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, celebrate Christmas, plan our vacations, and go to church. In the great collection of essays Feasting in a Famine of the Word, 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 even 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.

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, 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 to 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 pastors’ 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.

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.

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