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September 01, 2006

Spiritual Fitness: Christian Character in a Consumer Culture - Graham Tomlin

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Spiritual Fitness: Christian Character in a Consumer Culture
by Graham Tomlin
London: Continuum, 2006
Paperback, 8.99

They say that the mind is like a muscle. Exercising it makes it strong while leaving it unused weakens it. Tomlin gained inspiration for this book from having a bad back and being told to stand on one leg in his pilates class.

Given the widespread concern, not just among Conservatives, that the state is an ineffective mechanism to rescue the "underclass" there is greater interest in "faith based" solutions. Politicians might be embarrassed about talking about their belief in the existence of God but they are comfortable doing photo opportunities in inner cities where religious groups are undertaking schemes to combat crime, drugs and poverty catching those who have slipped through the bureaucratic safety net.

Tomlin worries about the Church lacking relevance in a consumer society and this work carried out to help the poor is an effective retort to that charge.

Tomlin also worries that consumerism is making coherent religious belief harder to sustain:

It is not uncommon to find people selecting the parts of different religions they like and putting them together into some strange amorphous whole, mixing a little but of Hinduism with some Buddhist meditation, Christian prayer and new age crystals.
I'm all for the consumer society but I suspect Tomlin has a point. One sees it in politics. There would be those rich people keen to ensure their businesses made a profit, who would use private health insurance, send their children to fee paying schools, etc., but would vote Labour when New Labour came along, largely as a fashion statement. It was of parading their credentials for being modern and caring and so make themselves feel less guilty for sacking the cleaner.

In some ways the break down of the old certainties keeps churches and political parties on their toes. They can't expect to keep unthinking support of people through habit or family tradition.

The comparison between going to a gym or going to Church also has quite a lot in it. Tomlin says:

When western societies were more explicitly Christian, the kind of discipline and effort now put into physical fitness went into the spiritual life. People tended to avoid the temptation to indolence and gluttony, and adopted disciplines such as prayer, fasting or frugality to ensure inner spiritual purity and health.
While church goers might regard Tomlin as a trendy he probably wouldn't accept the label. He asks:
Might this vision actually help us return to what the Church was always meant to be about?
Among the ample explanations for the decline of spiritual belief perhaps the most attention is given to individualism, by which Tomlin really means selfishness. While I can see the problem with "consumerism", I have always thought of "individualism" rather differently. Individualism is surely at the heart of Christianity in the sense of taking individual responsibility for what we see, not passing by on the other side on the grounds that "society" will deal with the problem. Exercising free will is about individualism. The idea that our actions are all predetermined by our race or class or something is collectivist.

I remember during the early Thatcher years people blamed crime on her policies causing greater poverty. Later - as it became increasingly ludicrous to pretend that poverty had increased - blame was instead placed in increased wealth and the "loadsamoney" culture. But I suspect my quarrel with Tomlin is more about his terminology than about substance. However I was shocked that he took an implied swipe at Laertes in Hamlet for declaring:

This above all: to thine own self be true.
While the American TV sitcom Friends is commended as "brilliantly written" it is also lamented as symbolising a regrettable social trend:
Previously, sitcoms typically featured families - usually father, mother and various kids. Friends announced the end of the family, or at least replaced it with a new unit of social life: flatmates. The families of Rachel, Phoebe, Monica, Ross, Chandler and Joey were in the background to emerge at various moments for comic effect, but largely they were secondary characters to the main six, whose bonds were not those of family but friendship.
Tomlin makes the interesting point that like your family, you can't choose who joins your Church.

What are some of the tips for Spiritual Fitness. Eating proper meals in the company of others is one. Tomlin notes:

Jesus and his apprentices spent a lot of time eating.
Conversation is different over a meal:
Meals provide a vital setting for the sharing of life, which is why they played such a key role in the relationship between Jesus and his friends.
Tomlin suggests that spiritual fitness includes learning patience and kindness, not available on the national curriculum. He thinks the
local Church is the place to learn such things and that to imagine it would mean the Church becoming a "self help programme" is a misunderstanding. However there is certainly an element that would help anyone regardless of religion. For instance:
An inability to forgive harms the ones who has been offended more than the offender.
He even wants us to learn to trust each other. Steady on, old chap.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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