This entry is Part 3 in a series called Commercialism and Faith. The series aims to make us more aware of why we think the way we think and behave the way we behave, giving us a perspective from which we can live a more enlightened life, free of the trappings of consumer addiction. In my last entry, I mentioned that this next entry would be about Christ as a product. But I thought I’d cover ritual first. I’ll be getting to Christ as a product soon.
I want to focus for a moment on rituals and how both religious people and marketers play on the human need for ritual in order to bring security and comfort. In his breakthrough book Buyology, Martin Lindstrom talks about how marketers package their products within rituals, even going so far as to create rituals within which their products can be used. He notes there is no cultural tradition that would have us put a lime in a bottle of Corona, for instance, and how that ritual came about when a marketer placed a bet with a friend at a bar that he could make the masses put a lime in a bottle of beer. By introducing a ritual, Corona beat out Heineken the following year, and has beaten them every year since. And there are many rituals that marketers have invented. Whether it’s taking a family vacation, or cleansing your face before you go to bed or getting together for coffee, marketers have been creating rituals for years, selling their products within behaviors they’ve announced that help bring security and stability to our lives.
Of rituals, Lindstrom says this: “Rituals and superstitions are defined as not entirely rational actions and the belief that one can somehow manipulate the future by engaging in certain behaviors, in spite of the fact there’s no discernible casual relationship between that behavior and its outcome.”
As stresses in life increase, people turn to rituals and magical thinking. Lindstrom tells of the study done at Tel Aviv University in which 174 Israeli soldiers were questioned after being attacked by Iraqi Scud Missiles, each of them showing an increase in ritualistic behavior (only entering a room right-foot first and so on) connecting their behavior to good fortune.
But rituals don’t exist because of marketers. Rituals exist because of a need in the human spirit for magical beliefs that their repeated actions are tied to good luck, fortune and security. To find the most ritualistic of people, one need look no further than the religious community. Some denominations take communion every week, some believe that unless you are baptized you cannot go to heaven, and wars have been fought over how these rituals should be acted out. And so the rituals that advertisers sell us, whether it’s putting on makeup, using aftershave lotion, renting a tux for a wedding or being buried in a wooden coffin, are plays upon an innate human and even religious need. Some might even say consumer rituals have replaced religious rituals for many. Our culture would then, in effect, subscribe to a kind of consumer voodoo. This will no doubt offend many, but perhaps this is offensive because this revelation threatens the very rituals from which so many find their security?
One need look no further than Christmas to see how marketers have created rituals to sell products, and how those rituals have replaced religious rituals for a feeling of security and comfort, and even spirituality.
But are rituals bad? Not from a Biblical perspective. Christ asked us to remember Him through the breaking of bread and drinking of wine. This took place around a table not unlike a dinner table, but it was not to be partaken for reasons like hunger, and it’s safe to say the Biblical ritual initiated at the Lords table looks nothing like what we see in any church today. The informal, relational gathering of those who are to remember Christ has been turned into a ceremony that would not be recognized by those disciples who partook on that first night. Communion was a ritual designed to bring comfort through the remembrance of Christ, but the power was in the remembrance, not the ritual.
Christ also asked that we be baptized, though it is theologically debatable whether this was symbolism for the true baptism we have in the likeness with Him and association with His death. We are also asked to pray and to fast, both rituals. That said, from nearly any perspective, we would agree some religious cultures take ritual too far. (Who could argue that the handling of snakes by some churches is ritual taken too far?) And yet there is no power in ritual at all, save psychological power. Rituals do nothing magical for us. Perhaps it could be said the more insecure a persons faith, the more he might turn to religious ritual for security? But then if a person with a sincere faith connects with God through ritual, the same could be said of the devout. The truth is in the motives, I suspect, and in the understanding that the rituals themselves have no magical powers.
Attending church on Sunday morning is a ritual, having worship before a teaching is ritual, having a teaching is a ritual, attending Sunday School is a ritual, studying the Bible in the morning is a ritual and so forth and so forth. Most of these rituals have a very loose affiliation with a behavior in scripture, but to us they feel entirely sacred. Tell a southern evangelical you don’t attend church but a few Sundays a year, and their reaction will be as though you have tempted the god’s with a failure to sacrifice. We have come to have faith in ourselves, in our rituals, rather than having a relationship with a living God. We are practicers of evangelical voodoo.
What if the power is not in the ritual, but what the ritual points to? Just as a wedding is a ritual, it’s power is not in the ritual, but the decision to be committed one to the other, and the ritual is a tool in aiding that commitment. The wedding does not make us married, the marriage makes us married, the commitment, the agreement that God sees us now as one. The ceremony is simply symbolism. If a couple wanted to be legally married, they would simply sign a document in the presence of a legal witness and so forth. What if even the few rituals given to us in scripture were supposed to be reminders of a relationship, and that relationship were to be the power that redeems and guides us? And what if that relationship were being neglected because of the false, pacifying power of both religious and consumer rituals?
As said, however, rituals are not all bad. And God does give us some rituals in scripture.
On the benefit of rituals, Lindstrom says this:
“But are superstitions and rituals necessarily bad for us? Interestingly, some rituals have actually been shown to be beneficial to our mental and physical well-being. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology “in families with predictable routines, children had fewer respiratory illnesses and better overall health, and they performed better in elementary school.” The article added that rituals have a greater effect on emotional health, and that in families with strong rituals adolescents reported a stronger sense of self, couples reported happier marriages and children had greater interaction with their grandparents.”
Questions for reflection:
- How much comfort and security am I getting from rituals sold to me with their associations with products? Do I wear makeup as a ritual that brings me comfort? Do I wear cologne for the same reason? Do I meet people at a certain place for coffee because that is what we have to do, or because it is a comforting ritual?
- Do I find security in religious ritual, or are these symbols that remind me of a living being with whom I have relationship? When you take communion, do you find security in the act, or in the reminder that Christ has died for your sins? What is the difference between you getting baptized and an act of superstition?
- Why do you think Christ performed every healing differently, giving the person a behavior (in most cases) but then affirming their faith, only to give the next person a different behavior? If he had instructed the exact same behavior, would anybody seek him, or would we all go through the ritual hoping for healing?
- What would it look like to not partake in religious rituals for one month? What would it look like to, instead of church, take your family on a hike to pray, instead of traditional communion, taking communion around a dinner table after a meal, listening to scripture in audio form? Would you miss the security you get from performing religious acts?
* On a personal note, I actually like religious ritual. I enjoy high-church, liturgy, communion, the presentation of the gospel and so forth. But I grew up Southern Baptist, so these ritual seem fresh to me. They also, in a way, remove the human element. Ritual allows people to get out of the way, so we access God through ancient practices. I only add this note in case anybody might think I am against rituals.