January 26, 2008 in Features

Christian consumerism crosses line of necessity

Paul Graves Correspondent
 

What would Jesus buy?

I couldn’t help asking this flippant question as I reviewed a number of “Real Product” sidebars in recent issues of Sojourners magazine.

In most months, Sojourners offers a brief description of real products put out to promote something about the Christian faith.

Before Christmas 2006, you could order a Last Supper lunch box covered in Jesus wrapping paper and sealed with Jesus packaging tape.

In December 2007, you could send a friend a plastic Jesus the Surfer, complete with head crown and riding a big wave. (Various figurines are intended to remind believers that Jesus is with them in everything they do.)

Or perhaps you are into paddleball. You can have a colorful paddle decorated with a stained-glass replica of Jesus’ resurrection.

Do you have a dog? He could be both warm and evangelistic in his T-shirt that proclaims “Proud to be Christian,” with the “t” designed as a cross.

One that has me really scratching my halo is a credit-card-size, microfilmed Bible containing two versions. They are reduced 285 times and can be seen with a standard microscope.

Wouldn’t a standard-sized Bible be easier to carry (and store in your backpack, purse or briefcase)?

I’m sorry to sound skeptical (or cynical), but this sample of “relevance” products for faithful Christians has me flummoxed.

It’s not just that businesses produce these items. My frustration is that people actually buy these products. Again I ask: What would Jesus buy?

This commercial exaggeration is likely inevitable the more the Christian segment of our American culture buys into the marketing truism “Image is everything.” So churches and various forms of ministries are caught up in branding their product.

Who decided that Christian faith is a product and believers are consumers? Someone did, but it certainly wasn’t me!

A number of people call me liberal, progressive, humanistic or whatever. Few have called me conservative.

But I am certainly conservative when it comes to saving what is best about both the Christian faith and the ways we go about giving authentic expression to that faith.

So I say it straight out: Most Christian branding and commercialization is prompting a very cheap, disposable faith.

In an April 16, 2006, article in The New York Times, journalist Strawberry Saroyan speaks about Christian branding. At the heart of the article is this question: “Why does God need someone to sell him?”

Why indeed?

All four of the Gospels have their versions of Jesus driving “money-changers” from the temple. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all felt this story was critical to their readers embracing a Jesus who had righteous anger and would stand up against the religious exploitation of common (read “poor”) people.

Jesus wasn’t upset with the job of money-changer as such. Money-changers provided an accepted service of selling sacrificial animals and items for what Jewish people felt was appropriate worship.

Instead, Jesus was outraged with the extorted prices they charged people. His action was based on economic and spiritual justice.

I can’t say that the crass, cheap gimmicks being sold today as religious trinkets rise to the level of what the money-changers did. A case might be made, however, when people spend their hard-earned money in hopes one of these gimmicks might get them in good with God or some religious authority.

So where’s my primary frustration? It comes when I see well-meaning people both sell and buy these items on the assumption their private faith will somehow be stronger. They may even believe “the church” will be stronger.

Sorry, I can’t buy that any more than I can buy the trinkets.

To do justice, show constant love, live in humble fellowship with God and each other. Micah said this. Jesus lived this.

This is what Jesus would buy. How about you?

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