Polishing Brass on the Titanic

By Paul Koch

Tyler Durden: “Do you know what a duvet is?”

Narrator: “It’s a comforter.”

Tyler Durden: “It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is it essential to our survival in the hunter gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we, then?”

Narrator: “Consumers.”

Tyler Durden: “Right, we are consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.”

Narrator: “Martha Stewart.”

Tyler Durden: “F*ck Martha Stewart. Martha’s polishing the brass on the Titanic. It’s all going down, man. So f*ck off with your sofa units and Strinne green stripe patterns.” (Fight Club, 1999)


Consumers—that’s what we’ve become. Beyond sentimentality, pragmatism, moralism or romanticism, we’ve slowly and surely becomes shaped by consumerism. It affects how we watch the news, how we plan our vacations, and how we go to church. In the great collection of essays Feasting in a Famine of the Word (expect a review shortly), Dr. John Bombaro offers some outstanding insight into the challenge that faces one who is to proclaim the Word to a hearer whose identity and place in the world is as a consumer. He states quite plainly:

“Consumerism stands as the major obstacle to genuine theological proclamation. Too frequently moralism is identified as the problem of contemporary preaching. Certainly, moralism commits a basic hermeneutical error, from the Lutheran point of view, by making law the gospel and the gospel the law. But moralistic preaching is really the result of a consumerist framework, whereby preachers give people what they want, if not expect: a self-contentment or happiness that comes from the justification of one’s lifestyle, whatever lifestyle that may be.” (Feasting, p.65)

While we may not fully comprehend the ramifications of a consumerist ideology in the church and the challenges, it gives to proclamation we don’t have to search very hard to see the effects of such an ideology in the corporate worship of the church. Though we leave behind our TV screens and head down to church on a Sunday morning, though we happen to actually silence our cell phones and leave them in our pockets or purses as we slide into our usual places in the pews, what we find is a longing for that which we’ve turned off or set to vibrate. Deep within the psyche of the brothers and sisters gathered around you is the expectation on some level to be entertained. And the churches have responded. The quest to give them what they want is easy to see, from the high church rituals to the mega church performances we dress up Jesus to impress and sway an audience.

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And if this longing for entertainment is visible in the church its presence is a foregone conclusion in the society outside of the church doors.

When I visit shut-ins who cannot make it to church, I’ve notice a common trend. Most of the time, whether it is a hospital room or a nursing home or a private residence, the TV is turned on and the volume is turned up. Streaming into their situation is all sorts of distraction and stimulation. In some circumstances, I don’t blame them. The entertainment makes everything else bearable. But lately, I’ve noticed that as I come do deliver the gifts of Christ they no longer turn off the TV. They turn down the volume, or mute it, but they don’t actually turn off the set. It sits there flickering in the corner begging to be watched, begging for our attention.

From our pastor’s studies to the church pews to great grandma’s house, consumerism has taken ahold of things and shaped how we live and what we expect.

In fact, it is interesting to me that otherwise intelligent and insightful people continue to be perplexed and confused by this election cycle. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone is shocked by the Trump, Bernie, Hillary madness that fills our days. I had one dear lady I was visiting tell me that she will watch the Game Show Network (yes there is such a thing) to take a break from the pundits on TV. Consumerism dominates this whole bizarre reality where we turn off the entertainment that seeks to get our votes and find comfort in the entertainment that simply makes us laugh. And we get passionate about it and all worked up as if our eternity hangs in the balance.

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I think we need a healthy dose of Tyler Durden. We need to be reminded of our consumerism, and that all of this is “polishing the brass on the Titanic!”

Or perhaps far more constructively we need to be reminded of what our Lord said, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matt. 24:32-35)

The tool that we are given to stand against the pull of consumerism is that living Word of our Lord. To use Bombaro’s language, “Telling the truth about the human condition and God’s remedy in Christ through direct speech” is how we free the preacher and the hearer from the ideology of consumerism. “There is nothing to consume; there is only to be acted upon by another and to receive by faith.”

Perhaps we just might find peace in letting the Titanic go down with tarnished rails.

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4 thoughts on “Polishing Brass on the Titanic

  1. Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines in Twelve Monkeys:

    “There’s the television. It’s all right there – all right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials! We’re not productive anymore. We don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we *for* then? We’re consumers, Jim. Yeah. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then, I ask you? What? Mentally *ill*. Fact, Jim, fact – if you don’t buy things – toilet paper, new cars, computerized yo-yos, electrically-operated sexual devices, stereo systems with brain-implanted headphones, screwdrivers with miniature built-in radar devices, voice-activated computers…”

    Reminds me of what Marx said about modern man being alienated from his work. We don’t work to make quality products that we take pride in. We create useless junk. We administer useless bureaucratic programs that help no one. Now we’re not only alienated from our work, but even from true selves. We are perennially distracted, useless, short on attention, filled with opinions, but shallow on reasons to back them up. We only have value in so far as we are consumers who can be marketed to.

    Could it all be demonic? Who needs the gospel to heal your conscience when you’ve got new cars, yo-yos, electrically operated sexual devices and stereo system with brain-implanted headphones?

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  2. We have a lot of Old Testament testimony of God’s people shopping for more appealing faiths, things that pleased their wallets and wives, gave worldly pleasure and lots of ritual. Mankind has ever been the consumer, looking for choices in every aspect of life. We all consume, make choices in where and how we worship, no one has pure motives, no one has a true grip on faith and the world distracts us all with thoughts of ball games and golf, fishing, and yard work, finances and the future. When we can’t take it, we vegetate in front of the tube. Too many things going on, even fun feels like pressure or guilt (shouldn’t we be doing something productive?)

    The Church has been no slouch with doling out awesome reverence in architecture and trappings, elaborate practices. Let’s face it, high church is quite the show. It is just a different aesthetic from rock bands and videos. Sure, we can use many means to get the point across and those means can just as easily drown out the message just the same as if background noise and image distracts a person. The only thing that makes the Word work, at any time, is God Himself. The seed will take where the Holy Spirit prepares the soil.

    So, let the still, small voice ring in Word and sacrament. Let God give and those who have been brought face-to-face with their hunger and privation receive it. Preaching is not for those who are choosing, for consumers. It is for those who can only be satisfied by the Gospel. That includes all of us, coming back each week famished and worn. Preacher, keep dishing it out and don’t try to compete or become a choice, don’t appeal to the consumer. Keep it simple and flowing with grace.

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