This is the first chapter that takes Vanhoozer’s method and applies it to a cultural “text,” that text being the checkout line at a grocery store. The authors of this chapter, while reflecting on the realities of the checkout line pose rhetorically:
“Have we entered the seventh heaven of hedonism.” (p.63)
They proceed to take us through the reality we all inevitably face, the gauntlet of impulse buys, candy, gift cards, novels, magazines with scantily clad women promising a better sex life, etc. In other words, the checkout line is both a reflection of our social virtues, as well as an alluring siren offering you everything you need to fulfil your desires. “The checkout line conveys a message, a message of what it means to live the ‘good life.'” (p. 64)
For our purposes here, there are two key elements I want to draw out. First, and underlying the chapter as a whole, is that we must not see these texts as random, but instead, as deliberate ways to address our desires. Second, the key foci of these attacks on our desires make up a “mini-summa of culture.”
Lust and Manipulation
Inherent to the message of this chapter is the idea that much of modern marketing is an attempt to tap into your lusts and manipulate you – the buyer. By going through marketing texts, and addressing everything from the strategic layout of the checkout line, to the point of the checkout line in general, the authors try to show that there is a deliberate message of the good life being peddled around every corner. “Market research has analyzed our desire for the good life, then commodified, packaged, and mass-produced it.” (p.66)
The key question addressed along these lines is “Who decides what the ‘good life’ means?” (p.66) The axiom utilized is from Peter Berger’s socialization theory: “We influence society and society influences us.” (p.66) Our relationship to society is not that of hermetically sealed categories, but one of mutual germination (if not at times saturation). I am reminded of the second half of James’ definition of true religion, “to keep oneself unstained by the world.” This seems like an appropriate passage to highlight the next section – as looking at where this “staining” of the world can come from.
Mini-Summa of Culture
The mini-summa of culture that the authors propose will not be surprising: sex, beauty, health, information/knowledge, convenience, wealth, and celebrity. They conclude with:
“The good life according to the checkout line projects a vision of happiness that comes from having the best physically (sex, beauty, and health), intellectually (information/knowledge), and financially (wealth). We want all of it quickly and effortlessly (convenience), and we find the epitome of this good life in the celebrity media star.” (p.71)
The authors do a good job of showing how the Christian message reforms these concepts and their place in the life of a believer (but for sake of space I won’t go into them here). They rightly add: “The checkout line puts our loves out of order, an indication itself of how culture can have a subtle impact on our idea of the good life.” (p.78)
To close, I would like to pose a question that will take us away from the focus of the chapter. I don’t want to diminish the importance of talking about these elements of the world in which we live, and I have no doubt that many of them penetrate deeper into our consciousness and hearts than we realize. But I want to ask a similar question about “Christian culture.” In many ways, haven’t we developed our own idea of the good life which is just as opposed to the biblical considerations? Can we look at our resumes/CV’s like Paul does in Philippians and call them rubbish? Don’t we often hold up Christian celebrities as those to emulate in a way similar to the “celebrity media star?” Should the next question be, after asking about the checkout line at Safeway, about the checkout line at our local Christian book store?