Monday, September 6, 2010

Jesus Sells

Years ago I came across an insightful article in Reason magazine about the commercial side of Christian goods-making and selling. It made an impression on me as I had been striving at one time to get a book published through a Christian publishing house. I had also seen the decline Christian bookstores from conduits of content to strip mall spaces devoted to hawking kitsch and "Christian" knick knacks.

Once, when I was very young, I answered a classified ad in the newspaper to apply for a job that (I did not know till I got there) was making these Christian knick knacks. They would buy cheap lamps, then glue the Bible verse "I am the light of the world" on them. I specifically remember a globe in which they glued John 3:16 around the equator. A font was selected so that it fit perfectly.

All this is lead in to a journalistic snapshot of the Christian Booksellers Association convention in 2003, the annual trade show for publishers and others associated with the industry of selling goods and services into the Christian sub-culture. The title of the article by Jeremy Lott was, Jesus Sells: What the Christian culture industry tells us about secular society.*

Here's an excerpt.

The CBA may be the only trade show that sets off spasms of conscience among its own participants. Several editors and publishers told me, under condition of anonymity, that they were appalled at some of the products on the floor -- and they weren't necessarily sparing their own titles. The Rev. R.C. Sproul Jr., son of a famous Calvinist polemicist, published a brief Internet commentary that considered the possibility of driving out the moneychangers, though he finally concluded that it is, after all, a trade show. Christianity Today review editor Doug LeBlanc complained to me about the "buffoonery" of such crass gimmicks as the money booth. The promoter with the inflatable sharks sent me a note that made fun of the fish-shaped mints ("Mmmm, minty fresh Scripture").

Nor is this discomfort a new development. In his 1997 book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America, Columbia University professor of religion Randall Balmer tells of his trip to the 1988 CBA convention. He describes a gathering similar to, if slightly smaller than, the one I attended, including wild promotions, a cornucopia of products, and, of course, fretting by evangelicals over how commercial and gaudy the industry had become. John Pott, an editor at Eerdmans, confessed to finding the whole scene "utterly demoralizing." Publisher Lisa Shaw admitted that she had gotten "so fed up with the whole thing that I went...to my hotel and cried for two hours." If blatant commercialization is cause for tears, it's a wonder that Shaw stopped after only two hours.

Various thoughts come to mind. How did Jesus deal with the money-changers in the temple? Or is all this commercialization a necessary evil, because how else will we get our Sunday School materials?

I strongly recommend the rest of the article.

*Reason magazine, February 2003.

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