Acton Institute Powerblog

What’s Wrong with Christmas Consumerism

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I’ve seen this commercial a number of times this holiday season and it bothers me more and more every time:

But what precisely is wrong with this ad, and the spirit that animates it?

Rev. Billy might say that the problem lies with the gifts themselves. While he might be satisfied if the gifts came from places such as “the shelves of mom and pop stores, farmers markets, artisans and on Craigslist,” he certainly wouldn’t approve of gifts from a “big box” store like Best Buy.

But I don’t think the problem is with the gifts per se. I think it’s with the “givers.”

Speaking of material goods, Augustine writes, “Sin gains entrance through these and similar good things when we turn to them with immoderate desire, since they are the lowest kind of goods and we thereby turn away from the better and higher: from you yourself, O Lord our God, and your truth and your law.” Material goods, just like any other created reality, can be an occasion for sin and idolatry.

So if that is the problem, with our immoderate desires, what is the solution? Reordered desires. Rightly valuing material goods and gifts as penultimate and limited created goods.

What might change in this commercial if we applied these solutions? How would the commercial look different? Rev. Billy might have the family give handmade gifts or secondhand items, or perhaps forego material gifts altogether and take a family walk. These things all have their own value.

But there are good things at Best Buy and other stores, too. That’s what makes it so important to be discerning about how we use good gifts, and that’s what makes Rev. Billy’s message so problematic.

An Augustinian solution to the problem in that Best Buy ad would be something more like this: the family would bring some gifts to Grandma to share with her, and the family would all spend time together enjoying each others’ company and the material goods associated with the holiday. The focus wouldn’t be exclusively on the gifts themselves (as it is in the commercial’s current form), but neither would such a view denigrate the objective, albeit limited, good of material gift-giving.

Rev. Billy: “We’re supporters of Jesus.”

What’s wrong with Christmas consumerism? It isn’t the fact of consumption itself. It’s in the disordered and immoderate desires for earthly goods when compared with the truly and ultimately important spiritual goods.

So while the Best Buy ad runs afoul of virtue by over-emphasizing material goods, Rev. Billy goes to the opposite extreme by not valuing them enough. As Augustine also wrote, “He who uses temporal goods ill, however, shall lose them, and shall not receive eternal goods either.” This would include not appreciating the material benefits God bestows on us.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Nice post. I like how you take the question deeper than it is usually taken, even by those who remember to ask questions in the first place.

    On a practical note, when parents get anxious about this stuff, they often start lecturing the kids. The funniest example I saw was in a parking lot where a dad had driven his son to a mall to do Christmas shopping and as they got out of the car, I heard him say to his son, “It isn’t about ‘stuff’!” He’s right. But I think the message would have gone better if the man had driven somewhere else in the first place. Don’t tell them. Show them.

    That reminds me of how we all get caught in the Christmas machine. And it’s such a social experience that personal boycotts on any level have a tendency to come off Scrooge-ish, even when well-intentioned. There may be no one right treatment of the holiday. (Your suggestions are good ones.) But I’m glad we’re celebrating the one whose success in his temptations redeems us from our failures in our own.

  • I think you mis-characterize the message of Rev. Billy on two fronts.

    One is he never seems to hate “material goods” instead he hates the obsession with them. Isn’t that Christ’s message about them.

    “The LOVE of money is the root of all evil” – Jesus
    “Do not STORE UP treasures on earth”
    “Whoever gives a cup of water in my name…”

    Over and over Jesus reminds us that this is an issue with the first commandment. Of course Rev. Billy with his humanist message would not get that connection, yet he does vocalize in the movie his own struggles with the balance between material possession and material obsession.

    Secondly, his dislike of the “Big Box” stores and his emphasis on local community commerce is that it builds community! Again this is a humanist explanation of a great spiritual principle.

    Rev. Billy is not the enemy. He is a great voice for rethinking. Yes his message needs to be tapered by good sound doctrine and theology. He does not need to be demonized.

  • Jenny

    I agree, Kevin. We can no more lay the fault at Rev Billy’s doorstep than we can at Best Buy’s. As the rest of Jordan’s otherwise excellent post points out, sin is not something external we can point at; sin comes from some internal place, and so that’s where we should be focusing our attention.

  • Jared Bangs

    I agree that the real problem isn’t the gifts themselves, but I think you are wrong on a larger level.

    It isn’t the gifts, per se, but the implications of spending large sums of money on the gifts. I believe that when we do join the spending frenzy we are saying something about our priorities, and that there is no difference between how members of the Kingdom of God spend there money and how the world spends money. It’s hard to justify a lofty Christmas list in light of the needs of so many around us. And I certainly believe there is a difference between “big box” spending and mom and pop shops. Contributing to a major corporation where the majority of the money falls into the hands of a few CEO’s is much different than contributing to family and community run business.

    You’re right, it’s not the gift itself, it’s all the implications of buying the gift.

  • H. D. Schmidt

    Yes, consumerism is out of control in America. Yes, what is when America now spents yearly over 38 billions on dogs and pets in general, may I ask? Yes, while over 3 millions die yearly all over the world! Yes, as reported by the Wall Street Journal of a few weeks ago that in 2006 over 35.5 million Americans went hungry for sometime during that year.

  • Michael

    It’s about that time of year again, upon reading your future post about the topic of consumerism, especially at the holiday season, my view of the way people were when it came to overlooking the season with the want to achieve material needs was around this level. Your description, as well as selection of a prime example in a commercial matched what I saw from the outside as why many from other countries, including some of our citizens, see us as greedy and money seeking. That our biggest blunders lie in our want for everything else other than what we already have. I feel a little different since I’m sure many of us don’t apply as much to the stereotypical American consumer and thought of having the latest toy or gadget, but it really has become a problem. I’ve heard of many people crying over not getting what they want, not just kids but many adults have ruined holidays in their eyes because their parent or significant other wouldn’t splurge for them. In on case I had a friend who could definitely afford this phone for her boyfriend and was actually disappointed at her for not being considerate enough. Sometimes people need to really think about the season outside of the gift box.