Selling Faith – Values and Ethics

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(February 2008 – Volume 14, Issue 2) 

In a recent edition of the Reader’s Digest Melinda Henneberger, in an article entitled “Selling Faith,” writes about a rising trend in the mass marketing of “Christian oriented” products. The term “Christian oriented” is defined as anything associated in any way with the Bible or Christian worldview. Christian oriented products include diet books and plans, nutritional supplements, clothing, consumer electronics, and music, all of which purport to be, at least in some way, associated with the God of the Bible. A quick search of the Internet confirms Mrs. Hennberger’s article. Christians can buy Christian video games, hire Christian private investigators, and purchase Christian skin care products. According to an article by Lynn Harris, writing for Salon.com, Christians can even buy goats from a Christian goat breeder, if they should happen to find themselves in the market (Harris, 2005). The plethora of Christian products and services for sale is simply astounding. Perusing the offerings of the various vendors, obviously geared toward people wanting to associate themselves with the values of orthodox Christianity, one has to wonder what issues are driving this market and what the implications of those issues are for Christianity.

One might be tempted to see this as old news. Items have been specifically marketed both by and for Christians since medieval clergy began selling off its excess righteousness, in the form of indulgences, to those concerned they might come up a little short. The Bible has been published in huge volumes for years. Little plaques quoting Joshua 24:15 adorn millions of homes; numerous bumper stickers exist informing fellow commuters of the hazard a particular vehicle may present should the rapture occur while in transit, and vocalists of every stripe have recorded gospel songs. Is there really anything new about Christian oriented material? Both Hennebeger and Harris think so. So new in fact that big business such as Wal-mart and even the Hollywood movie industry are scrambling to get a piece of this pie. According to Henneberger, “The market for Christian merchandise is growing between 4 and 8 percent a year” and currently “accounts for more than $4 billion in annual sales” (p. 182).

Henneberger offers several possible explanations for the surge in popularity of Christian oriented products. These include a retreat from an ever increasingly sexually explicit culture, heightened awareness of political strength on the part of evangelicals, and a desire on the part of “Christian activists” to pull the culture back to a life more in tune with their own Christian worldview. As Lynn Harris also points out (Salon, 2005), many of the faithful wish to patronize Christian businesses because they feel their money will go to a company representing their own belief system, thereby contributing financially to the advancement of it, or at least not contributing to philosophies or activities opposed to it.

These explanations seem perfectly valid. One need only follow a national political race to hear the concerns from both camps, religious and secularist, about the more vulgar aspects of modern entertainment. Material once viewed by our culture as obscene is now being mass produced via television and other media and marketed to all elements of society. Not long ago, one retailer of teen oriented clothing came under considerable national scrutiny due to the graphic nature of some of the poses portrayed by models in its annual catalog. A steady stream of lament comes from many sources about the violence, degradation, and despair found in much of today’s popular music. Even Congress has gotten in on the action, holding court over the content of popular video games. Clearly, there is ample reason to be concerned about modern culture.

Perhaps the media emphasis on the allegedly instrumental role that evangelical Christians played in the 2004 election has had some part in this market surge. Evangelicals are, it would seem, under the impression they are increasingly being marginalized by the mainstream of society. However, after the most recent presidential election, much speculation was made of the effect of the “Christian right” and its influence on the outcome. In the eyes of more than one pundit Christians were the primary source of the recent Republican victory. If that is indeed the case, perhaps the Christian philosophy is more significant than suspected. No one doubts that the U.S. is in the midst of a culture war; perhaps Christians, suddenly aware of the influence they wield in mass, should seize the opportunity to identify themselves publicly via Christian themed t-shirts and coffee mugs, thereby encouraging still more Christians to “come forth and be recognized.” Activists for reforming the culture to a Christian standard may see potential here as well. If a foothold can be gained in the marketing arena, perhaps that can be used somehow to lend authority to the Christian position. With enough authority backing them, perhaps these social warriors can drag our society back from the brink of the secular abyss it seems to be perched upon.

It is difficult to fault any of these positions. After all, Scripture commands Christians to be an influence in their culture. If purchasing Christian oriented material can help to edify the church, or turn the culture toward morality, it would seem foolish not to do so. Viewed from another perspective, however, one aspect of all of this might give Christians some pause. Most if not all of the products being marketed to Christians, are simply repackaged versions of what is already available to the culture at large. Christian musical trends follow closely on the heels of emerging trends in secular music. Christians have their own Christian psychology, toned down somewhat to be sure, but still following closely the latest novel ideal sweeping its secular counterpart. Hip Christian clothing, Christian weight loss regimens, and even a Christian Rubik’s cube await discriminating Christians on the cutting edge of society. All joking aside, Molly Henneberger accurately describes the possibility of Christians creating their own little “parallel universe” (p.182) in which everything available to the culture at large is cleaned up, repackaged, and presented in a Christian version, so that Christians can have the same things everybody else does, only different. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this, but it is important to keep in mind that at its heart Christianity is not about having a cleaner version of what the world has. It is about being fundamentally different.

The crux of Christianity is that God Himself has paid the penalty necessary to satisfy His holy justice on behalf of rebellious usurpers who could never satisfy that justice in and of themselves. He does this on the condition that those same rebels turn from their rebellion and, in accordance with a newly created nature, begin the long, sometimes arduously slow, process of sanctification. Along this road to sanctification, these rebels-turned-collaborators, exercise their new natures in what sometimes seems like pathetically feeble attempts to accomplish various things for God. However, the things Christians do, the way they live, the way they dress and speak, are all results of who they are; they do not comprise what they are.

Christians like to talk about the number of people they have “led to Christ,” or how much money they have contributed, in order to show their level of commitment, their relative value to the cause. In reality things like this have nothing to do with the essence of Christianity. “Blasphemy” you say, “the sole reason we are here is to witness for Him.” It is true that Christians are called to witness; they are called to witness whether people come to Christ through their witness or not. They are called to give, but their giving is to be the byproduct of a grateful and loving heart. The essence of Christianity is not the acts performed, but the motivation for their performance, a motivation that should spring from a love for the Savior, and a desire to obey Him. In the same way, the products Christians purchase and the services they subscribe to have nothing to do with the essential aspects of being a Christian.

The apostle Paul admonishes Christians not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. My fear is that the trend in Christian oriented marketing is the result of a Christian oriented consumerism that is, at its core, an attempt to conform Christianity to the world. Taken as a whole it reminds one of a people who, confused and unsure of themselves, are searching for significance and relevance in a culture that continues to diverge from whatever common elements both once held. In attempting to copy every element of contemporary culture and rework it into a Christianized context, we run the risk of becoming so relevant that we are irrelevant.

The point here is that there is nothing Christian, tacitly or otherwise, about wearing Christian clothing or starting a Christian diet. While there may indeed be some value in these things, the danger Christians face in pursuing these items and services from a strictly Christian perspective is that they may begin to equate these items with the properties of righteousness. The mark of a Christian is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). These are the attributes for which Christians are to strive; these are the characteristics by which Christians should seek to be identified. If Christians allow themselves to become just another market segment for all things pop, they run the risk of being reduced to that segment. Additionally, given the never-ending desire of human nature to reduce spirituality to a set of ordinances with which to comply, Christians run the risk of substituting the “elementary principles” (Col 2:8) of what they wear, how they vote, or how much they weigh for the justification they have in Christ. When that happens, the possibility of truly righteous living has been lost.

While it is admirable that Christians may wish to advertise for their faith on their favorite coffee-cup or golf balls, it is important that Christians realize that they are called out from society, they are not simply a subset of a society, but as strangers and foreigners living among a people unlike themselves. If Christians are really that concerned about being a force in our culture perhaps they would be more effective by presenting not a more prudish version of what society already possesses but something radically different. Instead of fighting tooth and nail to win a culture war with a fallen culture, staking their hopes on any politician that will tell them what they want to hear, Christians might consider living their lives in calm and quiet contrast to that culture, confident in a victory already won. Instead of emulating every little outward nuance of hip society, perhaps Christians might focus their energy on developing characteristics in contrast to society, such as those mentioned earlier. Instead of striving to show society that Christians can be successful by society’s standards and still be Christian, they might consider redefining what success is in the first place, spending some time contemplating why they are here and how that answer might affect the way they live. Maybe then they would not need to identify themselves by the slogans on their clothing or the stickers on their cars. Maybe then they would not need to wonder what vitamin supplements Jesus would have used.

REFERENCES

Harris, L. (2005, August 4). Verily, I Sell Unto You. Salon. Retrieved August 29, 2005, from http://www.salon.com.mwt/feature/2005/08/04/christian_business/.

Henneberger, M. (2005, August). Selling Faith. Readers Digest, 181-185.

Waxman, S. (2005, July 20). Hollywood’s newfound passion for Christ. International Herald Tribune, The IHT Online. Retrieved August, 29, 2005 from http://www.iht.com/articles.

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