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Christian Purpose and Meaning in Late-Stage Capitalism

By Jad Tabet

I have recently been hooked on an animated series that my friend recommended to me after finding out that I enjoy Japanese narratives. Part of the draw of these narratives for many Arab young adults is that they combine aspects from both the shame-and-honor cultures of the Middle East that we grew up in and the guilt-and-innocence cultures of the West that we grew up learning about. These stories most often focus on heroes who, out of love for their friends, families, and community, push themselves above and beyond to achieve the greater good.

The main draw for me, however, has always been how these characters are able to remain focused on leading purposeful lives despite the direst of circumstances. In these stories, characters strongly cling to their sense of purpose, especially when they are faced with failure, which drives them forward when they are faced with setbacks. It is this sense of a purpose-driven life that I believe is missing from our lives in our postmodern societies. However, Christ offers us a purposefulness that transcends the banality of life we experience as exploited consumer-producers and gives us a role as agents of His Kingdom.

In the general malaise that hit the world in the wake of the tragedies of the 20th century and the proliferation of mass-production-based commodity economies, there emerged a view of history as a product of industry rather than a narrative of progress. Innovation ceased to be a means of uplifting humanity and turned into a means of creating revenue. Consequently, the individual became less an autonomous being and more a territory for cultural and economic influence. In this sense, every aspect of life for the post-modern subject has become an area for labor. With this break with history comes an incredulity towards every form of narrative. In this post-modern society, things have lost their meaning, and the individual must now labor to produce meaning. Stuart Hall comments on this state of affairs in The Rediscovery of Ideology, saying that:

Meaning is a social production, a practice. The world has to be made to mean. Language and symbolization is the means by which meaning is produced.

In this framework, “humans must always make or produce their worlds, their history” (Thomas). But this meaning is precarious as it is not tied to a higher narrative but to sets of economic relationships. And so, for the average postmodern individual, there is no longer a higher meaning or greater good to aspire to, but rather an attempt at producing our own meanings – meanings which are, limited as we are by our own abilities of construction, often flimsy and easy to deconstruct.

However, here is the turn: Christ’s call for our lives transcends our ultimately fruitless attempts at laboring to produce meaning because it does not merely create a narrative for us to relate to – and consequently an ideology for us to subscribe to – but rather because Christ creates an experiential state for us to step into – and helps us build convictions that withstand criticism. Thus, Christ turns the tables on our power structures and instills in us a meaning that derives from our experience and knowledge of Him, His word, and His Kingdom. He then takes this meaning and points it outwards: “Go,” He says, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). And so, the experiential and intimate relationship with Christ compels us, not only to live out a meaningful personal life with Him, but to also go outwards with His gospel, share it with those around us, and allow ourselves to be shaped by our experiences of His word.

But what does this mean for us as churches? As members of His Body, one would assume that we already live in His Truth, where our meaning and purpose come from the Most High. But if that is the case, then why have so many of our churches – in my opinion – turned into social clubs that meet to complain about the “fallen world” without doing much to change it? And why are we facing so heavily the loss of our youths? From one aspect, this issue is due to our falling into the malaise of late-stage capitalism without knowing it, with our youth falling prey to systems of our own making.

The issue, I think, is that while we promote the idea of a missional church that goes out into its community through all the aspects of the lives of its members – including what we consider minor aspects like the relationships we have with the local grocers – our concept of ministry remains rooted in the services we hold between our four walls. We have yet to fully live out an understanding of God as Lord over every part of our lives, especially the parts that are done outside of the church. This is even more true for our youths who, having yet to find their purpose in Christ, become overwhelmed by the deluge of attractive yet ultimately destructive meanings presented to them by the world and so start chasing purpose as it is presented to them. I think my dad captured it most effectively when he said:

The experience of Christ is different for Church ministry team members and leaders who are living out 80% of their lives in ministry than it is for people who only experience Him on Sundays and Wednesdays. And so, this is a reality that we need to change.

Over the past couple of months, Walid Zailaa, Academic Dean at ABTS and pastor of the church I belong to, has repeatedly shared in his sermons that the ministry of the Church is much more than the few services we have in our church meeting halls and buildings. One of my favorite quotes comes from a sermon he gave a few weeks ago where he said,

Every aspect of our lives is ministry. If I raise my kids in Christlike faithfulness, that is ministry. If I do my job well, that is ministry. If I say no to corruption, that is ministry. If I encourage someone on the street, that is ministry. What we do in church on Sundays is a tiny part of that, but what we do in between those Sundays is what makes us His own.

Perhaps if we as believers manage to cling to and lean more deeply into our sense of purpose in Christ, especially in the little things, then we could also be like the heroes of my anime series: committed beyond despair and fearless in the face of challenge, ready to give heart, mind, and soul for the growth of His purposes for our lives, He who has overcome death and set us free from the shackles of sin. And though these may appear to be inconsequential aspects of our lives, it is in their total sum that Christ truly becomes Lord over our lives. It is here that we become Salt and Light, helping others also find purpose greater than ourselves in Him who always holds out hope.

Jad works at the Department of Partner Relations at ABTS and serves at Faith Baptist Church in Mansourieh through worship and teens ministry. He holds a Master of Arts in English Literature focusing on a reading of postmodern subjectivity in late-stage capitalism. He has a passion for Christian deconstruction and is looking for ways to use it constructively.

11 Comments

  1. Very well done!

  2. PS, We don’t live in an age of late capitalism. No country has been remotely capitalist for a century. We live in a democratic socialist world.

    • Jad Tabet says:

      Thank you for your insight.
      Capitalism is generally defined as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit”. While it may be the case that some countries in the world, especially in Europe, follow democratic socialism, in most world countries, including the US and Lebanon, the predominant economic system is a capitalist one. This is clear from how little influence the state in these countries has over private businesses, and how market economics dominate buying and selling.
      Furthermore, late-stage capitalism is the age in which every aspect of our lives has become commodified; this includes our creative, leisure, and intellectual activities. A good book to read on this would be Games of Empire or The Cinematic Mode of Production. A seminal work on late-stage capitalism would be Jameson’s Postmodernism.

      • That’s not how the founders of capitalism defined it, those theologians at the University of Salamanca during the Reformation. Capitalism is a system of limited government that protects property and has free markets. Property doesn’t exist without control.

        Besides, business for profit has existed since Adam got kicked out of the Garden. Even Marx didn’t put the rise of capitalism before the 16th century. The best economic historian, Angus Maddison, say the Dutch Republic of the 17th century was the first country to establish property rights. Adam Smith called it the first nation to implement the principles of natural liberty, which Marxists labeled capitalism.

        The earliest modern socialism in France in the 19th century didn’t call for state ownership of business, just state control. That is the fascist model of socialism. Lenin invented state ownership of business a century later.

        The US abandoned capitalism with the election of FDR and his thousands of laws and regulations that took over control of businesses from their owners. Property doesn’t exist without control. FDR was a student of the fascist economics of Mussolini. Today, most countries, including the US, follow a form of fascist socialism.

        When I earned my degree in econ in the 1980s, no one referred to the US as capitalist. At best, it was a mixed economy. The election of Reagan caused socialists to ramp up the propaganda machine and call the US capitalist, ignoring the fact that since 1970 regulation of business continued to increase at record rates. The Federal Register of new regulations grows by 100,000 pages every year.

        Of course, ancient Egypt was a command and control economy very much like fascism. The first country in history with a free market economy was ancient Israel before the monarchy.

        This is common history to good economic historians. That most people don’t know it shows how much we are suckers for socialist propaganda.

  3. Jonathan Andrews says:

    Dear Jad et al
    Thanks for this.
    You might find the novel Pelagia by Steve Holloway interesting. See http://www.pelagia.net
    Blessings
    Jonathan

  4. Brian H. says:

    Yes – great article, and spot on – thank you!

  5. Jad, this is very well-written and thoughtful. This thought — “committed beyond despair and fearless in the face of challenge, ready to give heart, mind, and soul for the growth of His purposes for our lives” — is helpful and relevant both for the post-modern West and for the struggles people are experiencing in Lebanon.

    Thank you for sharing some of your story. You connected it well it to a biblical perspective on meaning and to all of life as ministry. We try to encourage people here at our church in similar ways. These are very good reminders for us all.

    • Jad Tabet says:

      Thank you, Jeff, for your kind and encouraging words. May God always use us to remind each other of the depth of the purpose He calls us to, and the magnitude of the impact we can have in our contexts by committing ourselves to His will.
      Blessings to you and Amelia :).

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