by Ron Spencer
By Laura M. Hartman
Oxford University Press, November 2011
As a denomination of generous donors, Adventists surprisingly have yet to come into their own as a leading Christian voice on the theology of consumption. "Stewardship Man" Mel Rees, an Adventist polymorph in the 1950s-1980s, vastly influenced what many Adventists now popularly define as a theology of means. But Rees was a homegrown philosopher, and his views have been taught, informally and internally in the Church, but have never been transposed (pun intended, Rees was composer of some note), in an organized fashion for consumption in the larger Christian marketplace. Rather, Rees's work has primarily been used internally to provide a more biblical platform for fund-raising. This book will probably be an eye-opener to Adventist readers unversed in such concepts as "prosperity gospel," about which we read in the media, but which has far wider ethical and spiritual ramifications than usually cited there.
"The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World," by Laura M. Hartman, assistant professor of religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, was released just yesterday and covers the various expressions of a theology of means from early Christian times.
That Hartman invokes Sabbath observance as a component of a theology of means and quotes the experience of Seventh-day Adventists in observing the day make the book particularly apropos to the Adventist reader. That the writings of the late theologian Jack Provonsha and of Adventist founder Ellen G. White are cited is encouraging; that the book finds that Adventists give top billing to vegetarianism and other practices on the basis of self-interest (better health, longer life, etc.), rather than social or ecological good, disappoints.
The author begins by pointing out that unlike other mammals, humans "are not doomed to overgrazing; unlike deer, we can make conscious choices. We differ from most nonhuman animals in our propensity to consume beyond basic animal needs."
She continues, "Consumption ethics is, at bottom, a species of stewardship ethics, asking questions such as: what does God intend for humans in their interactions with the material world? What is creation, and what are humans to do with it?"
She then enumerates four central goals she regards as necessary in any viable theology of means: To avoid sin, to embrace creation, to love the neighbor, and to envision the future.
Christians must consume to live, she posits, but the way we go about consuming and the selections of what to consume and to what extent we consume them have strong moral implications. The book then explores various approaches to Christian consumerism, dating back to the early days of Christianity and including the present.
The author seems favorable toward ascetic approaches to Christian consuming—views that most deeply conservative Adventists, influenced by the writings of Ellen G. White, would find reassuring. She seems far less convinced of the overall ethical value of a Prosperity Gospel that proposes that God wants all his children to be rich with goods of this world, and that a Christian without surplus means is somehow less than faithful.
Adventist readers will be pleased by statements like the following: “A countercultural movement like Sabbath Economics sees the everyday world of market idolatry and consumerism as a threat to individual, community, and planetary wellbeing. By contrast an oasis like the Sabbath represents a safe haven, a time to prepare to face the onslaught of non-Sabbath society the other six days of the week.” These are views well worth exploring in Sabbath school lessons and seminars and could serve as a basis for introducing the general public to some of the prime attractions of Adventism. This short (193 pages plus end notes) is recommended as a primer to current thought in Christianity regarding how to deal with scarcity and plenty.