Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Live Strong

A woman recently asked me if we had any “Christian knock-offs” of the Lance Armstrong Live Strong bracelets. When I informed her we did not, she said, “That’s funny, we [Christians] usually have some cheap knock-off on the streets in a matter of weeks. I wonder what’s taking so long?”

This woman was at once my most refreshing customer and my most perplexing. Here was a person unafraid to admit the tendency for “Christian knock-offs.” Finally, an honest person was in my store.

What was perplexing was how this lack of creativity seemed to affect her. While she readily admitted most of the “Jesus Junk” was nothing more than a cheap knock-off, she was more than willing to buy it.

Is this my worst fear? Is this a sign that American Christianity has become content to exist as a mere imitation of popular culture?

I suppose you could easily make that argument based on some of the music, books and merchandise we sell. The majority of our church services create some diluted version of pop culture offerings in the name of being “seeker sensitive.” Why must we be content to exist as a cheaper, less creative version of the rest of the world? Why can’t Christians push the cultural landscape?

This sounds very similar to the discussion taking place in the comments section of my “Jay Jay” post. Some theorized that retail is a method by which we express our identity. Therefore, if some Christians are comfortable expressing themselves as cheap knock-offs of pop culture, they should have every right to do so.

The people who argued this point missed the larger question. This is not about retail existing as a means of expressing one’s identity. This is not even about retail. This is about the church becoming comfortable as an institution catering to the complacency of its congregation. Christianity should not exist solely as a place for people looking for spiritual comfort. Christianity should exist as a tool of social and cultural change.

The church is not meant to be a reflection of culture with a God twist. The church is meant to be a reflection of God in a world drowning in sin. We don’t offer that anymore. We sold the high ground in the name of “evangelism,” and it will kill us yet.

66 comments:

relevantgirl said...

Great post!!!!

The Jesus junk is going to overwhelm us all, I think.

I wrote along these lines today at www.themastersartist.blogspot.com about how, as authors, we are pressured to fit into a certain brand--the ultimate commercializing of art.

Keep up the good work.

bobbie said...

brilliant ben! we who are co-creators with god have settled for being imitators, of christ, no? of tacky sub-culture. somehow instead of art and inspiration we've traded it for copies and artifacts. very sad indeed.

Jimbob Spag said...

This from an old guy- Keith Green railed against "Jesus junk". He was right, of course. There are people who will watch their bumper stickered cars fly past the pearly gates ahead of them. I recently noticed the local "Family Christian bookstore" announcing their later hours on Sundays because Christmas is coming. We'll be celebrating advent by tossing out any appearance of consecration of our sabbath so we can give each other more stuff. Makes me feel like a space alien.

Nolly said...

Amen.

I have often thought that the companies creating and marketing most (though not quite all) of what is sold in "Bible" book stores are the modern equivalent of the temple moneychangers that so infuriated Christ.

ourgreenroom said...

Great stuff! I'm so sick of all of the Jesus Junk going around I'm going to throw up my Chicken Soup for the Soul! Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

But we do have our own knock-off! We distributed them to our middle-school kids a few weeks ago: http://www.bibleoftheday.com.

kate said...

"But we do have our own knock-off! We distributed them to our middle-school kids a few weeks ago: http://www.bibleoftheday.com."

Sick.

According to Bible of the Day, "Although people want to know the word of GOD, they simply don’t have the time in their lives to read the bible. Bible of the Day makes it possible for you to know the entire bible by reading for 1-2 minutes a day."

Well bless their hearts! Why hasn't anyone else ever come up with a way to become godly without having to rearrange ANYTHING about your overbusy life?!

This of course instantly reminded me of the following quote from J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Zooey is speaking to his mother in the family bathroom. And yes, he is being sarcastic--but it's eerily similar to the Bible of the Day text, right down to the two minutes required of your precious time.

"Mercy. I don't want you to go away with the impression that there're any--you know--any inconveniences involved in the religious life. I mean a lot of people don't take it up just because they think it's going to involve a certain amount of nasty application and perseverance--you know what I mean." It was clear that the speaker, with patent relish, was now reaching the high point of his address. He wagged his orange stick solemnly at his mother. "As soon as we get out of the chapel here, I hope you'll accept from me a little volume I've always admired. I believe it touches on some of the fine points we've discussed this morning. 'God Is My Hobby.' By Dr. Homer Vincent Claude Pierson, Jr. In this little book, I think you'll find, Dr. Pierson tells us very clearly how when he was twenty-one years of age he started putting aside a little time each day--two minutes in the morning and two minutes at night, if I remember correctly--and at the end of the first year, just by these little informal visits with God, he increased his annual income seventy-four per cent."

Sick.

jwb said...

Ben, can you define what you mean by "pushing the cultural landscape?" Are the LAF bracelets, and their inevitable Christian knock-offs, not culture? How are you defining culture here? Art? "Good" music? Pro wrestling? I know I'm opening a silo of worms here, but what do you define as "good" culture?

I'm also wondering if you could clarify what you're referring to by selling the high ground in the name of evangelism.

Jörel said...

I agree. Christian consumerism is ugly and sad; and Christian culture (e.g. books and film) depressingly banal.
But perhaps there is also room for a little bit more generosity in this discussion.

I looked at 'Bible of the day' and didn't really understand why anyone would pick on this project when the Internet is swamped by cynical moneymakers.
What's wrong with a project aiming to make people read the bible [in a paraphrased version] in 1-2 minutes per day? That's probably reasonable given the medium; people don't necessarily want long e-mails. Those who want to read more should perhaps refer to the book...

Some people I know would have serious problems with the faith statement on the page, however, the key thing is that they wrote a transparent faith statement that people can evaluate.

Ben said...

jwb-

I would loosely define culture as everything that makes up the reality in which we live. This would include art, politics, fashion, sports, etc. I think many Evangelical Christians have created a separate religious culture that has grown to encompass many areas of life including art, etc. The problem is how disconnected this “American Christian Culture” is from the rest of the American cultural landscape.

I could be incorrect, but I read the Great Commission as a call to be engaged with the world so that we might show the light of Christ to a sinful world. That does not include watering down the message of the gospel.

This would lead us to my comment regarding “selling the high ground in the name of evangelism.” This was a cheap shot at all the mega-churches and seeker-sensitive church services out there. I could be overly cynical, but I view these as attempts to water down the gospel to make it more palatable to the general public. Usually these people argue their motivation is evangelism. I argue they’re turning Christianity into an Oprah-like spirituality that is more about feeling good. I believe this robs Christianity of its core message, which has the power to transform all areas of life.

So, by creating a separatist culture and diluting the message of the Gospel, Christianity has lost any ability to offer answers to the culture around it.

Streak said...

The problem is not conservative Christians separating, but the fact that they follow the dominant culture in so many ways. Commercially, they mimic whatever sells. Historically, they have trailed culture on social justice issues. They opposed desegregation, feminism, and now gay rights. For the people who are supposed to encompass the moral code off the culture, they are always trailing. Now their tendency to simply coopt business methods and practices makes that imitation all the more clear.

I understand why some would defend the bible of the day (or whatever that site is), but it does seem clear that modern conservative evangelicalism is not about forcing people to change--unless they are gay.

Anonymous said...

"Why must we be content to exist as a cheaper, less creative version of the rest of the world?"

What, and not be the biggest church on the block? Wal Mart grew by meeting consumer demand, not by inventing retail; churches grow through giving people what they want, not inventing something new. The message is 2000 years old and there's no trademark on the product. Tough environment to do business in. The only way you're gonna be able to differentiate your product is to make life easier on the customer. Life can be hard, people have a lot of demands on them. Providing some comfort and reassurance is going to attract people. And the larger your church the more you're going to be able to offer that comfort and reassurance through the power of numbers - political and economic power. The little church with a congregation of 100 people makes a nice postcard, but it can't do much to affect the environment people live in. You need real numbers for that.

greg said...

I always thought the Lance Armstrong bracelets were just a feel-good secular knock-off of WWJD gear.

And the LDS church has been making CTR rings (Choose The Right) for kids for decades. I've been waiting for those to become crossover hits among Republicans.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I don't buy the 'you need real numbers' argument. I think that, aside from wars, a review of history would reveal that significant change is less a matter of numbers and more a matter of visionaries leading the way -- I think this is true whether of religion (Jesus, William Carey, Joseph Smith, etc), politics (Adolf Hitler), or science (Albert Einstein).

We as Americans are enamored with large numbers, and equate large numbers in church attendance with spiritual significance - witness 'The Purpose-Driven Life' and all of the associated trademarked crapola.

Saija said...

what a good discussion . . . good for you Ben, making us actually THINK while reading a blog . . . so i must throw in my 2 cents . . .

didn't Jesus call us to be "fishers of men". . .
the way you fish depends on the pond, lake, ocean, stream, river . . . you CANNOT expect to catch every type of fish with one bait . . . and if some poor soul is out there trying to do his/her thing with 2 minute bible reading on the internet, buying some sort of odd Christian trinket for an unbelieving friend, a cheap "christian knock-off" . . . well duh - who are we to judge these things . . . do we know the heart? can we see what the motives are? 'cause if you all can see the attitudes/faith behind these things - you must be right up there with God in the judgement of hearts section . . .

we are all at such different stages of the faith walk . . . some people will always stay in the baby stage (and that is so sad), but if others are growing in the faith, i sure don't want to be the 250 pound Christian bully kicking sand in the 98 pound weaklings face . . .

a little grace goes a long way . . . dontcha think?

Anonymous said...

Ben, evangelism 's still around, currently hidden behind marketing's giant neon sign. I consier Francis's model of evangelism ("Preach always; use words if necessary") the most effective. We evangelize from love -- real love, not this abstract well-wishing "love" -- because we cannot stand to keep the good news to ourselves. Or as the non-Christian Gandhi said, "Be the change."

A different beast guides marketing. The goal is to sell you (whoever you are) something by whatever means necessary. It's misanthropy, plain and simple. "I love you but you're going to hell unless you accept Jesus." Is it really love?

Christians do not engage in marketing. Christians undertake acts of radical love without hope of any return.

Anonymous said...

Christians undertake marketing all of the time. You're aware of Christian retail stores? Of the Mormon church's family ads? Of the various denominations that advertise their welcoming worship environments on local television stations? Three forms of marketing - one retail, one moral, one "come on down." Truth is, Christianity is significantly about marketing Christ's message in one form or another. And since churches are in competition for parishoners (and competition inspires better performance), the smaller, less effective churches tend to fall by the wayside and the larger ones expand. The larger churches are more influential in the secular world, and thus can offer more to potential parishoners.

This cycle of growth and influence doesn't negate the possibility of new, visionary leaders. A small-time pastor who is unusually effective at promoting Christ's message will find willing parishoners, i.e., "customers" just as WalMart found willing customers 40 years ago and began its explosive growth.

A church that is able to expand its influence beyond mere sprititual influence will be a much more effective vehicle for promoting Christianity.

Anonymous said...

BUT WE"RE NOT SELLING ANYTHING. The Grace of God is not a product or service for sale -- it's absolutely and completely free. We communicate our faith through our lives, not through advertizing. Marketing reduces us to data; the Gospel makes us human. Christianity and commercial marketing are incompatible.

Ben is right -- it's not easy and it's not a mere aspect of the surrounding culture. Christianity is counter-cultural. Why couldn't the rich man join Jesus? Because Jesus told him to sell all he had and give the money to the poor. The rich man wanted it both ways.

We are not selling Christ, God help us when we forget.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this most recent post. I thought of this discussion, when I recalled this line from 'The Brothers Karamazov': "One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially seeing men's sin, asking oneself: 'Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?' Always resolve to take it by humble love. If you so resolve once and for all, you will be able to overcome the whole world."

Isn't that last bit a wonderful paradox?

With reflection, I don't think there's any denying that marketing is a type of force: by manipulation rather than discourse and gentle persuasion, it seeks to sway its beholder. How sad that the American Christian subculture has lost sight of its original Master, who saw fit to spread his message by humble incarnation, by conversation, teaching, and healing, rather than by crass or glossy manipulation.

I'm reminded, too, of the lines from Bruce Cockburn's lovely Christmas song, 'Cry of the Tiny Babe': "For it isn't to the palace that the Christchild comes, but to shepherds and streetpeople, hookers and bums."

Again, what a contrast to the Dobsons and Colsons of the US Christian subculture, who seek the corridors of power, to convert our nation by political force.

This year, with the warmongering of our pious president and the bloodspattering anti-Semitic christology of the Passion of the Mel, I've felt more and more alienated from the so-called Christianity of our nation, instead striving to align myself with the purer Gospel of the likes of Dostoevsky and Lewis.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where the idea comes from that marketing is dehumanizing or coercive. Merely advertising your product isn't. If it were, you couldn't even talk about Jesus Christ or you'd be accused of coercing people because merely sharing a message is advertising. Indeed, in the secular and Christian world alike, word of mouth is a huge marketing strategy. Are you coercing someone if you talk about Jesus Christ? When the local "Christmas for Kids" program advertises that it has gifts for kids of poor families, is it coercing them? Does a homeless shelter coerce people to come stay there when it puts up a billboard announcing it's location? No, no, and no. Marketing is spreading a message. It's used even when you're *not* selling anything for money. The idea that you have to hide Christ's message is a travesty.

But back to the creativity issue - Christ's message is revolutionary, and that revolutionary message should be the norm. As churches expand to offer more than that message, but keep it at their core, more people will benefit from the message itself. Think about Barnes and Noble in the secular world. A bookstore that began offering more, namely comfortable chairs and coffee. You go there for the books, but stay longer because it's more comfortable, and thus you get more exposure to the books. A church should be the same. You go for worship, but if it's also offering you more, you stay longer, go more consistently, and you weave it into secular parts of your life. And you end up getting more exposure to Christ's message because the church is a bigger part of your life. But I'm not talking about the chairs and coffee at church (church coffee is always bad, anyway), I'm talking about the ability of the church to deliver the things that matter, like a motivated congregation that can help elect the right people to office - people who reflect Christian values so some of the more damaging secular values don't end up distracting from the Church's message. To do that, we don't need to come up with some newer, more creative thing. Christ's message is revolutionary enough. We just need to make it the norm.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your second paragraph. I could run around my church in socks as a kid. We should likewise open our homes.

I disagree with your definition of marketing. Marketing is nothing without the market of goods and services. It is the sales pitch. It is the way I convince you that you need whatever I'm selling.

The gospels, the letters of Paul, and the balance of the canon, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers like Augustine, along with the history of Christian art, etc., etc. -- would you call this "marketing"? Was Luther "marketing" his 95 Theses -- his famous attack on the sale of Indulgences -- by nailing them to the church door?

We have other words, including prophecy and evangelism. There are many fine lines in Christianity -- the one between evangelism and marketing is especially vague to us. As I said above, evangelism's hidden behind the neon sign. What can compete with a mesmerizing neon sign? Real death on a dirty cross? Right. Gimme Buddy Christ.

A notice in a church bulletin or a local newspaper; word of mouth; publication on a web site -- none of these necessarily involve marketing or what we consider advertising. And I must say, given the poor financial support the local homeless shelter receives, buying billboard space to publicize its location would be a real travesty. Food and blankets are a better buy.

Regarding the dehumanizing and coercive nature of marketing: Fascinating though it is, aren't you a little creeped by the thought that Amazon.com might have a better sense of your tastes than you do? That it remembers everything you've purchased or just looked at, and then suggests other products that might interest you? And what are you to Amazon.com? A number in a database. I wouldn't trust Jeff Bezos with my life. I have enough trouble trusting him with my email address.

Another example: Do you believe Victoria's Secret would sell so much lingerie if it didn't hire beautiful women to model in it? Without the suggestion that "wearing this will make you sexy like these women," how well, financially speaking, do you think they'd do?

--Justin

Anonymous said...

We obviously are using different definitions for marketing and advertising. To my way of thinking (and I believe this is the common way of understanding it), marketing and advertising includes such things as TV ads, billboards, or product placement in movies to promote a product. One person sincerely telling another person in ordinary conversation about something they're excited about, whether their belief system, a toothbrush, or a TV show, would not normally be considered marketing or advertising.

Advertising is normally done with the aim of promoting a product, commonly pushing an item that the other person really doesn't want or need. In our society, I'm convinced this has become coercive - what else should one call it, when one goes to a movie and is assailed by 20 minutes of unwanted sounds and images; or when one tries to watch a sporting event on TV, and every 8 minutes, is shown images of slinky anorexic teens selling jeans or of athletes hawking a drug offering better erections? More disturbing are the efforts of numerous ad agencies trying to turn America's children into consuming units, via ad placement in textbooks and school corridors, and the recruitment of kids for marketing purposes.

If you haven't read them, I'd highly recommend such books as 'No Logo,' 'Fast Food Nation,' or 'Branded,' to learn more about these things. Not only are marketing and advertising an aesthetic assault but they're soul-stunting, in their pressure to make us define ourselves by what we buy and own, rather than who we are and in whose image we're created.

I find it deeply troubling when churches emulate the world's techniques to market the Gospel, whether thru allowing Mel Gibson to press church leaders into service as shills for his movie, or via anonymous donors putting God billboards across urban landscapes. Whenever gimmicks for evangelism are esteemed more greatly than natural sharing of faith thru relationships, acts of charity, and the pursuit of social justice, I believe God is being dishonored.

Anonymous said...

Oops, the 4:28 post is a response to the 12:42 post - all of these 'Anonymouses' make it a bit confusing!

Anonymous said...

Semantics. Call it what you will, but you're taking a thing (Christ's message) and sharing it and promising something. In the secular world, those expectations are sometimes true, sometimes false. But Christ's message is always true. It should be spread daily, in every way possible. It's that good.

Don't call it marketing if political correctness prohibits it. Call it "sharing" or "evangalism," or whatever, but do it. Don't hide the message. Because for people to benefit from the message, they have to receive it. The best way for them to receive it in our society is through the power of numbers - numbers that have political and economic clout. Otherwise, the influences of secular society drown out the message, or push it aside and replace it with false promises and false gods.

Thank goodness for men like James Dobson, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Oral Roberts. They didn't just go to their neighbor and quietly share - they shouted out the message of Jesus Christ for the whole country to hear. And it's working. Just look at the last election. Christians overwhelmingly chose President Bush. I think there's a good chance that America will once again be a Christian nation in our lifetimes. But making that happen takes more than just talking to your neighbor.

Anonymous said...

A few comments:

Political clout - but Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world," while thoroughly condemning the Pharisees and Sadducees who sought to establish a godly kingdom via political power.

Economic clout - but Jesus praised the woman who offered a tiny offering, stating that not many who are wealthy will enter the kingdom. Here again, Jesus' view of power differs immensely from that which is presented by leaders of American Christendom

'A Christian nation,' past - which era are you referring to:
- the Puritan era: when the mentally ill were hung as alleged witches, and those viewing Christian doctrine differently were exiled from various colonies
- the 19th Century: when the 'Bible belt' was a land of slaveholders, when the political powers of the time were busy exploiting and exterminating the Indians
- the 1950's, when 'family values' like the Jim Crow laws prevailed, as wife-beating and child abuse were swept under the rug

Our nearly Christian nation, present - when our Christian leader has:
- endorsed the torture and mistreatment of alleged enemy combatants
- launched a pre-emptive war, turning centuries of just war doctrine upon its head
- devised policy after policy that favor the wealthy while making life harder for the poor and disabled (Jesus' 'least of these,' who are repeatly given special prominence in the OT prophets and NT writings)

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for you that you choose to focus only the negative past of our nation and ignore the positive, Christ-inspired things it has done. You use scripture well to sow seeds of doubt. All I can offer you is a prayer that you listen to Christ's message and get past your cynicism. May God bless you and show you the way to him.

Atomic Bombshell said...

I'm pretty sure I remember stumbling across a passage in the Bible that recommends capitalizing on the successes that we see in the secular world. Yep, I seem to recall it saying something to the effect of "Look at what those guys are doing... They're doing a better job than we are. We should be more like them" ...I'm sure it means only in certain ways. :)

William said...

"you choose to focus only the negative past of our nation and ignore the positive, Christ-inspired things it has done"Replace the word Christ with Yahweh, and I can hear the Pharisees having the same complaint about Jesus. Jesus used Scripture to sow seeds of doubt too. There can be no growth if there are no doubts about the old way of doing things.

Anonymous said...

In no way do I advocate "hiding" the gospel, or my faith in it. I cannot help talking about it -- sometimes to my friends' discomfort. Yes, I agree it's that good.

But I cannot reconcile the practices of commerce -- which do in fact demean and insult us and the world we inhabit -- with the message of the peace that passes understanding. By all means, shake things up. But suggesting my neighbors face fire and brimstone lest they accept JC as their personal lord and saviour amen is not the gospel I know.

I'd be playing doctor when the cross tells me that, like them, I'm a patient with an incurable disease. Who then am I to write their prescription?

Sir (or madam), there's a key difference in our theologies: "of the cross," or "of glory"?

--Justin

Anonymous said...

I'm responding to yesterday's 'Anonymous' poster at 6:57 pm:

This conversation reminds me of a great comment by C.S. Lewis in 'A Grief Observed': "My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?"

I see the American Christian subculture's amalgamation of patriotism with biblical Christianity as one of these idols that needs shattering.

Am I glad to be an American? Mostly, yes - this is probably one of the best countries in which to live, in what is a remarkable era in many ways. However, the immense flaws which I pointed out in my last post signify that throughout our history, we have fallen far far short of the Christian ideal, committing many of the same sins (materialism, oppression of our fellow image-bearers, needles violence, neglect of the poor) that led God to judge Israel and the other nations in Old Testament times. I believe, therefore, that we demonstrate a culture-centric ignorance and arrogance, if we presume to claim that our past history and present nation are uniquely blessed by God.

Am I cynical? In regards to the idol of 'Americhrist' that needs to be destroyed in our minds, I suppose I am. With respect to striving for a faithful adherence to Scripture and discipleship as I understand it, I certainly hope not.

- Andrew

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Anonymous said...

But suggesting my neighbors face fire and brimstone lest they accept JC as their personal lord and saviour amenNice straw man. But I never suggested this.

What I have been trying to get across is that Jesus Christ's message should be the norm. I never suggested making people accept him. That's each individual's choice. Coke can only tell you about their product, they can't make you drink it. But their message is everywhere. So should the message of Christianity.

Christians shouldn't be ashamed of anything that promotes awareness of JC, including Christian retail. And we're not trying to reinvent the wheel, it's fine if we copy bracelets and use them to make people aware of the existence of the Word. It's great to put a commercial on TV advertising family values. It's an honorable thing to advertise a local church and its welcoming congregation. It's positive to have leaders who are proud to share their Christian faith. Because it's a positive message: Jesus Christ is your Savior and we're all brothers and sisters in Christ.

Of course, some people say Christian retail is bad, marketing through mass communication is bad, and anything other than quietly talking to your neighbor is bad. It's like they have some sort of shame or something.

Anonymous said...

Coke does a damn good job reminding us how wonderful our lives are with Coke. It's not just that the polar bears are cute or that Santa's so jolly with a bottle in his hand: they want to associate their product with popular imagery. Bears + Coke = winter; Santa + Coke = Christmas. You're right -- they can't make us drink it. But they have a subtle way of making us believe that life without Coke is less-than-perfect. What is Christmas without Coca-Cola?

Marketing is psychological manipulation. The marketer's task is to convince you that you need whatever his client's selling. What's more, his client's product is better than the competitor's product.

Yet you seem to be saying the market is good, but would be better with Christian iconography. Same television, different programming. Same bumpers, different stickers. Same model, different message.

To which I respond that you are either blind or numb to the destructive power of the market. A knock-off Live Strong bracelet is still a crappy plastic trinket. Plastic comes from oil, and the oil's gotta come from somewhere. Tell me and the dead American soldiers how much that plastic bracelet's worth to you. Andrew's absolutely right about the undeniably negative aspects of this country and its economy. You seem more than willing to overlook them.

And this, I think, is the true cynicism. You argue, essentially, that whatever's necessary to bring people to Christ, so be it. Whatever the cost, even in human life, so be it. Plant a million billboards! Plastic bracelets for all!

Forget that nobody lives in this country without hearing the Christian message. Except maybe the kids who recognize Ronald McDonald before they recognize Jesus. Christianity could not be any more present in this country than it already is. Churches compete with corporations for control of the American heart. In this sense, Christianity is a normal and prominent component of American culture. But the Gospel, I think, is conspicuously absent.

Am I ashamed to be Christian? I am ashamed by the complacent self-interest of nearby churches; the head-counting, the demographic studies. I am ashamed that I must redefine the term "Christian" each time it provokes a hostile reaction. To paraphrase Andrew, "Am I glad to be a Christian? Mostly, yes."

Christianity can be marketed only if it's another commodity, like Coke. It's not. Neither can I reconcile reductive, selfish marketing practices with the positive and life-giving nature of my faith. To claim I know where your interest lies -- better than you yourself do -- is to divorce myself from you as my brother and to reject the loving service to which I'm called.

The Gospel is to be lived. Let us live our faith in a way that makes a Christian religion irrelevant. "And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love."

Anonymous said...

You argue, essentially, that whatever's necessary to bring people to Christ, so be it. Whatever the cost, even in human life, so be it. Plant a million billboards! Plastic bracelets for all!Again, nice straw man. I never suggested killing people to spread Christ's message. Nor did I imply it, suggest it, or hint at it. Your assertion otherwise is as dishonest as it is disingenuous.

Your disagreement is not with people who seek to spread the joy of Christ. Your argument is with a secular culture you see as manipulative and coercive. That's because it is. And that's why we need to spread the message of Christ. The secular world has crowded him out and replaced him with Viagra ads - good night of sex is more cool than everlasting life and love. Why is this? Why have we given the secular world this ground? Because sharing the message of Christ, except discreetly, quietly, and apparantly nonverbally, is out of line. You might offend someone.

Don't mind me while I wear my Jesus Saves t-shirt. Or donate money to the homeless shelter to help them put up a billboard advertising their location so that a homeless person knows where to get help. Or distribute voter information flyers with my church group so people know which candidate is for gay marriage, abortion, and legalized marijuana and which one supports family values. Don't mind me at all, because nobody is stopping you from discreetly sharing your message of Christ one-on-one. I won't even criticize you for it. Good for you, I say, spread his message. But don't knock others for doing the same. If a Christian version of the Livestrong bracelet causes someone to ask "What is that?" and it opens up the opportunity to talk about Christ, well there it is. If a billboard advertising the location of the homeless shelter brings someone in from the cold and into an environment that is Christ friendly, there it is again. And if a church advertises on local TV that all are welcome, there it is again. Unlike the messages of the secular world, Christ's message is not manipulative or coercive. It is open, warm, and welcoming. Don't deny that message to others out of fear the secular world won't like it.

Anonymous said...

First, I admit my remarks can be facetious and inflammatory. I apologize.

Second, I don't think you endorse killing for Christ. Or for any cause. But the killing occurs nevertheless and I think you overlook it. If you see no problem with the production of a plastic bracelet -- knowing full well how that plastic came to be -- I think you willingly overlook it. Hence it seems you're either blind or numb.

Your argument is with a secular culture you see as manipulative and coercive. That's because it is. And that's why we need to spread the message of Christ. Yes, on this point we're in complete agreement.

But I'll add a sentence. I take issue with American Christianity's concession to the primacy of the market, and its subsequent complicity with and exploitation of the market to ensure its own survival.

Substitute German for American and Nazis for market and subtract 50 years to understand Alan Dershowitz's complaint, "It is shocking that Luther's ignoble name is still honored rather than forever cursed by mainstream Protestant churches."

Third, not merely do "family values" offend our secular culture -- they offend me, a moderate Christian who does not support either of the three hot-button issues you mention. Why am I offended? Because "family values" come bound to legislation as misanthropic as the most effective marketing campaigns, and I'm frankly embarrassed to share the name "Christian" with anyone motivated by such fear and presumption. And because, for my opposition to this negative legislation, I'm painted a demon and a liberal.

Fourth, in the context I've outlined, the Christian message is offensive. The Gospel subverts the power structure we've put our faith in. it makes us lowly servants in a world that cultivates masters. Rather than setting my life on the right track, it pulls me off the one I'm on, so I can see what's crushed beneath. The Gospel forces me to recognize how much that cheap plastic bracelet really costs -- and to ask if it's a good buy afterall. I think it's not.

Finally, my name is Justin. Here's a link to my site. My faith is quite loud, though I suspect we're tuned to different frequencies. Thanks for the conversation.

Anonymous said...

Justin, rather than take up more space on Ben's blog with a lengthy response, let me just bow out with this:

I find some of your ideas old and busted, while others are really thought provoking. I hope by the time I graduate my writing ability is as good as yours, because yours is awesome. Really, even where I disagree I enjoy the skillful way you lay out your viewpoint. Clearly, you're one smart dude. God bless you and thanks for the conversation.

kate said...

This has been a fascinating and enlightening conversation. However, I wonder if in the future "anonymous" posters would mind signing their names (or any consistent, identifying name--it doesn't have to be your real one) to their entries. It gets pretty confusing to keep all those anonymous replies straight--for example, in the dialogue that just ensued, I'm still unclear as to how many people were participating: two? three? maybe even four? I know there's one guy named Justin, and one guy who talks about family values as if they're inherently Christian. I'd like to think of the second guy by a particular name rather than pigeonholing him based on how he articulates his beliefs. And overall, naming yourself--regardless of whether you're on blogger or not--would make these comments feel like much less of a hit-and-run.

Obviously, I'm not Ben, so you don't have to listen to me. Just putting in a request. Thanks!

On a different subject more pertinent to this topic, I also want to add that there is a nuance between disillusionment and cynicism. The latter can follow the former, but they are not synonymous. One of my favorite poets describes disillusionment as a necessary and *positive* process, particularly for Christians--"I mean, what do you want to be?" he asks. "ILLUSIONED?!" No--we as followers of Jesus are to be seekers of truth, and therefore it is part and parcel with our faith that any illusions we have about life will be stripped from us. I agree with Justin that this includes facing up to the "negative" events and attitudes that have shaped our "Christian" nation. Rather than dismissing the things he pointed out as being pessimistic, why don't you do some reading and find out if they're true? If they are, perhaps what Justin (and others like him) are doing is not "dwelling on the negative" but "naming the sinful." Evangelicals approve of the latter, don't they? We're all into "calling sin sin" and "holding each other accountable" and "not whitewashing sin," right? Well, let's be consistent. Our forefathers were not evangelical Christians, and in addition to some of the good it has done, this nation has also committed some grave corporate sins that will not go overlooked by God--but I believe that God will forgive us, if we get over our illusions about our nation's manifest destiny and confess our sins and repent.

Kate

Anonymous said...

Your suggestion is an excellent one, Kate. I made a few posts in this thread before it dawned on me that signing them would be helpful. I'll do my best to do so consistently in the future.

I believe your distinction between disillusionment and cynicism is an invaluable one - thank you for that. I think the prospect of stripping away illusions is a frightening one, because in our minds the illusions are so tightly intertwined with the truth. I know I've gone through a few 'dark nights of the soul' where I feared losing my faith, as some false myths and beliefs were peeled away - thankfully, I think my faith was deepened instead. Now, some of that fear is replaced by curious anticipation (wondering what God is up to this time) when I sense approaching disillusionment.

I'll hearken back to the Lewis quote I cited earlier: without the shattering of our false God-images, our faith is probably doomed to stagnation and our churches prone to becoming rigidly controlling clone-makers.

Blessings,
Andrew

Ben said...

Wow, I go home for Christmas and forget about this blog. I get back on the internet and see a rather lenghty discussion taking place. I haven't read everyone's comments yet, but I do agree with Kate in everything she said, especially about signing your name or codename if you're hiding from the government.

The only thing I'll offer to the discussion is that I wonder if the church is too often defined by its marketing as opposed to its message. We can discuss for hours the definition of marketing and its use in the church. In fact, we should discuss that. Those are important discussion each congregation should be having.

The main question I was pondering had to do with marketing and style overcoming substance in the church and its relationship with the world around it. Those aren't questions you can answer on a blog, though I admire the discussion that has formed here.

Rouver said...

Hey, check it out....I've been having trouble with my computer, so I'm on a friend's. Of course, no favs list with a link here, so I type in "ben blog christian store" on Google & you're #4 on the list it popped up for me.

I'm sure there's been some wonderful, deep, meaningful conversations here in the time I've been away, but we'll have to see if I can overcome my apathy towards other's opinions & actually read through all those long posts....

Hope ya had some good holiday times.

Jeffrey said...

I was wondering: what is the weirdest object you have ever seen in the store? like what is the one piece of christian merchandise that just had you stop, and go "what the hell is that?"

Matt said...

One only has to look at the Christian heavy metal band STRYPER to realize the point you are making is more than true.

remedialpianist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
remedialpianist said...

Hey Guys

Aren't you just dealing with the "product" you have? I mean, come on. The fertility and solstice celebrations become easter and Christmas; monotheism, the "virgin birth", "god becomes a man" all get imported from Zoroastrianism. Even the Old Testament has an evolving view of God. The whole religion is a knock off.

Two thousand years later, here you are, lusting after the cultural impact of a cancer-surviving bicyclist. Look at yourselves!

Like salesmen for windows in the late 80's...

Rouver said...

Oooh, VERY nice troll. Expertly done. I commend you!!

Jeff said...

Two quick points:
"Christianity should exist as a tool of social and cultural change." Is the best, most concise
statement I have ever heard or read of why I
don't do "church"...I could not disagree with
that statement any more. If you don't mind, I
may quote it in future discussions about my
dislike of "church".
Second point. Its quite obvious reading through
the comments on this particular post, that
although many posters refer to "Christ's
message", they don't all have the same message in
mind when they make the reference.

thanks jeffl

Justin said...

Relevant article at Christianity Today -- an evangelical's critique of evangelicals, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience":

"Yes, we believe he is the Savior. We are Christians, not pagans. But our beliefs are not strong enough to produce righteous lifestyles. We want Jesus and mammon. Unless we repent, our Lord intends to spit us out."

Ben said...

Jeff,

As to your second point, you're right. A basic definition of what "Christ's message" is would be very helpful. Unfortunately, I think there is an ongoing internal debate within Christianity as to what that message is. While a common foundation regarding the terms we use would be ideal, I don't believe it is possible in the format of a blog.

Concerning your first point: I'm glad to represent everything you hate about Christianity. It's what I live for. I'm assuming you would consider Christianity more of a personal spirituality as opposed to the "tool of social and cultural change" I describe it as. I could be way off on that assumption, so I apologize if I misrepresent you. I was wondering, how do you see Christianity impacting (or not impacting) your role in society? I guess I'm basically wondering why you disagree with me. If you don't feel like posting some big post in the comments section, you can always e-mail me: reedbn@yahoo.com

Paul said...

I wouldn't call this a knock-oo, but this is a nice Christian Testimony Bracelet

Todd W. said...

Oh, bah, those "be a testimony" bracelets are every bit as commercial and crass as "Bible of the day" bracelets. But they are both topped by "P4OT" or "Pray for our troops." In all three cases, I see no mention of how the money collected will be used, perhaps aside from funding the new addition on the site owners' house. At least the Lance Armstrong bracelets have some sort of charitable component.

Ben, I disagree that "Christianity should exist as a tool of social and cultural change." God doesn't give a rip about culture, society, nations or countries. Jesus came to save individuals and Christianity should exist as a tool of change for individual lives. Cultural change should be a logical outgrowth of such change, but it's not God's primary focus. Unfortunately, many of our brethren are more concerned with converting the Constitution and saving nations than they are with transforming lives.

I second Justin's recommendation of "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience." An excellent, relevent article. Though one could also take away the message that, well, perhaps the transformative experience of the Christian life isn't all that transformative at all...

The weirdest thing I've seen in a Christian book store is "Testa-mints" breath fresheners. Maybe "stupidest" would be a better word.

Anonymous said...

you said:

what was perplexing was how this lack of creativity seemed to affect her. while she readily admitted most of the “Jesus Junk” was nothing more than a cheap knock-off, she was more than willing to buy it

i say: what is more perplexing than joe q public buying jesus junk is an informed seminary student willing to live off of her ignorance and willingness to buy these things ... wouldn't another retail job be a better temporary job for a seminary student that 'knows better' ... or will these propensities to mooch off of the unknowing continue after seminary?? BAD STUFF DUDE, VERY BAD!!!

Ben said...

Anonymous,

That's an interesting point. I would love to discuss it more, but first, you have to sign your name. You cannot come in here, insult me, and hide behind the anonymous tag. That just makes you a coward.

So at least have the decency to sign your name and/or online moniker before you insult somebody. That's juvenile and it has no place here.

-Ben

Stormcrow said...

Thank you God! Finally, fellow Christians who feel the same way. I too tire of the "Jesus Junk" or "Christian Crap". (I could come up with more names but they'd hardly be appropriate for a Christian blog). Most Christians like to pretend that all of our knock-offs are cute and clever. No, they're just embarassing. I actually find myself avoiding Christian merchandise because of how corny it is. I don't even read Christian fiction anymore because all of the plotlines are the same. The "unsaved" are usually stereotypical agnostics (you could never have a likeable character who wasn't saved), and the Christians are always sweet and wise people. Anyway, I don't mean to rant; I'm just happy to finally find Truth proclaimed among 21st century Christians.

Awesome blog... I will definitely link to it on mine!

CAW!

www.stormcrowshumblethoughts.blogspot.com

galetea said...

An incredibly well made point, Ben. I've always found such Christian merchandise a bit puzzling in light of the Christ of the gospels turning commerce in the Temple upside down. A wonderful Mennonite woman that I know felt the same way about the glut of ridiculous "Jesus Junk" and wryly commented that it was only one step away from shirts proclaiming, "My savior died for my sins and all I got was this lousy t-shirt". The horror.

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