Brief Book Review: Commodified Communion

Commodified Communion: Eucharist, Consumer Culture,
and the Practice of Everyday Life
By Antonio Eduardo Alonso

Who should read this book? I highly recommend this book to scholars interested in questions of liturgy and consumerism or indeed to questions of liturgy and culture in general. The erudition of this work (e.g., the extended discussion of Michel de Certeau in chapter two) may make it challenging for typical parish ministers and even for graduate students, but Commodified Communion prodded me to think more carefully about what I read, write, and teach about liturgy and culture.

Main point: In Commodified Communion, Antonio Alonso asserts that “reducing the work of theology to resistance [to consumerism] and centering Christian hope in a Eucharist that might better support that resistance undermines our ability to talk about the activity of God within a consumer culture, binds grace to human activity, and instrumentalizes the Eucharist into ethics” (3). Alonso makes a convincing case with regard to the activity of God and though he sounds important warnings with respect to grace and human activity and to instrumentalizing the Eucharist, he is not quite as successful in demonstrating that there are theologians whose work succumbs to these risks.

Why does it matter?  Why is this book significant? This book is a new contribution to the field of liturgy and consumerism. Many works in the field presume an antagonism between Christian worship and consumer culture. For his part, the author does not shy away from criticizing factory sweatshops but he points out that Christian worship is enmeshed in consumer culture: the stuff of worship, from hymnals to communion breads, is typically commodified. Deficient though it may be, consumer culture is not an insuperable obstacle to the mediation of God’s grace. The author warns that defining / practicing liturgy as over and against consumer culture risks instrumentalizing liturgy and at the same time ignores this enmeshed quality.

What intrigued me? Concerning grace and human activity, Alonso makes an intriguing move by comparing decadent medieval understandings of ex opere operato (i.e., the right person saying the right words over the right things with the right intention yields grace almost magically) with present-day arguments that if worshipers do not demonstrate “some kind of perceptible tactical resistance to the grid of the market—we must be doing the Eucharist wrong” (104-105). In other words, Alonso detects a more or less explicit claim that doing the liturgy right would / should lead to worshipers altering their behavior in a return / vindication of the medieval axiom.

Pushing back. Correctly understood, however, the medieval ex opere operato was paired with ex opere operantis: the free will of believers meant that believers could cooperate with or block the working of sacramental grace. Certainly, Eucharistic celebrations can deform assemblies; Alonso rightly points to the important work of figures such as Lauren Winner and Kathleen Walker Grimes in this regard (101, n. 100). Yet writers such as Gordon Lathrop argue that God can act in and through deformed liturgies. Lathrop’s claim here is of a piece with Alonso’s concern about emphasis on doing the liturgy “right.” Moreover, even the best possible Eucharistic celebration might find me clinging to my racism and sexism (and consumerism) when the assembly is dismissed. Alonso is certainly correct to point out that theologians who argue that good liturgy can make a difference in the consumer lifestyles of worshipers do not provide any empirical evidence to support those claims but he does not identify theologians who set aside ex opere operantis.

Implications. Alonso invites readers to attend continually to the relationship between liturgy and culture. The nature of this relationship is of course one of perennial interest to believers. Reading this book alongside the Lutheran World Federation’s 1996 Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture would be a fruitful endeavor. That document’s account of worship as transcultural, contextual, counter-cultural, and cross-cultural can be placed in useful dialogue with the strengths and weak points of Commodified Communion.

Antonio Eduardo AlonsoCommodified Communion: Eucharist, Consumer Culture, and the Practice of Everyday Life, New York: Fordham University Press, 2021, 200 pages.

REVIEWER: Timothy Brunk

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