Kitsch, Trinkets, and the Commodification of Evangelical Christianity
I recently heard Russell Moore say that evangelical Christianity is “one big conspiracy to sell each other stuff.” To be fair, his comment was not limited to retail, he was speaking more on a philosophical level. But, religious retail is a very large sector in our Christian subculture. I think we can learn something here. Christian retail may be one of the most indicative signs of a theologically anemic American evangelical subculture.
The other day I received a catalog in the mail from a Christian retail chain advertising for Christmas. I found it interesting that “the good news” being proclaimed on the cover was that shoppers can “save on Christ-Centered items for the entire family.” At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, this is simply unacceptable. I think we should take a cue from Neil Postman and apply Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” to our sub-cultural situation. Here is a good question, ‘what cultural message are we communicating by the mediums that we use as vehicles to present the Christian message?’ I think this excerpt from the magazine Mere Comments highlights the problem well;
“The Los Angeles Times report from the Christian Retail expo is depressing. The makers of a “new genre” of “Christian perfume” rolled out their product, with the promise that it can be an effective evangelistic tool/ “It should be enticing enough to provoke questions: ‘What’s that you’re wearing?'” the marketer said. “Then you take that opportunity to speak of your faith. They’ve opened the door, and now they’re going to get it.” Going to get what? A migraine headache? An allergic reaction? Or the gospel of salvation?
Mentioned in the Times piece also are Christian golf balls with John 3:16 on them, so that, even if you lose it in a sand trap, well, “lose a golf ball, share the gospel.” Also for sale are Christian sandals that leave footprints that leave the message “Follow Jesus” in the sand behind them.”
Here is my issue with Christian retail: The commodification of the Christian message not only exploits the faith to consumer capitalism, but it also sentimentalizes and trivializes the gospel. We can’t just slap a Bible verse on something and call it “Christian” because that item itself has a message attached to it within the context of our culture.
What burdens me is that these items often confuse the central message of Christianity. Christianity is not about wearing Christian logos. Often times, that can become nothing more than a new marketing twist on the old veneer of self-righteousness. More than that, these “Christian” trinkets often are corny little attempts to mimic culture in a “Christian way.” The true message is often lost in translation once it leaves the American evangelical Christian subculture.
We really need to think about these kitsch products that we peddle in “Christian” retail. Stephen Nichols nails it on the head, “the threat of losing the gospel message even within the Christian community itself looms large.” I don’t think we have seen Jesus marketed like this in centuries! The last time it was this bad Martin Luther protested the hawking of Christ and changed the face of the world. The sad thing is that today’s evangelical Christians freely embrace and participate in the commodification of Christ with no theological reflection.
The “good news” of Christmas should not be that you can “purchase Christ-centered items for the whole family at discount.” The good news of Christmas is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus, who purchased your pardon and freely offers you eternal life when you place your faith in him. I don’t see why we need a golf ball, tee-shirt, or perfume to proclaim this message. It should come out of our own mouths. It should be written all over our lives!