Golfing For Jesus: Christ and Consumer Culture

Article by   April 2008

In his 1922 work Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis used the phrase Christianity Incorporated to capture the ethos of his fictional small town overrun by a blending of consumerism and religion. What was good for 1922, however, may be good for today. Recently, Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow have used Lewis's phrase as the title for their expose of the church's unholy matrimony with consumer and capitalist culture, a church full of those more schooled on Adam Smith, they quip, than the Sermon on the Mount. Whether taking Jesus as everybody's favorite CEO for book titles or whether using the cross for advertising logos, the co opting of Christ for business hijacks the Gospels and Christ himself. Capitalist and consumerist culture becomes the context into which the gospel is made to fit, into which Christ conforms, rather than the reverse. [1]

Of course, those engaged in such activities will contest my conclusions, opting instead to see such activities as geared toward evangelism or toward bringing one's Christian faith to bear upon daily life in the marketplace. Church historian friend of mine Sean Lucas likes to recall an incident from his days clerking in a Christian bookstore while in high school. A customer came into the store to purchase a fish sticker for her new car. When he told her that they were currently out of stock, she exclaimed in a great deal of exasperation and even a little bit of anger, "How am I going to witness?"

The extent of my golfing consists of hitting a few golf balls around in the backyard, using a used set of golf clubs purchased at a yard sale for ten dollars. I was, nevertheless, once invited to speak at an evangelistic golf outing. I was told by the host that my not being a golfer wouldn't be a problem since it was a best ball tournament, where the team of four plays from the best-positioned ball. This was quite fortunate for me, since the balls I hit ended up in the river, the ponds, nearby fields and all manner of woods. I soon exhausted my supply. One of the foursome, long on patience and well stocked with golf balls, came to my aid. He handed over his favorite golf balls for such golfers as I, witnessing golf balls, embossed with a fish advising to read John 3:16 17 and a copyrighted saying, "I once was lost, but now am found"--words I thought to be written some time ago by John Newton. Use these, he told me, that way when you lose them someone might find them and get saved.

The Holy Spirit is indeed omnipotent, omnicompetent and endlessly resourceful, which is to say perhaps he does use fish bumper stickers and witnessing golf balls. It just seems that doing such things isn't quite on par, pardon the pun, with following the Great Commission and being committed to evangelize. But don't tell that to the makers of "The Power of the Christ" T-shirts. They fuse the universal symbol for power, an incomplete circle with a line at the top, with the symbol of the cross, cleverly arriving at the "power of the cross." Not only does the wearer get a "nice power surge by thinking of Jesus Christ" but those passersby will also be exposed to such power. This is, the designers of this particular line of Christian apparel tell us, "The Future Fashion of Faith." Christian T shirts, while having an apparently bright future, also have a past. Coming in vogue in the 1970s, Colleen McDannell attributes their ascendancy, along with the rest of Christian retailing, to the Jesus movement. An advertisement for Christian T shirts by The Idea Machine, self-described as "The T Shirt People," in the May 1978 edition of Bookstore Journal, ran the heading, "If It's Worth Sharing, It's Worth Wearing." Folks were turned on to Jesus and ready to wear their faith on their sleeves, literally. [2] 

One of the favorite themes of Christian T shirt designers is, of course, Jesus, as in images of Jesus, sayings of Jesus and, perhaps the all time favorite, manipulations of Jesus's image or name or biblical titles as a knockoff of well-established logos and advertising jingles. The supreme example of the latter is using "Jesus Christ" in the Coca Cola script with a slight twist on the world renowned slogan "He's the Real Thing." Recent additions in this genre include "Got Jesus?" playing off the milk campaign, "Jesus Inside," playing off of the logo that alerts computer users that Intel is inside their computers, and the words "The Deal" over the horizontal bar of a cross while the word `Take" splashes across the vertical bar, playing off of the popular TV show Deal or No Deal. The particular company that makes these T shirts proudly tells its customers to "Be a fisher of men," which in this case presumably means to purchase and wear their T shirts. Jeffrey Wendland, publisher of the Online Christian Shopper, similarly advises would be consumers. "Almost every vestige of Christianity has been stripped from the culture," he notes before adding, "But one place they can't strip it is off your back." In other words, a foolproof way to fight America's anti Christian culture is to wear Christian T-shirts (or sweatshirts and hoodies). By wearing these shirts Christians can reach millions--the average T shirt apparently is seen by three thousand peo¬ple in its lifetime. But not every situation allows for a T shirt. "That's where Christian jewelry comes in," notes Wendland. [3] 

John Kavanaugh raises a crucial question against such reasoning. He sees a rather stark contrast between what he broadly calls "consumer values" with "Christian values." Consumer values emphasize the "commodity form of life," which reduces people to things, minimizes personal communication and sees relationships as transactions. Kavanaugh further speaks of the commodity form of life creating an "empty interior," in which we lose our sense of our self and which leads to "broken relationships," with advertisements telling us that cars and clothes can do more for us than people. Such a dehumanized form of life results in the "degradation of justice" and a "flight from the wounded." This commodity form of life also affects more than our shopping. Kavanaugh observes, "It affects the way we think and feel, the way we love and pray, the way we evaluate our enemies, the way we relate to our spouses and children. It is `systematic.'" Christian values, on the other hand, emphasize the "personal form of life," which counters the commodity form in every way. This personal form finds its fullest revelation in Jesus Christ. The personal form of life also speaks to the deepest "identity, needs, and capacities of human na¬ture." Given how Kavanaugh frames it, capitulating to consumer culture as the means for evangelism means adapting to a commodity form of life, a form that seemingly runs counter to Christ's rather personal call and commission of the original fishers of people. Commodifying evangelism turns persons who relate into customers who buy, a rather alien approach to that of Christ's call to make disciples. [4] 

Such apparel and trinkets do not merely impact evangelism but also the perception of Christ. Apart from knockoffs of logos and advertising jingles, Christian T shirts tend to portray all manner of sayings and images of Jesus. These include T shirts manufactured by the company Christian Gear, promoting itself as marketing "Fun. Hip. Christian Merchandise," with such selections as "Rebel with a Cause," and "Christian Outfitters: Jesus Christ, Tough as Nails." You can get "Jesus Is My Homeboy" T shirts from the company Teenage Millionaire, or you can purchase their companion offering "Mary Is My Homegirl." Many of these T shirts blend Christianity with patriotism, American patriotism that is. A rather popular design plays off the convenient yield of USA once the words Jesus and saves are combined: JesUSAves. One company even takes patriotism to levels of statehood, offering a T shirt sporting the fish symbol filled with the Texas flag hovering over the words, "Proud to be a Christian from Texas." In the wake of 9/11 and the war on terror, any assortment of T shirts and posters combine, if not equate, Christianity with American patriotism. One such patriotic shirt design goes so far as to juxta¬pose a soldier's helmet, an M16 with bayonet attached, and the cross of Christ, with the words, "Onward Christian Soldier."

Reporting for the Los Angeles Times, Stephanie Simon recalls her visit to the 2006 International Christian Retailers Show. One new product caught her eye, or perhaps her nose:

 Virtuous Woman perfume comes packaged with a passage from Proverbs. But
 what makes the floral fragrance distinctly Christian, Hobbs [the retailer] said. is  that it's supposed to be a tool for evangelism. "It should be enticing enough to  provoke questions: `What's that you're wearing?'" Hobbs said. "Then you take the  opportunity to speak of your faith. They've opened the door, and now they're  going to get it." [5] 

None of this hawking of all things Christian has escaped the eyes of a watching public. CNN's Anderson Cooper360° ran a story introduced as "Faith for Sale," which explored "how companies use religion to sell their goods." The Osgood File on CBS radio network ran a story on "how faith based products are hot," though the underlying message was that "not everyone thinks that's so hot." Even bloggers get in on the action. Jesusoftheweek.com offers a platform for submissions for such commercialization of Christ as the Buddy Christ and Jesus Action Figure. This site may be offensive to most Christians as a mockery of Christ. But most of the submissions to the site are of products by Christians. And those products give non Christians plenty to gawk at. Christian retailing has accomplished its goal of getting the word out: enlisting consumers to wear T shirts and jewelry as fishers of people, and enlisting golfers to use witnessing golf balls. The message being heard, however, might not be the one intended. The true message of the cross, it seems, is getting lost in a sea of commerce. The commercials are too loud. [6] 

The threat of losing the gospel message even within the Christian community itself looms large given that this consumer culture is so freely embraced and participated in by evangelicals. Vincent J. Miller takes us one step further in analyzing the impact of consumer culture on the Christian message. He turns to Disney, which he wryly notes is "obligatory for anyone writing on religion and consumer culture." He dives beneath the typical criticism of Disney to make a significant point concerning the merchandising that dwarfs in sales the box office take of the movies, arguing, "This use of narrative to sell merchandise gives rise to the most profound cultural impact of Disney and other producers of commercial popular culture: the formation of our habits of interpretation and appropriation." "Children," having been conditioned in their habits of interpretation and appropriation, "learn to quickly accept narratives, to enjoy the roles and symbol systems of the stories, to locate themselves within the tales, and to consider their he¬roes, conflicts, and ideologies." Then Miller adds, "While children are learning to do all of this, they are simultaneously learning to treat these narratives, roles, and symbols as disposable commodities: things to be played with, explored, tried on, and, in the end, discarded." What concerns Miller the most is that while children are learning of the narratives of Disney, they're also learning of the narrative of Jesus. In fact, more often than not, they're learning both from the same DVD player, and their Christian symbol emblazoned T shirts are folded side by side with clothes of their favorite Disney characters in their closets and dressers. [7] 

Christian scholars and theologians rarely venture into the waters navigated here; they rarely offer a critique of Christian T shirt websites. Yet it is precisely in these places that popular evangelical expression may be found. This is where evangelicals live. Further, more often than not, American evangelicals reflexively accept the tenets of consumer culture and adapt their faith and its expression to them. As American evangelicals we have been well-trained as consumers through countless acts of consumption. We have been taught to buy, and we're quick learners. We have come to view our faith as a commodity, and at times we make Christ into one too. It would be naive to attempt escaping consumer culture altogether. Merely having an awareness of it will likely help. Ignoring consumer culture's impact on evangelicalism, however, comes at a cost we cannot afford.

While it may be challenging for Christianity and for individual Christians to escape consumer culture, some responses may still be in order. Rodney Clapp once called for cynicism as the answer. I'm "often happy to be cynical," he said, "Not least because it seems that cynicism is the only faithful response to hypercommercialized Christianity." Such cynicism leads to action, the action of cultural resistance, the action of difference. [8] 

As an example of one such action, consider the work of economist and sociologist, Juliet Schor.  In the brief time between the publication of the hardback in 2004 and the paperback edition in 2005, Schor's book Born to Buy, a poignant criticism of how deeply the tentacles of commercialization and consumerism have entangled American children, launched a veritable movement to decommercialize childhood. One wonders what it would take to launch a similar campaign to decommercialize Christ and the gospel. There is no doubt that the many marketing campaigns and product lines discussed here have been used to bring people to Christ and to strengthen faith. It also might pass without doubt that such marketing campaigns and product lines have injured Christ and the gospel. The televangelist scandals of the 1980s led to a public distaste for Christianity. Many onlookers had long suspected that the televangelists were exploiting the faith for their own financial windfall. Jim Bakker told audiences, "We have a better product than soap or automobiles. We have eternal life." The worldly wise among his audience knew that in Bakker's hands such a product wasn't being hawked for free. Once the scandals broke, such suspicions proved true. Many onlookers continue to harbor such suspicions of Christianity, finding all of this Christian kitsch, "holy hardware" and "Jesus junk" to be the mere exploitation of Christianity. Those outside of Christianity are readily cynical of such Christian endeavors. [9] 

Even Billy Graham, while free from financial scandal, still expressed his work in evangelism as selling the gospel. In his autobiography he recalls the time, as an eighteen year old, going door to door taking orders for Fuller brushes. He was motivated, because he believed in the product. Every home should have a Fuller brush he would tell himself as he marched along. He, by his own accounts, learned many things from those days of selling Fuller brushes when he would later turn his attention to the greatest "product," that of the gospel and eternal life. [10] 

In light of these appropriations of consumer culture, perhaps we really do need cynical responses from within the Christian community, such cynical responses that refuse to be indifferent to the adaptation of market forces and consumer practices in the task of making disciples. We need, hearkening back to John Cavanaugh's categories, to drive our discipleship deep in the personal form of life, eschewing the commodity form of life. To embrace the commodity form, even in the name of evangelizing, exploits the faith and ab¬dicates our calling.  Most times it simply makes us look silly.  A commodified gospel does not a good gospel make.  So too, commodified disciples do not good disciples make.

[1] Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow, Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business Is Buying the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002), p. 177.

 [2] "The Power of the Christ," ThePoweroftheChrist.com>, accessed on 12/21/2006. Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity:  Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 251‑59.

[3] These shirts are all available at Christianshirts.net, the website for "Christian and Pro‑Life Apparel." Jeffrey Wendland, "Countering the Anti‑Christian Culture," <ezinearticles.com>, March 11, 2007.

[4] John Kavanaugh, Following Christ in n Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), pp. 3‑19, 31, 71.

[5] Stephanie Simon, "Christian Retailers Put Their Print on Products," Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2006.

[6] Anderson Cooper, AndersonCooper360°, July 25, 2005; Charles Osgood. The Osgoodfile. March 9, 2005.

[7] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (Lon­don: Continuum. 2005), pp. 5‑6.

[8] Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post‑Christian Society (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 13. See also his chapters on Christianity and consumerism in Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2000).

[9] Juliet Schor Born to Buy (New York:  Scribner 2005), p. 213. Jim Bakker, cited in Ben Armstrong, The Electric Church (Nashville:Thomas Nelson, 1979), p. 173.

[10] Billy Graham, Just as I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), pp. 37‑38. It's interesting to compare this testimony of his with 2 Corinthians 2:17.

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