As I enter the home stretch of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, I’m struck by the irritating oxymoron that we sell our Christian faith as just another brand on the shelf.
But before I get into that, I want to consider the concept of branding as a practice.
I just returned from a week in Arizona with my Chinese and Korean elementary and middle school students (yeah, I know… the world’s coolest field trip) and seeing my home country through their eyes, I was struck by how intently everyone and everything is branded.
For example, the boys in my group desperately wanted to get to clothing shops like Hollister’s, because the Hollister’s brand is so popular among a segment of youth in China. They also wanted Gap, Target, Sketchers, Abercrombie and Fitch, and others. But it wasn’t just clothing, because when we took them out to eat, they wanted to try the branded restaurants – Chipotle, Cracker Barrel, Red Robin, etc. The one notable exception was the non-franchised generic Chinese restaurant we took them to so that they could experience Americanized Chinese food (which is almost a brand unto itself), and which they loved, to my amazement.
On the one hand, branding makes sense. You know that you’re going to get the same quality product no matter where you are. A Starbucks in Phoenix is the same as a Starbucks in Shenzhen. The Apple computer you buy in Richmond is going to be the same as the Apple computer you buy in Hong Kong. There’s a comfort in that fact. There’s security in that fact.
And isn’t that what we’re after in life? Comfort and security?
[On a side note, this recent exposure to the concept of branding makes me think my next 40 day challenge should be to try and live a brand-free life. But I digress…]
Branding has worldwide power and influence, and so it comes as no surprise that the faithful would seek to take the Christian faith and turn it into another brand on the marketplace. Want a hamburger? Go to McDonalds. Want to be entertained? Go see the latest Disney movie. Want spiritual salvation? Why not try brand Jesus?
The problem is that the practice of branding the faith has led to the less-than-stellar state of Christian media that we experience today. And yes, after the past 32 days, I can testify that Christian media, even made with the best of intentions, is less-than-stellar.
After all, branding brings comfort and security.
Branding doesn’t encourage risk and asking difficult questions.
And while Christianity does both of those things, most of our media does not.
For a good example of where I’ve seen this, during my week in Arizona I didn’t have time to expose myself to much Christian media. We were running all day and night (not just shopping, by the way), and the only place I could find Christian media was while driving the van from place to place, in the form of
Christian radio “family-friendly” radio stations, stations that are infamous for trying to appeal to the “Becky” demographic archetype.
Not surprisingly, I was completely underwhelmed by what I found there. But, I’m not a middle-aged soccer mom, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t surprise me.
Here’s the rub with my response to
Christian family-friendly music: I personally know a few Christian musicians and songwriters, and they are – without a doubt – talented people. In fact, the ones I know have more talent in their little toe than I have in my entire body. And yet, popular Christian family-friendly music, the kind you hear on our radio stations, arguably the most visible (audible?) part of the Christian brand, is just… bland.
Uninteresting. Predictable. Over-produced. Safe.
And those are not words that I would use to describe the Christian faith.
It seems like Christian music makers are limited by the restraints put on them by the Christian Industrial Complex, which tries to please a certain demographic, and that makes me sad.
But then, that’s the whole concept behind branding, isn’t it?
This practice also underscores my argument that the last thing that Christian filmmakers need to do is allow their craft to be pigeon-holed into some sort of Christian filmmaking industry. Because at the end of the day, you can be the most talented filmmaker of your generation, but if you have suits from the Christian Industrial Complex above you dictating what you have to do and what you can’t do in order to fit the niche audience’s needs, you will never make a movie that rises above the level of bland.
But again, it all comes back to the bad idea of the creation of Christian brands in the first place.
Can you imagine if the writers and characters of the Bible had been restricted by 21st century evangelical faith-based branding? If the Christian Industrial Complex had had a hand in what we read today when we open our Bibles?
I think our Scriptures might have been pretty different. For example…
• The story of Noah would have been a nice story about a kindly old man who builds a big boat filled with animals, and saves them from a flood. There wouldn’t be anything about worldwide devastation, about the death of all other young and old living creatures. No, it would be something well suited for a Sunday School flannelgraph.
• Forget the whole Noah post-flood-getting-drunk-on-homemade-wine thing. Welch’s grape juice, maybe, but definitely not homemade wine, and definitely not to the point of getting drunk.
• Abraham would have proudly told Pharaoh that Sarai was his wife, showing the power of his faith, the strength of his convictions, and his respect for the sanctity of marriage. Then he might have been invited by Pharaoh to speak at the annual Egyptian Men’s Conference.
• The Israelites would have shown much more faith as they wandered in the wilderness. Making the golden calf? Out! Complaining about manna? Forget it! Being killed by snakes for their unfaithfulness? Wouldn’t happen! They would have been a much more faithful lot, and then Moses would have gotten to go to the promised land, too.
• David dancing naked into the city after the return of the Ark of the Covenant? Are you kidding me? First of all, he wouldn’t have danced. Second, he would have been wearing suitable clothing, including quite possibly the Jesus, Sweet Savior t-shirt along with a respectful pair of dungarees.
• Speaking of David, he wouldn’t have had the whole embarrassing Bathsheba affair. But if it had to happen, then he would have been excused from his role in leadership until a proper amount of time had passed, and then he would have been allowed back, properly contrite, having learned a valuable lesson, and he would have written a book about his experiences.
• Song of Solomon? With all that sexual content? Not a chance.
• And don’t get me started on the prophets. There would be some serious retooling of those stories needed to make them more palatable to Becky and her friends.
So, what do we do?
Knowing that The Christian Industrial Complex is out there, researching us, trying to figure out what it is that will motivate us to use their services or buy their products, just like Apple, just like Coca-Cola, just like every other branded producer on the marketplace? What do we do?
It’s really quite simple. We make a concerted, focused effort to grow in the Christian faith – apart from The Christian Industrial Complex.
And that means we need to take a page from the Reformation and learn to study God’s word for ourselves. We don’t need to depend on study Bibles written by the celebrity pastors, famous singers, or even famous duck call salesmen.
Not that the celebrity pastors can’t write worthwhile stuff. Of course they can. But we shouldn’t depend upon the celebrity pastors at the cost of not thinking for ourselves.
We must study the Scriptures and learn for ourselves.
The problem is that we’re not doing this.
Last year, Lifeway Research (admittedly part of the CIC) concluded that 19% of American churchgoers read the Bible every day, 26% a few times a week, 14% once a week, 22% once a month, and 18% never read it.
No wonder we’re settling for what The Complex serves us, because we’re not growing in our faith on our own! We’re expecting others to feed us, and we’re not interested in working for it ourselves.
But here’s the kicker – we’re told very specifically in Philippians that we are to be working out our salvation with fear and trembling! That doesn’t give the impression that we’re to be concerned with comfort and security, but that we’re supposed to be working! Yes, it’s work, and it can be scary business, if you’re doing it right. It’s unsettling! It’s not at all simple!
And the branding of the Christian faith is just the opposite.
And meanwhile, here I sit, with eight days left on my challenge. To be honest, I’m really, really looking forward to this challenge being over. I think I can handle Christian media when I take it in bite-sized chunks, but when I consume nothing else each day, it’s too much.
I long for a Sacred Arts Revolution.
But it’s not all dark, creatively. There have been some hopeful signs I’ve found in the world of media (specifically music) being made by Christians, but typically outside of the Christian Industrial Complex.
Enjoy Mutemath, Future of Forestry, and Audrey Assad.