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

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