," but "freedom for" our active participation in community and the realization of our humanity.
Chapter two brilliantly analyzes consumerism as, not greed or an over-attachment to goods, but rather a radical detachment (!) which displaces goods from their contexts, consumers from the products they buy, and producers from the materiality of production via outsourcing labor etc...Rather than completely decrying consumer, he actually sees it as a perverted form of an authentic striving after God (via Augustine's own analysis of this phenomenon). Cavanaugh then uses the Eucharist as an example of how to counteract this type of detachment, the details of which I will not spoil for the reader wanting to discern the brilliance of Cavanaugh's analysis.
Chapter three analyzes the phenomenon of Globalization from the perspective of the philosophical problem of the One and the Many. Arguing that Globalization leads both to a universalization and a radical particularity, Cavanaugh demonstrates that Globalization ultimate reduces the value of the particular and absorbs it into the universal consumption. This was my favorite chapter, and also provides an intriguing analysis of postmodernism as essentially a manifestation of late-capitalist tendencies (which is much akin to many other "Radical Orthdox" readings of post-modernity, e.g. Milbanks concept of "ontologies of violence" or Hart's "narratives of the sublime" or Picktstock's "univocity" in analyzing the devaluing of the particular). Utilizing von Balthazar's concept of Christ as the "concrete universal," Cavanaugh argues that Christianity ultimately provides the proper affirmation of the universal importance of the particular, and that our consumption needs to be corrected by a kenosis and participation in Christ's body in mutual giving and receiving.
Chapter four analyzes the fundamental assumption of the scarcity of resources and, paralleling Walter Bruegemann's analysis of the Old Testament (though he is not cited as such) Cavanaugh argues that Christ's resurrection and the Christian consciousness of Christ as the one who came to give us life abundantly in the practice of the Eucharist fundamentally alters our conception of economic exchange, which is fundamentally in self-service, and affirmation of each other in particular and local communities.
At the end of each chapter he gives particular examples of how churches and organizations can (and have) incorporated these insights into their practices. Though this book's length will not occupy you for more than a long weekend, its analysis will last you a lifetime. This is undoubtedly one of the best books of its size you can buy. You will not be disappointed.