Monday, October 4, 2010

The Joneses -- envy, consumerism, and lifestyle evangelism!

Director: Derrick Borte, 2009. (R)

Who hasn't heard of the concept of "keeping up with the Joneses"? If truth be told, haven't we sometimes thought about keeping up with our neighbors, in one way or another? This is part of the concept in this not quite perfect satire when the not quite perfect family moves in next door.

The Joneses are seemingly picture perfect: beautiful wife Kate (Demi Moore), handsome salesman husband Steve (David Duchovny) and teen aged kids Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) and Jenn (Amber Heard). Their arrival in their $1M home in the rich suburban neighborhood is preceded by a team of movers who make their new house entry-ready. No moving boxes for them. Their new home is kitted out from the get-go with beautiful furniture and expensive electronics.

Indeed, when the neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer Symonds (Glenne Headly) come over in a neighborly way to offer a housewarming gift (not cookies and milk but a cosmetics basket of samples Summer sells), they are invited in to see the enviable stuff the Joneses have. Surely the Symonds will want to keep up with the Joneses.
Within weeks, the Jones family unit has developed friends everywhere and garnered a reputation for throwing the finest parties. The Jones kids are the coolest teens at school, experiencing none of the usual traumas associated with moving into new high schools and penetrating cliques. It appears their new toys and accessories are the required visas of entry into this society.

What surfaces very quickly is that this family unit is more unit and less family. Actually they are a professional selling unit masquerading as a family. Their job is to develop a social network amongst the different demographics (middle aged men/women, teens) and sell them on the designer label clothes, the branded foods, the newest high-tech electronics, even the cars that they "own".

Kate is the head of this unit with Steve, the rookie, wondering if he can keep up his sales numbers. Their whole emphasis is on sales figures and improvement trends. Nowhere is there real concern for one another or their friends/clients.

What does work in this satire is the chemistry between the two leads. Duchovny comes across well as the somewhat jaded car salesman who has seen it all and wants something more, something real. Moore looks terrific for her age and blends well into her role. Where the film falters is in not developing the concept to its limit, and instead sells out to a predictably happy ending, which is undoubtedly more pleasing consumeristically.

This is a social commentary on the materialistic consumerism that is almost ubiquitous in America and other Western countries. When we see someone else who has it all, the "trophy wife", the glamorous cars, the sexy toys, the green monster of envy surfaces. We want what they have. We deserve it. We will get it, even if it means taking on credit card debt up to our eyeballs. And we think it will make us happy.

Envy, and its second cousin greed, are sins that are acceptable, even assumed, in this materialistic society. Those who refuse to play the game, who turn their backs on such trappings of success, are considered abnormal, confused or even weird. Yet the Scriptures are clear on this topic. One of the ten commandments says unambiguously, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exod. 20:17). Jesus pointed to the internal nature and gravity of this sin: "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly" (Mark. 7:21-22). And the apostle Peter commanded, "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind" (1 Pet. 2:1).

There is a two-fold selling point of envy. First is the outward appearance of possession. We can flaunt our new stuff in front of other neighbors, thereby declaring we are the people to keep up with. We have become the Joneses. Second is the idea that our new things will actually make us happy.

But do things and toys really make us happy? Sure they do. For a very brief while. The new iPod is great till it becomes old and yesterday's toy. The new car may be shiny and sweet with that new car smell today. Yet, tomorrow when it gets dirty or scratched it becomes just another car. Even the smell disappears quickly. No, things cannot sustain their perceived ability to bring happiness.

So what does bring happiness? True family. Relationships. Steve begins to realize this as his spousal relationship with Kate moves from deceptive to desired. Love and friendship is worth more than their weight in gold. The ultimate happiness and satisfaction comes from being in a love relationship with the true God, who is the source and essence of love (1 Jn. 4:16). Created for this, we have become damaged and distorted, mere shadows of our original creation and require the work of Jesus to bring us back to God.

Perhaps the biggest parallel with biblical Christianity is that of the lifestyle of the Jones. They vocally state that their career is lifestyle selling. They are selling their lifestyle to those around them. If they win a convert, that person will sell their goods for them unknowingly, so caught up in the excitement and passion of the thing they have bought. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be evangelists, sharing the good news of the gospel of Christ to those around us (Matt. 28:19-20). Authors, such as Joseph Aldrich, have coined the term "lifestyle evangelism" whereby we live in such a way as to evoke desire in those around us to want what we have. This is lifestyle selling. We are selling Jesus. Though this might sound callously commercial, it is conceptually similar to the desire of the Joneses. Yet we have something that will truly make the recipient happy, satisfied and ultimately alive (Jn. 10:10).

So, the next time you have that feeling of wanting to keep up with the Joneses, stop and consider. Think twice about that toy you think you need. And then think once about the lifestyle you are selling to others. If you follow Jesus, is it attractive, desirable and honest? Don't make the mistake of the Joneses!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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