Walk into any Wal-Mart across the country and you are quickly going to run into this phrase: “Save Money. Live Better.” It hangs at the main entrance, adorns the ends of aisles, appears atop your receipt.
If consumers aren’t sure before they enter, there can be little doubt that Wal-Mart has contributed to our living a better life by saving us money. It is a declarative statement without ambiguity.
But does saving money actually lead to better living?
Wal-Mart may help the consumer save money – about 30 percent more than an average grocery store – but it is a logical fallacy to assume that the result has been a better life.
In fact, Wal-Mart’s better life may be a far cry from the better life of the Gospel. Jesus noted that he had come to give us life and give it more abundantly. It is hardly a stretch to imagine that Jesus did not have in mind a shopping cart full of hedonistic goodies.
Wal-Mart doesn’t claim to offer a sort of gospel good news, but is there any better news to most Americans than “Save Money. Live Better”? In a recession, isn’t a better deal almost as good as gospel? Wal-Mart’s “good news” is falling on good soil, and their profit margins are proof.
Wal-Mart does not intentionally create another narrative in opposition to the Gospel. It may not be attempting to author another form of Scripture, but it does posit another narrative within which we are invited to participate.
The narrative is one that is no less encompassing than the Gospel because it provides people with a way to interpret and understand their lives. Our lives are only part of a larger purpose of consumption, and the more and better items we can consume, the more affluent we become. Wal-Mart is not the only guilty party but is the largest corporate embodiment of the narrative of consumerism.
There can be little doubt that all consumers appreciate a good deal and discounted prices, but Wal-Mart is an environment wherein shoppers can indulge in products that are not only cheaper, but also bad for them physically and spiritually.
The money Wal-Mart saves a consumer is often used in purchasing more products with which to indulge. Indulgence is the end of most Americans. It is the new eschatological goal toward which we aspire. It is the end that never comes. Indulgence and consumerism never lead anywhere but back to the beginning. Profits are demonstrable of this reality.
Theologically, Wal-Mart represents the gospel of better living in conjunction with the power of the dollar. The more we have, the better our life is. Ironically, the more money one can save, the more money one can spend.
People come into the sacred place of Wal-Mart not looking for another story, but many times participating as characters in the narrative of consumerism. It is a story stained by affordable electronics that tend to separate us from our families and real relationships. It is a story stained by unhealthy food that can be bought in grossly large quantities. It is the story that is mostly heard by lower- and lower-middle-class families who abuse their paychecks by purchasing items that promote “living better,” all the while failing to provide for their family’s essential needs.
Wal-Mart certainly helps us “save money,” but it can hardly be said that such saving leads to “living better.”
The Gospel of Jesus should speak to every issue we encounter, and it should have a prophetic word for those of us caught in the systemic sin of consumerism and indulgence. The creative word of the Gospel of Christ is one not necessarily opposed to affordable living, but it is one that disciplines people to know what the good life is really all about.
When we let corporate conglomerates fill our airwaves and media with narratives of the nothing of consumerism, we are allowing the Gospel to disappear from those who need it the most.
It has been said that the best argument will save the world. It might also be said that the story that is told best will gain the most listeners.
I wonder – in an age in which the better life is dictated by telling the story of Wal-Mart and corporate America – if we Christians have a story with which to counter it. My guess is that the story of Jesus is still real and full of resurrection.
I only hope that we can tell it in such a way that listeners can tell the difference between “living better” and life more abundant.
Nathan Napier is a minister in the Church of the Nazarene and a graduate of the McAfee School of Theology.