Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age
by Tyler Wigg Stevenson,
234 pages, $16.
Christianity in America is more or less a well-advertised and well-marketed lifestyle by now. In fact, your church may very well try to increase attendance by employing demographic digging, zip-code-to-income-level correlations, and psychographic research — precisely the same strategies secular marketing uses.
This commodification of the gospel has caught the attention of writers and publishers. Among the many books on commercialized Christianity published in the last couple of years, there is nothing less than a cornucopia of responses. Choice is good! Cha-ching! Jesus was a salesman! Cha-ching! All these choices are killing us! Cha-ching!
Tyler Wigg Stevenson's candid and reverent Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age makes the best argument of the crop. It is a book of common sense, humble inquiry, and painfully resonant observations about our misuses of Jesus.
What would you think if you were in a modern auditorium and heard the presenter make "The wild claim that the messiah had arrived sometime in the mid-seventies; that he had been an undocumented Filipino migrant worker who spoke about the inbreaking kingdom of God; that, while working in Guam, he had been brought in by the local ecclesiastical authorities on trumped up civil charges; that the local governor had caved to their demands and executed him for treason; and that his life and death changed everything we thought we knew about God, the world, and ourselves"?
That would be no more bizarre than what Paul said in his letter to the Romans. But the gospel isn't strange or shocking to modern Westerners. Brand Jesus argues that the fact that Jesus seems normal to us is one of our biggest problems.
How did Americans normalize Jesus? The short answer is "consumerism." In a free-market, Jesus has become virtually indistinguishable from any other brand or consumer choice — hence, "Brand Jesus."
A Jesus who is nothing more than a product label is a threat to very real Christ of the Gospels.
In consumerist Christianity, there are two equal but opposite purposes in such close proximity to one another. What's a coffee bar doing inside my sanctuary? What's a mass-produced, planned-for-obsolescence commodity doing near the one true thing that is timeless and priceless? Brand Jesus emphasizes this tension and urges Christians to consider what might be done about it.
Stevensonsuggests that American Christians have sold out for a comfortable churchianity in which our enjoyment of the church is a function of having a majority of our demographic and identity "markers" triggered.
Rather than prepare us for a life of obedience on the narrow path, American Christianity accommodates our fear of an all-or-nothing choice by permitting us to shop around for a faith that fits our preferences.
Stevenson asks whether we are seeing more Christians — or better Christians — as a result of the 7-billion-dollar-a-year Christian publishing industry. The figures show (Brand Jesus cites Ron Sider and others for evidence) the answer is a resounding, "Not really."
Christian retailing doesn't teach us to love Jesus or imitate him any better. In fact, it may ultimately only be teaching us to love shopping. Christians who "shop for Jesus" by wearing Christian t-shirts, Stevenson says, are not proclaiming Christ so much as they are proclaiming themselves.
"The currency of these Christian T-shirts is the viewer's fluency in a brand-saturated society," Stevenson writes, explaining how "Jesus Christ" in Coca-Cola font could be seen as meaningful.
Stevenson admits that his is "a dour diagnosis, but the situation strikes me as being that grim."
"Telling American churchgoers to shun Brand Jesus in their churches is like telling swimmers not to get wet. The way that we have set up discipleship of the living Lord as a consumer identity is itself the problem" (emphasis added).
Stevenson's solution to Brand Jesus is where his book veers away from all the others on the same theme. Likening Brand Jesus to a demon, Stevenson declares that there are no easy answers, and urges a faithful remnant of the church to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. His prescription is the same one Christ gives his disciples in Mark 9:29: Fast and pray. Fasting and praying is not a solution, but rather something done in order to find a solution.
Stevenson's book confirms that this de-Christianization is now all but complete in American culture. Hopefully a remnant will read Stevenson's book, take a break from eating, and start praying.
Read Mercer Schuchardt is Assistant Professor of Communication at Wheaton College.
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Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
HomileticsOnline interviewed Stevenson about Brand Jesus.
More reviews are in our books section.
CT's earlier articles on consumerism include:
Why the Devil takes VISA | A Christian response to the triumph of consumerism. (October 7, 2006)
Consuming Passions | One man's testimony from the First Great Mammon Awakening. (July 9, 2001)
Christmas Unplugged | Why spending less and turning off TV should be part of the church's mission to the world. (Dec. 9, 1996)
The Bobo Future | "Bourgeois bohemians" wield inordinate power over how we think about consumerism, morality—and faith itself. (July 25, 2000)
Trapped in the Cult of the Next Thing | If ever there was a cult that gave us stones when we asked for bread, this is it. (Sept. 6, 1999)
Keeping Up with the Amish | We evangelicals have made a too-easy peace with the inroads of consumer culture. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Shopping for the Real Me | Why nothing ever quite fits right. (Nov. 15, 1999)