Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

According to many contemporary scholars, the apostle Paul didn’t object to “Judaizers” because they taught that salvation is achieved by works. He objected because Judaizers tried to reverse history by imposing the requirements of the old Mosaic covenant on Gentile Christians. Circumcision, dietary laws, and other Jewish practices functioned as “boundary markers,” and Paul insisted that such badges of Jewishness were now relativized to a common identity in Christ. Judaizing disrupted the Church in which there is no “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Some traditional Protestants regard this new reading of Paul with suspicion, partly because it seems to rob Paul’s letters of their timeless relevance. Luther’s Paul always has something to say, because self-salvation is a perennial temptation. But if Paul is addressing a problem specific to the first century, what does he have to say to us now? Can we preach a Paul who is centrally concerned with Jewish identity?

We can, but to do so we have to shift our frame of reference. The Paul of contemporary scholarship is less a spiritual director than a sociologist. (In truth, he’s both, and neither.) When we are open to the possibility that Paul addresses social as well as personal pathologies, we find that Paul addresses today’s obsessions quite directly. Few themes are as prominent today as identity construction, not least identity construction through acquisition and consumption.

Social scientists have sometimes regarded consumers as rational creatures, utilitarians looking to maximize gain and minimize loss. But consumption isn’t only about getting more stuff. Beliefs, habits, fantasies, moods, manias, and fads influence what a consumer chooses to consume. Social competition is as important as economic, and consumption is motivated by envy, rivalry, and honor as much as by greed. In a consumer society, consumption is about belonging. Boundaries between groups, and bridges from one group to another, are built by the things we buy.

As sociologist David Lyon has put it, 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 and tattoos identify a person as a participant in some variety of “cool,” and rivalries are “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 at the end of the nineteenth century, Thorstein Veblen argued that consumption isn’t merely a matter of rational economic calculation. For leisure classes with excess wealth, conspicuous consumption and “conspicuous leisure” offers social advantages. To buy unnecessary and excessively luxurious goods, and to do it in a public way, buttresses one’s reputation as a man or woman of leisure and erects a symbolic barrier against the reeking working classes. By his purchases, one announces that he has money to burn and doesn’t care how he spends it. He proves himself to be a Big Man. Consumption is the capitalist way to play the game of competitive honor that in earlier ages was played with lances and broadswords.

Upper-class refinement of taste often plays a similar role. The man of leisure, Veblen said, “becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics.” Goods are socially as well as sensually pleasurable. That bottle of Pinot Noir is tasty to the palate, but the ability to purchase and appreciate it places the connoisseur in a different phylum of humanity. Ferraris are, I’m sure, fun to drive, but they are also a ticket into an exclusive club. Consumption is a quasi-sacramental badge of belonging that puts 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 consign his letters to the dustbin of intramural debates within first-century Judaism. Determining who is in and who is out, and employing symbols and rituals for that purpose, is essential to every society. Social conflicts are often struggles over boundaries and badges. Jesus teaches that consumer society is spiritually dangerous because it encourages the materialist belief that “life consists in many possessions.” In his polemics against Judaizers, Paul warns that when consumer culture invades the Church, its pomp and ways threaten to divide the undivided Christ.

To Christians who proudly wear their favorite fashion brand, or look askance at PC users, or sneer at drinkers of boxed wine, or belittle Christians who prefer Grisham, Koontz, and Clancy to Coetzee and McEwan, Paul would have much to say. He would urge them to love one another. Also, in exasperation, he would respond as he responded to the Galatians seduced by Judaizers: “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you!”

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles