The Marketing of Jesus by Derek Webb

The following blog post is from Derek Webb. It's worth the read and consideration.

safe for the whole family: the marketing of jesus

we live in a world of categories. it’s a symptom of the nearly unlimited choices which bombard us online and offline every day. things must be organized, sorted, and categorized to be manageable. while this can sometimes be incredibly helpful, in other cases it can be dangerously deceptive.

an example of this deception is the category of “christian,” especially when used to describe goods or services. the word “christian,” when applied to anything other than a human being, is a marketing term. it’s an attempt to provide a short answer to a question for which there is no short answer. and hard as it may be, we must resist this impulse.

but you might say, “that’s not true. there is ‘christian’ education, ‘christian’ radio stations, ‘christian’ art, and ‘christian’ stores.’” and to some extent this is true. but this is not reality as much as it is a representation of the rules that we’ve created and are currently playing by. just because you label something doesn’t make it so. but your point might be that there is a cultural context for, and understanding of, this word when used this way — therefore, it is unnecessarily disruptive to try and change this, especially when it feels more like a philosophical matter, a matter of semantics.

i believe the stakes are much higher than simple semantics. if the word “christian” is to bear the weight we intend it to when using it in any of the above scenarios, it is more than worth our time to reconsider its meaning.

it seems to me that the two most likely intentions of using the word “christian” to describe anything other than people are:

the same thing we mean when we apply it to an individual: that this thing or action is “saved” or “redeemed.” while there is a sense in which all things are in the process of being made new, deeming a specific thing or action as “christian” goes beyond the scope of redemption. the reason is that when we speak of “christian” people the idea tends to be that they are “saved” and will therefore be in heaven (to the exclusion of other people). if this line of thinking is used when speaking of goods or services, it can (and should) be assumed that these also are the only goods and services we’ll find in heaven. for example, the music you hear on your local “christian” radio station will be the only music in heaven since it is the “christian” or “redeemed” music. the breath mints that you find in your local “christian” store will be the only breath mints we’ll suck on in heaven, and so on.

this seems ridiculous, especially since the only qualifier for the “heavenly” stuff we’re referring to is a person or group of people assigning a particular marketing category. it’s as if man has created a big rubber stamp and anything that we approve of as “christian” immediately receives the welcome of the heavenly hosts into eternity. since this structure of authority runs so completely contrary to anything found in the bible, let’s move on to the second most likely definition of what is meant when describing goods or services as “christian.”

the thing to which we’re referring to reflects the values or “heart” of the one doing or making it. for a moment this seems plausible. the art i make is “christian” because i’m a christian and i made it. the education i’m providing is “christian” because i’m a christian and i’m providing it. but if you think about this even for a moment you realize that this also makes very little sense. as a christian man, i am just as likely to lie or misrepresent god’s character and man’s condition in my art as anyone else. my “heart” is both redeemed and in the process of being redeemed, but what flows from it is still corrupt and corruptible. this being the case, to call my art “christian” is simply misleading. if what i make is a reflection of my “heart,” then i of all people am making “secular” art, as my “heart” is thoroughly “secular.” what i make is just as likely to be full of half-truths or lies such as art that carries no category. if this is the case, using the category “christian” in this way becomes meaningless.

while these definitions might seem illogical, here’s where it gets theological in its offense. using marketing categories in this way creates a fictional dichotomy in which there are “christian” things (read: good, right, true, beautiful) and “secular” things (read: bad, wrong, false, ugly), the idea being that you can implicitly trust and consume the “christian” things, and you would do well to fear and avoid the non-“christian” things. this sounds like a fine way to try and manipulate the behavior of a child, but this is no way for an adult to live, let alone an adult who has been set free to live and engage with all of what god has made.

while it might seem harmless to call stuff “christian” in order to sell it to those who have a cultural understanding of what you mean, it actually employs a very old form of manipulation. if you can cause someone to fear and immediately provide a remedy to that fear, you can get their money. it’s the oldest trick in the book.

the whole idea of a “christian” store is that you can walk in and consume anything on the shelves assuming that everything is right, true, good, and beautiful. it’s all spiritually beneficial for you. you can safely leave your powers of discernment at the door. it is all “christian” stuff — do not fear. the same goes for listening to “christian” radio. they even advertise to be “safe for the whole family.”

hopefully by now you realize that this is false advertising. those purporting to do and make “christian” things are making promises that the gospel itself does not make. there is nothing “safe” (let alone “for the whole family”) about the following of jesus. in fact, if done correctly, it’s much more likely to be quite the contrary. and worse, it excludes anything without the arbitrary stamp of “christian” to in any way speak to or about god.

but here’s the biggest danger of the marketing category “christian”: generally, it’s a bad advertisement for god. when i look at the redwoods of california, the mountains of colorado, or the rolling hills of tennessee, i don’t see any “cheesy” art. in fact, the entire first chapter of the bible marvels at god’s tremendous creativity, making all things out of nothing and all of it being, in his opinion, “very good.” how incongruous it is to find people made in the image of the great creator, even those redeemed by him, making art that has a consistent and unfortunate reputation for being unoriginal and generally substandard, typically chasing trends found in “secular” art, and turning out “guilt-free” alternatives within a year or two of the original.

the other major issue is that the content of almost all of what is categorized as “christian” art only covers the most spiritual 2% of stuff. it mostly only deals with transcendent moments of worship and the afterlife, while the bible gives us a language and framework to speak about all 100% of what god has made. calling art “christian” when it almost completely ignores the nuances of the seemingly “non-spiritual” details of modern life is a misrepresentation of god and his bible.

here’s a good rule of thumb for young artists struggling to understand what is permissible in making art: anything that jesus is lord of, you can and should make art about. and i hope that is rhetorical, since jesus is lord of all things (not just the most spiritual 2%). bono, the lead singer of u2 and a professed christian, was once criticized for sensual content in a u2 song. his response was, “are we going to let pornographers have the last word on sexuality?” culture is speaking on a wide range of topics, therefore those who claim to be in relationship with the one who made all things must make art about relationships, spirituality, family, the government, sexuality, everything. we must tell complete stories, not just the most “spiritual” parts, believing that that is the only content suitable to be called “christian.”

i simply do not believe that god can only use and speak through things that we rubber stamp as “christian.” nor do i believe that jesus wants us to live in fear, especially fear impressed upon us by those in our culture claiming to do so in his name. nor do i believe in our subculture’s system of false security, that god wants us to put our faith and security in marketing terms rather than in jesus, whose spirit both gives and animates our powers of discernment. exercising our discernment liberates us to live in the world god has made and engage with his creation without fear or dependence on meaningless words.

this is why we must stop trying to give short answers to complex questions. and if we must categorize art, let’s use terms that actually make sense. art is either “good” or “bad,” and not everyone will have the same definitions of these terms (nor should they, considering the subjective nature of art). you may find some art that is “bad” that you might consider “christian,” and some art that is “good” that you consider “secular.” i recommend that you consume what is “good” and avoid what is “bad.” put no trust in people selling you safety. don’t trust me. discern everything, all the time. but do not fear. do not be afraid.