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Statement: Conspicuous Consumption

Statement: Conspicuous Consumption

Has MTV culture distorted our view of the things we value?

So I was watching this show on MTV last week called Newport Harbor. Essentially it is Laguna Beach all over again, just 20 miles up the California coast in another ritzy Orange Country beach town. The cast of the show is made up of a handful of ditzy-but-beautiful blond girls and a few token surfer dudes whom each of the girls will date at one point during the season (which follows their senior year of “high school”). Everything on the show is pristine, nicely coifed, tanned and very, very rich.

Most episodes of the show, like in Laguna, feature the kids shopping at designer stores, eating at Zagat-rated restaurants or (in the case of the episode I saw) going on weekend trips to Palm Springs. Of course, no 17-year-old really has the money to live this way, but MTV wants us to think that yes, these kids (most kids in Orange Country, actually) do in fact spend their free time surfing, tanning, gossiping and eating braised lamb while the rest of us do homework and eat Ramen noodles.

But it’s not just MTV. Everywhere you look on TV and in pop culture these days, you see this strangely alluring thing that is sort of a rich-people minstrel show: wealth being exploited for the entertainment of the underclass. Shows like Bravo’s new reality offering, Welcome to the Parker (which is all about the Parker hotel in Palm Springs—the most ridiculously posh playground for celebrities in SoCal), emphasize how gloriously snobby rich people are, while shows like The Fabulous Life (VH1) and Cribs (MTV) keep tabs on which rich celebrity has managed to spend their money the most frivolously. Each of these shows contains the playful cha-ching graphic, which keeps tabs of the “bill” during the course of any episode, making light of the fact that some people manage to spend more money in a year than an entire developing country has made in a decade.

And let’s not forget the phenomenon of Paris Hilton, a “famous for being rich” celebrity who embodies all of the above. People are always asking, “Why are we obsessed with Paris Hilton?” But this has a pretty obvious answer: It’s because we’re obsessed with being rich. It’s the same reason we watch Newport Harbor or buy something that Oprah likes. If we can associate ourselves with wealth (even if we’re really poor) by watching or imitating it, we feel more legitimate, desirable and important.

The Paris Hilton culture is just the latest incarnation of what Thorstein Veblen first coined “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Essentially it is the idea that with the onset of expendable income, the new upper and middle classes took to flaunting their “wealth” as a way to demonstrate their social power or significance, whether real or perceived. In other words, people began to buy lots of fancy furniture and art (but chiefly so they could have dinner parties and show them off), and they began to buy expensive clothes and jewelry, mainly to present themselves as more important than they actually were.

Consumerism and the consequent drive to be conspicuous about it is certainly something we all deal with. But despite the number of luxury cars and high-fashion items you see, half of the wealth that is flashed in your eyes on any given day isn’t real wealth. It’s all about appearances. Sunglasses are the best way to feign wealth, especially in my hometown of L.A. (where sunglasses are worn more than socks). Most really good, designer sunglasses are at least 300 dollars—which is not that much for the average stockbroker or real estate tycoon. But you can easily find knockoff sunglasses for, like, 10 bucks that look exactly like the massive Prada pair you saw on J.Lo last week. It’s easy to look wealthy and important if you try hard enough.

Christians find themselves in an interesting spot, living in a culture that measures a person’s value or relevance by what model of cell phone they carry. We are followers of a man who once told His disciples that everyone who wanted to follow Him must “deny themselves and “take up their cross daily” (Luke 9:23, TNIV). Jesus constantly dropped lines such as, “What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self?” (Luke 9:25). He also insisted that we not worry about things like food and clothes (Matthew 6:25–34), and offered counterintuitive little quips about how blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek and the persecuted. Can you imagine an MTV show about nerdy little Christian kids in Irvine who take all of this to heart?

The Christian life is so crazily counter to a life of conspicuous consumption. Ours should be a life of conspicuous rejection of all the bling money can buy. We should be conspicuously consumed with Christ, so much so that we become much more fascinating to watch than Paris Hilton. Instead of a culture that questions their obsession with Paris and Britney, what if the curious questions were about Christians—why are they so utterly, obviously uninterested in what everyone else is living for (self-aggrandizement)? Now that would be a story worthy of reality TV.

This story was adapted from a recent article that appeared in the 850 WORDS OF RELEVANT newsletter. To subscribe for free, go here.

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