Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Selling Christianity

The other night I was channel-surfing, and I came across an old episode of South Park in which the South Park kids start up a Christian rock band, “Faith + 1,” and try to make it big. The South Park writers clearly took delight in displaying the Christian music industry as exactly like any other big business, driven by the same capitalist impulses. As the episode portrayed it, the only difference between it and the wider music industry was that the “product” being packaged and marketed had Christian content (even if it so happened to be a heavy metal band that was delivering the Christian lyrics in nearly incoherent screams amidst raging guitar riffs).

The episode inspired me to reflect on this business of selling Christianity, of turning the Christian faith into a marketplace commodity. For all of Christian history, of course, Christians have been called to evangelize—to preach the gospel, by which is meant good news. But can evangelism really be reduced to selling a product? Can such salesmanship really be a form of evangelism?

Evangelism and product marketing do bear a superficial resemblance to one another, but at the deepest level I believe they are profoundly opposed. Surface similarity can, however, breed confusion. In the history of Christianity, I think this danger has too often become a reality. The evangelical mission has been confused with the task of selling a product. So-called evangelism has adopted the basic advertising paradigm perfected in recent history on Madison Avenue.

By “the basic advertising paradigm,” I mean the following strategy for selling products: first, ramp up your audience’s insecurities and anxieties, convincing them on an emotional level that they have a terrible problem which fundamentally compromises their prospects for happiness; and then convince them that only if they buy your product will they experience relief from this problem.

Announcing good news is a very different thing. Of course, if we experienced the world as perfect, as free of bad news, there’d be no such thing as good news. There’d be lots of good things to say, but none of it would be news. Good news is news because it tells us that the dangers which worry us needn’t do so, that the losses which grieve us needn’t grieve us anymore. The news is good because it replaces fear and anguish with a message of hope and joy.

The ultimate good news would tell us not merely that this danger has been overcome or that lost treasure restored to us. It would tell us that all sources of anxiety and grief have lost their sting, that the bad news in the world is not and never will be the final word in our lives, that it is not and never will be the deepest truth. The ultimate good news would be the proclamation that the deepest truth is so extraordinary that, despite all the tragedy and cruelty and suffering, every life is redeemed.

There is an enormous difference between announcing good news in the midst of bad news and playing up or fabricating bad news in order to get you to buy a product. But far too often, Christian “evangelists” have followed the latter path, “selling” Christianity the way that the cosmetics industry sells beauty products.

They lead with fear. They identify common human fears--some of them quite natural, others born of ignorance and prejudice--and they heighten those fears. For the sales tactic to work, they have to first assure us that we have reason to be afraid, that everything we fear will become a life-shattering reality...unless we buy their product.

One does not sell a product by announcing that all is right with the world. One does not sell a product by offering words of comfort, by telling consumers that their fears are rooted in unjustified beliefs or prejudices, or by assuring them that they have nothing to worry about because the problem has already been solved for them. One does not, in short, sell a product by proclaiming good news. One sells a product by proclaiming bad news, by highlighting dangers and unpleasant possibilities, by taking advantage of irrational worries, by intensifying rather than alleviating the prejudices and stereotypes that magnify our anxieties. Use their existing fears to put them into a state of heightened dread. And then introduce your product as the cure.

If you want to sell Christianity in this way, of course, you start with hell. You begin with the fear of death and then raise the stakes: death won’t be mere oblivion. If you don’t buy our product, it’ll be hell.

But there are other ways to sell Christianity as a product. One of the great sources of human anxiety is uncertainty. We are often confused, without a clear sense of how we should make decisions, how we should live, what we should believe. Rather than telling us that it's okay to be uncertain, that this is an acceptable and inevitable part of what it means to be a finite human being, Christian salesmen have played up the idea that uncertainty is something awful, because our eternal destinies are decided by the choices we make in the midst of uncertainty. If we make the wrong choice, they tell us, we’re doomed.

Thus, the uncertainty that seems an inevitable concomitant of the human condition is portrayed as a terrible plight, something we need to flee from as fast as we can. And then they hold up Christianity as the product that will eliminate uncertainty as decisively as Arrid Extra Dry will eliminate sweaty armpits. Their brand of Christianity is the simple, no-nonsense fix. The Bible has the answers to all your problems! No more confusion, no more doubt! We’ve got the rulebook that will take away all guessing and make you confident that you are always making the right choice. Just live by the rulebook (as interpreted by Pastor Bob or Pastor Jerry, or by the Church of Recent Schism), and your life will be fixed!

By contrast, if you don’t buy our product, our easy answers, you’ll be lost. You’ll flounder in the dark and end up in a gutter somewhere, homeless and alone, strung out on drugs or dying of AIDS, before ultimately descending into eternal torment. If more people don’t buy our product, our society will fall into chaos, with crime and depravity on every street, before finally falling into apocalypse. And if you don’t buy our product, you’ll endure this Armageddon in all its horrors. It’s coming soon. Any day. And so is your death. This is a limited time offer. Buy now or forever pay the price.

As powerful as these sales gimmicks are, Christian salesmen have recently stumbled into tactics that are even more powerful. It's long been known that one of the best ways to get people to buy into a communal ideology is to identify an enemy, a personification of our fears, and then present allegiance to the communal ideology as essential for the enemy's defeat. Thus, the Nazis had the Jews, and the religious right in America has the homosexuals.

It is stunning how such a small minority can be represented as so deadly. James Dobson, head of the right-wing Christian group, Focus on the Family, accuses “the homosexual activist movement” of having as its aim “the utter destruction of the family.” He sees it as “the greatest threat to your children” (apparently more serious that drugs or poor education systems or environmental degradation).

Once homosexuals are portrayed as this central threat to values we hold dear, solving some of our worst problems becomes easy. It becomes simply a matter of defeating the enemy. But the religious right in America does not generally endorse violence as a means of defeating the “homosexual threat.” Instead, universal conversion to Christianity is their solution. This is a sales pitch, after all.

It is therefore an essential piece of their rhetoric that homosexuals can be “cured,” that (contrary to the best available evidence) homosexuality is a perverse choice and that people can be saved from the “homosexual lifestyle” if only they accept Jesus as Lord. It is no accident that they vehemently insist that it is impossible to be gay or lesbian and a Christian at the same time. These beliefs are crucial to their program of selling Christianity as the solution to the “homosexual threat.” In order to leverage anti-gay prejudice into a reason to embrace their product, Christianity must actually serve as the cure for homosexuality.

And so, piece by piece, a sales campaign for Christianity emerges, one that sees fears as opportunities, and prejudice as something to be used.

But for all of this to work, Christianity must not be represented as unconditioned good news. It cannot be put forward as a joyous proclamation. It must, instead, but put forward in the context of a conditional threat: unless and until you buy our product, you will be mired in devastating problems. Your armpits will stink. Your dry scalp will dust your clothes with off-putting flakes. You’ll be so fat and ugly nobody will ever fall in love with you. The gays will shatter your family. You’ll burn eternally in the unquenchable fires of hell.

1 comment:

  1. I strongly recommend the book "'Thou Shalt Not Love': What Evangelicals really Say to Gays", written by the gay Christian anthropologist Patrick Chapman:

    He discusses problems with Biblical literalism, evolution, anthropology, genetics, Biblical cultures, the prooftexts, and other issues. It is a very up to date rebuttal to the anti-gay authors.

    - Pat (a different Patrick; not the aforementioned author)