I’ve just come across this fascinating illustration about Diet Coke from Slavoj Zizek in The Fragile Absolute. Zizek sees all social reality as ‘empty’ driven by antagonisms and contradictions as opposed to something real that we aspire to.
He points out how coca-cola was originally invented as a medicine – a nerve tonic, stimulant and headache cure. It was eventually sweetened and its strange taste was made more palatable. It became a popular drink during the US prohibition because of its medicinal qualities. It was the perfect “temperance drink”. Later, its sugar was replaced with sweetener, its caffeine extracted, and so today we are left with Caffeine-Free Diet Coke: a drink that does not qualify as a drink. The three reasons why anyone would drink anything: it quenches thirst, provides nutrition, and tastes good, have in Zizek’s words “been suspended.”
Despite not quenching the thirst, not providing any stimulant and tasting strange, nonetheless, it is the most consumed beverage in the world. We drink Coke because “Coke is “it”” not because it satisfies anything material. In essence, all that remains of what was once Coke is an artificial promise. We drink it only when our real needs have already been met. Zizek says, we ‘drink nothing in the guise of something … It is in effect merely an envelope of a void”.
What a great illustration.
It’s possible to argue that many people’s experience of church is of such an artificial promise, of something which once meant something real. It is a entertainment we enjoy after we have secured all of our immediate needs. Just as our society drinks Coke as an “it,” as something that makes us feel good but has little substantial value as a drink, so we can practice our Christianity as something we add on to our lives – not as something we need to live. It is something we do as an extra to our already busy lives that makes us feel better.
Perhaps this explains why the number of those in their 20s in church, 230,000, is the smallest percentage (3%) of any age group and fallen by half over the past decade. Indeed the numbers of 30-44 year olds also continues to decline. Church for them has become or looks like the “envelope of a void”.
And that may also explanation in some measure why 30% of the population are described as “de-churched” – people who previously belonged but no longer do. These are the prodigals for whom church must become again a “people for hospitality, inclusion, authenticity, faithfulness and compassion among the lost and hurting”.