More Ranting on the McCulture

November 29, 2005

Please be patient with me. I don’t quite have all of this out of my system yet.

Here’s an interesting story. For every dollar earned by an average production worker, a corporate CEO will make $431. This is up from $100 to $1 a little over a decade ago.

Doesn’t that sound odd? Why would the person who actually produces the product be paid so little in comparison with a guy who – essentially – produces nothing?

The secret is that the CEO is someone who knows “how to get things done.” And if, by saying “getting things done,” you think I mean that he has demonstrated the unique ability to make sure that his company’s workers and the consumers of its products are living whole, spiritually fulfilling lives, you would be dead wrong.

As we have already seen, compassion has no real value – and the perception of compassion is only of marginal usefulness – in the most dehumanized sectors of the McCulture.

In the McCulture, “getting things done” means making sure that a company has a nice, healthy bottom line. There are two ways to do that: (1) keep costs as low as possible and (2) keep revenues as high as possible. Preferably, both. This means it is the CEO’s job to make sure that production workers are as few as possible and paid as little as possible. It also means that it is his job to try to sell products that are as inexpensive to produce (and, hence, as invaluable) as possible.

Am I being overly cynical if I say that the $431-an-hour trick is to make your workers and consumers alike think that you are giving them more than they really are? On the employee end of things, it is called “management.” Good “managers” are considered those who can get as much value out of employees for as little money as possible: the more hours, harder work, and less pay, the better.

On the consumer end of things, it is called “marketing.” The key here is to attach some value to your product that costs as little as possible (or better yet, nothing) to produce. Thus, grossly over-priced toys on QVC have greater value as a means to re-establish a relationship with estranged grandkids. An expensive package of diapers is worth twice the money because it makes you one of the “good mommys” who takes care of her baby’s precious bottom. Ordinary textiles and rubbers assume immense value when a designer label (or a swoosh) is attached. Very nice, but not noticably superior, MP3 players fly off the shelves when they are associated with the hip-ness of the IPod label.

In a best case scenario, the brand itself becomes the value. Coke. Starbucks. Nike. Disney. All of these “brands” have value not because of superior product but because somehow, along the way, the McCulture convinced the masses that they make you cooler or feel warmer or happier when you use them. It is the perceived “experience” of using the branded product that makes you think it is more valuable than competitive products that are otherwise equal in quality.

None of these observations are new, of course. That the McCulture whispers these deceptions has been understood by a wide sector of the population for some time.

But here is the thing that blows me away: even after we acknowledge to ourselves that these intangible added values are deceptive, most of us still buy products and services on that basis.

I’m still working on the answer to that question.

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When does the REAL holiday start?

November 28, 2005

For Sheila and I, there was a time where the pattern of our lives went something like this:

– School
– Holiday rest and relaxation
– More school

Now, the pattern goes something like this:

– Work/home education stress
– Holiday stress
– DOUBLE work/home education stress because of lost time from work/home education in order to deal with holiday stress

Anyone else need a holiday from the holidays?

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Giving and the Advent

November 27, 2005

Andrew Jones just posted an entry that has got me thinking about this question:

What sort-of giving is appropriate in response to the incarnation of Jesus? (The incarnation being the thing – in concept at least – that we celebrate at Christmastime).

Jones has offered, I think, a pretty good answer, taken from Luke 3:10-11 (though he apparently mis-cited this as John 1:10-11). John the Baptist, preparing people for the arrival of Jesus (sound like what we do as we prepare for Christmas?) had these words to say:

The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.

Perhaps, rather than giving more and more to those who already have (and receiving when we already have), John’s ethic for the advent call on those who “have” to account for what they have in excess and give it to those who have none. It isn’t a call to live in poverty per se, but it is a call to avoid the extravagant and share that which is excessive.

This seems to be a more appropriate way to prepare for the arrival of Jesus and God’s kingdom on Christmas day. But, of course, it is also counter to the consumeristic impulses that drive the McCulture.

I’m wondering: what if, as a part of our Christmas celebration, our families took the time to look around our homes, find things that we possess in over-abundance (especially – in our case – clothes and toys), and give them away at the local Salvation Army? Just a thought.

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November 25, 2005

“Have a nice day.”

These words were spoken to me by a very haggard looking twenty-something female about two weeks ago. She seemed nice enough – probably someone who would enjoy chatting with you over a cup of coffee about music, family, or friends. But I was pretty certain of something when she said this.

She didn’t mean it. Its not that she was a mean person or anything – I just don’t think that the most pressing issue on her mind at the moment was whether the rest of my day was enjoyable or not.

Here is what was going on at the moment: she had just handed me a couple of sacks full of various forms of semi-digestible, grease-saturated food, two cheaply made toys that originated from Asia, and a factory-processed salad. In return, I had given her $11.48.

She told me to “have a nice day” because somewhere behind the drive-through window at her workplace is a company manual, identical to the same company manual in thousands of other workplaces that tells her she is supposed to recite those words to me after she hands me my sack of deep-fried, processed food product. Presumably, I will be impressed by the fact that she and the McDonald’s Corporation want me to have a nice day, my experience will be slightly more pleasant, and I will be slightly more inclined to come back more often.

Her words were all about marketing and branding that would benefit other people. It had nothing to do with any relationship that the two of us shared.

It felt icky that we were both there – in the same place at the same time – pretending to have a real relationship when her words were utterly insincere. It was even icky-er than the food she had just handed me.

It was in that moment – the moment where she spoke those words and I simultaneously realized that she was only saying them because she had to – that I had an truly disturbing epiphany: corporate culture really is dehumanizing us all.

I had heard the accusation before, of course. But I had always dismissed such an accusation as the semi-coherent ramblings of a bunch of ex-hippies and hippy wannabes: probably the result of too much LSD during the 60s.

But this was one of those rare moments in life: one where a light suddenly comes on and the world changes in an instant. Lines suddenly formed between various dots from my education and experience, forming a completely new picture before the words had even finished coming out of her mouth.

She was there because she wanted to get a relatively small paycheck from an international corporation (or its carefully controlled franchisee). By my rough calculations, she would probably get to “keep” about 20-40 cents of the money I gave her when she got her paycheck. It would also probably cost about $4-$5 to pay for overhead for the restauraunt, for the paper goods she handed me, and for the ingredients (such as they are) in the food that I purchased.

The rest of the money that I gave her would flow from this small establishment to a local bank account, then to an larger international bank account. The money from that account would be distributed to people in various levels of corporate management: CEOs, CFOs, marketing people, advertisers, etc., etc. What is left over would then be distributed to shareholders – a few of whom are very wealthy, but most of whom (to be fair) are probably average, every day working folks who are nervously watching their retirement accounts to see whether its investments will be sufficient for their retirement.

This was not a transaction between myself and this nice young lady who cared about my day. It was a transaction between me and this giant, impersonal machine comprised of thousands of people, most of whom don’t know each other at all.

There was a time when things worked differently. I remember my how my grandmother, who ran an independently owned dress shop in a small town, used to talk about how she “traded” with certain people, and they “traded” with her. She was living in a community where she had relatinoships with other people. Everyone’s livelihood, as she saw it, depended on their willingness to do business with each other. Their money and loyalties stayed with the people they had relationships with.

But today, it is all about a group of large companies sucking up money into a giant international financial system that – after processing the money through an incredibly costly bureaucracy that seeks to enrich and perpetuate itself – will return it to some of us in the form of a few dollars and cents in our investment or bank accounts.

We all buy into this system – literally – because of two things: (1) mass-produced products are cheaper than products produced in smaller quantities (thus, we get more stuff and service for our dollar) AND (2) the art and science of marketing has become so well-developed that aggressively, smartly advertised products are more attractive to us, even if they are inferior. In short, large investment capital has a signficiant advantage over small, independent business in most arenas, because it can produce a cheaper product or service that is perceived to be more attractive.

The story repeats itself again and again: Microsoft, Walmart, Nike, Electronic Arts, Apple and its IPod. All of these are companies that have squashed their under-capitalized competeition with a strategy involving mass-production and aggressive marketing.

The system is not designed to enrich the young twenty-something that spoke to me any more than it is designed to improve the quality of my “day.” To the contrary, it works “best” if it can get away with paying her (and her manager) as little as legally possible. That way, more money flows upward into the corporate bureaucracy and through to the shareholders.

So there you have it: I give her $11.48, she gives me some nasty tasting food, and a bunch of people that neither of us know end up with most of the money from the transaction. Nobody really cares what sort-of day anyone else has.

This, then, is the McCulture: it is a place where meaningful relationships, relationships which of course always included an economic component, have been hijacked by a consumption-driven machine.

I’m not so concerned with what this means for political reform – indeed, I think that you may well create more problems for everyone by over-regulating market economies. Nor am I ready to join the Wal-Mart bashing crowd, insisting that everyone “buy local.”

But I am suddenly concerned about how I can go about forming authentic relationships with the people I encounter in the McCulture. And I now find myself wondering, what does it mean to be the presence of Jesus in the midst of it?

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Addison Road

November 22, 2005

I just discovered the Addison Road blog (motto: “your source for illegal theology downloads”) a few days ago, and I’m hooked.

These guys are downright hilarious. I light up every time I notice a new post from their site on bloglines.

Eighteen Years and Counting

November 21, 2005

Its hard to believe that it was eighteen years ago today that Sheila and I were married. Its been an incredible blessing to share the journey with her through my late adolescent and adult years.

We went out to eat on Friday night, but didn’t do anything special today other than go for a walk early this evening. But that is fitting. I probably cherish the conversations that we share on our walks as much as anything else in our marriage – and she loves the cooler, fall weather – so what better way to celebrate the day?

The Flannelgraph Kingdom: It Already Shines

November 19, 2005

Everything I ever needed to know about the Kingdom of God, I learned from flannelgraph.

Well, almost.

If I can find any flaw in the felt-rich images of God’s kingdom which I encountered in my youth, it is only this: their depiction of what God’s kingdom will one day, in the end, look like, was too limited.

I have vague memories of pictures of a very beautiful city, a city adorned with gold, and with pearly gates for an entrance. These images were supposed to represent the end result of where God was taking me. We called it “heaven,” and the picture was primarily borrowed from Revelation 21.

But this city – this New Jerusalem – is only a part (though a very important part, to be sure) of the future of God’s kingdom that is promised in scripture. Even the verses around the description of this city in The Revelation portray a changed universe that surrounds the city.

“Look! I am making everything new.” God promised early in Chapter 21. And, sure enough, a new heaven and a new earth are already making their appearance as the new Jerusalem descends into creation.

The image of a “new heaven and new earth” is not unique to the Revelation. Rather, the Revelation only echos a promise that God made long ago, in Isaiah 65 and 66. It is in the book of Isaiah that the idea is truly fleshed out.

If you really want to know where God is moving history, how he is acting in the world, and what to expect in our future, I find that Isaiah is a much better place to look than The Revelation. For me, the Revelation is largely concerned with our present: with how we are responding to cultures and powers that threaten to undo our faith in the here and now. But Isaiah…there is a book that looks ahead!

Nestled neatly among several other dominant themes, Isaiah seeks to portray the end of injustice, the end of human kingdoms, and the return of the rule of God in the world. It is a magnificent book: a glimpse of God’s future in which all of the violent kingdoms of the world come to an end, a picture of how all of creation – though damaged and destroyed by the fall – is made new. But most of all it tells me that God will finally, again, be recognized (i.e., worshipped) as Lord over all.

But it would be a serious mistake to think that the future of Isaiah and Revelation 21 is a future that we’re supposed to sit around and wait for. As I have previously said, all of scripture – particularly the parables – make it clear that God is moving in the here and now to bring history toward that day. He invites us to participate in the creation of that Kingdom, and – if we aren’t willing to give up our own kingdoms – we will miss out.

And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet, which is this:

There is a sense in which the future is now. God’s Kingdom refuses to stay put in the unrealized realm of the not yet, and it rushes into the already.

The “age to come” – as it is often called – beckons to us, even in the here and now. Even though we see blood and war and bickering and self-centered pursuit of wealth, it is also sometimes possible for us to see and even experience something that is akin to Isaiah’s and John’s vision of that day. It is as if tiny streams of the Full Kingdom can come rushing backwards in time, making it possible for us to live out that future in the here and now.

We have become accustomed to looking at our world as being driven by history. One event leads to a subsequent event, which leads to another until we finally reach a dismal end. But in scripture, we need not be products of the inevitable march of political and social events beyond our control. Instead, we are being beckoned into a future: a place where disease and death, greed and war, famine and pestilince have all come to an end. A place where all human kingdoms have ended, and we can all instead live together in the righteousness of God’s kingdom.

And, it is here that I end another series of posts by reciting more of Peter Furler’s ultra-cool lyrics, this time from the song Halleleujah:

I’m looking up
Holding out
Pressing forward
Without a doubt
Longing for the things unseen
Longing for the things I believe
My true country

We hope and wait
For the glorious day
All tears will vanish
Wiped away
On the saints this day already shines
On the saints this day already shines
It already shines

And I know that it’s coming
But I can’t see it now
And I’ve touched it in moments
But I can’t hold it yet
And it glows in the darkness
And it calls us away
To our true destination
To that glorious day

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