Culture Jam and the Radical Reformation

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I just finished reading “Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge–And Why We Must” (Kalle Lasn) for the first time over the weekend. This was another book assigned for Ryan’s class, which I will be leading a discussion on this coming thursday. Sometimes I wonder how I am so behind the times. This book came out in 1999 and was the first time I’ve ever really interacted with it or the Adbusters site (Lasn is its founder).

Summary of the book

This stuff is great. While I was reading the book I found that this is a lot of the stuff I already believe and try to put into practice. Basically his main point is that capitalism and the power of corporations have grown so strong that they have changed the way we as Americans live. We live to be consumers, this is our primary telos (purpose).

He states in the introduction (directly from p. xii-xiv):
1. America is no longer a country. It’s a multitrillion-dollar brand.
2. American culture is no longer created by the people [it is created for the people — to buy].
3. A free, authentic life is no longer possible in America today [because we are manipulated and trained to consume].
4. We ourselves have been branded.
5. Our mass media dispense a kind of Huxleyan Soma [a pretend sense of belonging which can be had by giving in to American consumerism].
6. American cool is a global pandemic.
7. The earth can no longer support the lifestyle of the “coolhunting” america-style consumer.

Lasn then continues on throughout the book to explain, a) how we’ve been co-opted by consumerism both knowingly and unknowingly, b) the effects this kind of consumer manipulation has on us and c) what things we can do about it.

One thing that we can learn from Lasn is how to use practices to redeem the powers we are countering. At Adbusters they don’t reject everything the culture throws at them they flip the tables around and try and disrupt the culture’s message. You can also see their “subvertisements” here.

The Message

And though many of these are pretty hard-hitting and can make us feel a little uncomfortable – there is something radically prophetic in these words. It’s something that resounds with what I know of Jesus and the Gospels. If it’s true that our identities have been radically formed around buying things, wearing and using certain brands, and accepting the “gospel” of these corporations, then not only is our own individual self being corrupted away from the imago dei (image of God) that we were created in but we are actively participating (giving the okay) in these very things. Furthermore, not only are we as individuals being corrupted but so are our families and communities.

Reading this book can help make one feel cynical, but this is no reason not to read it. It’s a reason to heed its advice and find ways to actively to “jam” the message of our culture.

The Christian Message of Culture Jamming

Without the Christian message of hope, and examples from Jesus and our traditions on how to “jam” the culture I think it would be difficult to swallow this message. It levels a devastating blow to our understanding of self as Americans. But in light of the Gospel Lasn’s book is not only not surprising but a bit disappointing. It’s disappointing that the church has lost touch with so much of culture that we have to be reminded by people who reject our message, what our message really is.

The message of the Christian scriptures is: Our telos can only be found in a right relationship with God, not brands and buying stuff. No other person or object can make us whole, only reconciliation with God can.

Signs of Life and Radical Reformation Practices

And so there are signs of life all over the place, inside and outside the walls of the church. And we thank God for the Light within people which guides them toward Christ. Reading this book continued to remind me of the powerful example of the Radical Reformation churches, the Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and the Quakers – who understand and have taken seriously the notion of following Jesus at all cost to ourselves, our rights and our preferences. These Christian traditions have at their very core the practices of simplicity, plain dress, truth-telling and silence. These are all practices that radically “jam” American consumer culture today. Lasn is a good example of a postmodern Radical Reformation Christian in this way. His book calls us to those practices.

I know we all have various understandings and interpretations of those practices listed above, and if you’re like me I fail at them continually, but the fact stands that if we take seriously our tradition’s witness in these ways we will wrestle with understanding and living a message that is counter to the world, and reflects the Gospel of Jesus.

“Culture Jammer’s Manifesto”

We will take on the
archetypal mind polluters
and beat them at their
own game.

We will uncool their
billion-dollar brands
with uncommercials
on TV, subvertisements
in magazine and anti-ads
right next to theirs in
the urban landscape.

We will seize control of
the roles and cunctions
that corporations play
in our lives and set new
agendas in their industries.

We will jam the pop-culture
marketeers and bring their
image factory to a sudden,
shuddering halt.

On the rubble of the old
culture, we will build a new
one with a non-commercial
heart and soul.
-p. 128

Related Entries: Reviews from Students in the Class

1. Book Review -Aaron Serna
2. Book Review -Robert Lee
3. Book Review -Miriam

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

12 thoughts on “Culture Jam and the Radical Reformation”

  1. Wess – thanks for the exposure to “Culture Jam.” One concern I have about “Adbusters” and the like is that they too create a powerful brand in which we are tempted to find our meaning (or purpose or telos). I appreciate Lasn’s anti-consumerism message, but could he be perpetuating the very kind of culture he is trying to avoid — just with a different spin? Then again, can Christianity, Evangelicalism, Anabaptism, etc. be considered brands?

  2. Hi Barry,
    Thanks for the comment. I think your criticism is one that often gets leveled against Lasn and ideas similar to his a lot. But the point of the book isn’t to remain “brand-less” it is to describe the dominating power of brands and advertising in a way that makes people aware of how heavily our practices are influenced by these things. And it gives ideas about how to counter this “power.”

    I am not so sure that this is perpetuating some kind of brand so much as an ethic. Being branded is essentially a one-way relationship, it requires that I purchase something and wear it, or advertise it loudly. It offers me “belonging” in return but only a superficial belonging and happiness.

    The telos a brand offers me is “satisfaction.” I think this differs from Lasn’s “movement” and especially Christian traditions. Christianity doesn’t work, is in fact warped, by consumer-minded worshippers. Thus Christians who set out to brand themselves with this or that – are always based on preferences of the self. It will always turn inward, just like consumerism in the world.

    An ethic based on practices that not only counter oppression but look to heal and redeem, communal relationships (where both give and take are involved), and where the telos points to something greater than to itself seem to me to be essential criteria in question.

    You don’t have to buy anything from Adbusters, visit their website, or even read the book to come to the conclusions Lasn has reach (as I did myself) and this is what will keep it from becoming the kind of ‘brand’ in discussion.

  3. Thanks for the review. The issues of culture and reading the world around is has suprisingly been considered too infrequently by leaders of churches. It seems that the lens of consumerism is in fact informing our ecclesiologies, rather than scripture informting them. Whithout being too critical, this happens because the subtle undertones are often unseen and so evassive that we miss them altogehter.

    The problem lies in relying on professionals (pastors) to do all the thinking theologically and the congregation are mere consumers. If this is to change, the congregation needs to become theological in their thinking and filter how each decision that is made through scripture and consider what their actions are saying about God.

    thanks for the good post.

    John

  4. Man, I totally agree with that — it’s incredible how much the stereotypical american church encourages its people to be consumers. Consumers of packaged theologies, consumers of leaders, consumers of mindsets and worldviews, and consumers of churches. And I see this in myself as well — hard to avoid that attitude when you are surrounded by it.

    I really like adbusters’ stuff — the “subvertisements” in particular make me smirk and rile up the side of me that loves to see The Man with egg on his face. But “Lord’s Gym” bumper stickers, “Be Wiser” shirts with the Budweiser logo, Calvin kneeling in prayer at the foot of the cross on my neighbor’s truck canopy, and all the rest of the one-off garbage that has been sold at christian bookstores for probably 20 years now really just does nothing but leave a bad taste in my mouth. I guess the subvertisement vein of Culture jamming has its place, but it seems to me that its effectiveness reaches only as far as questioning status quo — when it attempts to reach beyond that and become didactic to point in a particular direction… suddenly it seems nothing but cheap, and cheapens the message as well as the medium.

    Makes me think of the old Bill Bright quote: “You win people to what you win them with.” I’m all for winning people to Christ-like simplicity and truth-telling. Not so much for winning them to a sub-culture of imitation.

  5. Hey Wes. Great post. Thanks for wrapping up the book in that wonderful concise manner. Great tool you have. Keep communicating!! Thanks!!! It brings great joy to see your posts seeping with love and hope.

  6. @ John,
    Hi John thanks for commenting, I like your insight that consumerism is informing our ecclesiology. I was just thinking yesterday about how might the mission of the church change in light of this book.

    @ Jed,
    You’re right the “subvertisements.” I appreciate their creativity and their critique of culture, but when it goes beyond that to the Christianese then it just doesn’t have the same force. I think because in one instance it’s actually critiquing culture and the other is just adopting and recycling it for it’s own purposes. Oh and I like the Bright quote that fits well here.

    @ Mark,
    Thanks for gracing us with your presence bro! You and I have talked a lot about this stuff, it’s definitely up your alley.

  7. Hey Wess,
    It’s James McMillan. Remember me ?(our wives used to work together). I stumbled onto your blog through a link on a friend’s page. I have never really been a computer guy, but I’m going to throw my hat in the blog ring, too.

    I have not read Lasn’s book, but I pick up Adbusters several times a year. Whenever I read it, I wonder if I am the only evangelical who is reading it, and noticing the parallels with the Gospel. It made me smile to learn that Lasn is required reading in a Fuller class. I don’t buy into all things Adbusters, and certainly disagree with their methods sometimes, but I completely agree with their core beliefs about the devestating consequences of our consumer-first, market-driven culture. Down with Mammon.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts, and look forward to more of the same.

  8. Hey James! Emily and I were talking about you two just the other day, wondering how you’re doing and all.

    It is pretty awesome that Fuller is talking about these issues and trying to find ways for the church to enge in this way.

    Thanks for your comments, I hope you keep dropping by.

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