Shopping, Cutesy Nihilism, & the Resurrection of Jesus

Theologian David Wells writes about the consumer-driven, cutesy nihilism of American culture:

Modern consumption, as I have suggested, is not simply about shopping, because what we are buying is not simply goods and services. Modern consumption is about finding substitutes for an ultimate meaning and in this sense it serves a philosophical function. It is for many about the way they construct themselves, their way of looking at the world in the absence of meaning. It is, therefore, becoming the defining focus of a new kind of civilization. What was once just about buying goods has become a way of producing, private, fleeting moments of meaning which compensate for the many other losses in postmodern life. Postmoderns find themselves always moving and never stopping, going from one temporary oasis to another in search of palliatives for what is bleak within, but it is always movement without a destination. Self-definition is constructed only through what is present, by what can be purchased, and by what can be experienced…

Once our world was centered; now it is not. Once there were ultimate principles of criteria; now there are not. Once there was Authority; now there are only authorities, specialists who have mastered a small corner of life’s complexity. We have been left to drift in the flow of melting reality. This is our nihilism. However, it is not frontal nihilism. It is, instead, sly, evasive, superficial, and furtive in its strategies for avoiding the question of ultimate meaning, hopeful in its ability to surmount the Void. It assumes the complete emptiness of life, but it does not want to linger over that emptiness. Rather than be tortured with dark thoughts it is better just to make a joke, move on, and buy something.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s answer to the meaninglessness of nihilism.  Wells explains:

Without [Jesus’] resurrection, faith is void and preaching useless (1 Cor. 15:14), and ‘you are still in your sins’ (15:17); because of this resurrection, new life has been secured (15:22), death has been vanquished (15:55-57) and a fatal blow has been delivered to ‘every rule and every authority and power’ (15:24) which has reared itself against the rule of God in the universe. At the Cross, Christ triumphed over his enemies. In that triumph lie human freedom and meaning.  It is, then, the disturbed moral order that Christ has rectified in his death and it is from this righted moral order that meaning in life derives. Paul’s teaching is not that life loses its emptiness because there is life beyond the grave but that what has made life empty is destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection…

It is the fact of the resurrection, therefore, that connects us to a moral and spiritual order that lies beyond the grave. And it is this order that sends its clarifying light back into this life today. Its intrusion into life is what, in fact, gives to life its meaning because, in the end, nothing is insignificant. On the day of judgment, it will be discovered that as transient and fading as life seems, apparently ever in ‘the sunset of dissolution,’ nothing, in fact, has been obliterated. Nothing is ever lost. All is remembered, and all is subject to the divine reversal of human values and expectations that God’ s judgment entails. In that day, what seemed like a most insignificant act, such as the gift of a cup of water, an act that was forgotten, is remembered by God and accorded real, virtuous significance (Matt. 25:31-40). The wicked, the psalmist says, speak arrogantly and act oppresively because, they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive’ (Ps. 94:7). How mistaken they are! We are in Kundera’s words, ‘nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the Cross’ but this need not be a terrifying burden. It can, in fact, be a liberating gift. (Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, 192-193, 198-199)

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