Jesus Junk

I’ve come full circle.

Back in 1999, I was working with a family who had lost a daughter in the Columbine massacre here in Littleton, Colorado. We were working to put a small-cast play in publication so youth groups could use the story in their local churches to make a positive impact. While in production, a Christian retailing chain came out with a line of merchandise with the martyred girl’s final words of faith spelled out in motto form. In the front page of the catalog, quotes were given from the parents that appeared to be an endorsement. The family couldn’t
have been more irate. I saw their anger and picked up the phone. I talked to the WWJD guy, and within a few weeks we formed a line of stuff that the family approved of and had control over.

I would do things differently today. While I believe that some Christian products serve a good purpose, most Christian merchandising, or Jesus Junk, cheapens the very faith we seek to proclaim. I’m not against all use of Scripture or Christian lingo on products. I just think I’m against most of them.

How much I have changed over the years was brought to light when I attended the recent Christian Bookseller’s Association (CBA) convention in Denver, where I did my book signing. Retailers put on their best face, displaying their wares in hundreds of booths on the convention floor. It made me ask a lot of questions, the primary one being “Why?” Why do we, as Christians, feel compelled to plaster our “faith” over anything and everything? I have come to the conclusion that we usually do so for three reasons.

First, many people trust that wearing Jesus Junk will result in conversions.

Since the Great Commission has been issued, why not witness 24/7 by putting Jesus imagery and lingo over everything including license plate holders, SUV bumpers, and T-shirts? A Los Angeles Times writer, Stephanie Simon, also at the CBA, brought to light how absurd this has become (“Christian Retailers Put Their Print on Products, July 21, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-retail21jul21,1,1938782.story?track=rss). She described a new product at CBA.

Virtuous Woman perfume comes packaged with a passage from Proverbs. But what makes the floral fragrance distinctly Christian, Hobbs [the Virtuous Woman retailer] said, is that it’s supposed to be a tool for evangelism. “It should be enticing enough to provoke questions: ‘What’s that you’re wearing?’ ” Hobbs said. “Then you take that opportunity to speak of your faith. They’ve opened the door, and now they’re going to get it.”

Now you can share your faith with Scripture mints and golf balls. The golf company wants you to know that you no longer have to feel bad about losing your golf ball–“Lose the golf ball, share the Gospel.”
When the LA Times writer interviewed the director of a new “camo-Christian” line, David Lingner, the sales rep. said, “I know where you’re coming from if you think it looks like we’re merchandising or trivializing Christ, but this is a way to connect.” Lingner developed the Christian Outdoorsman line, including a camouflage-print Bible cover.

Stephanie interviewed Alan Wolfe, Director of The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, about this phenomena of Jesus Junk. She wrote,

Wolfe views such products with bemusement. Waiting for someone to remark on your golf ball or perfume, he said, is hardly a forceful way to fulfill the Great Commission, the Biblical command for Christians to spread their faith and anoint disciples. “I think they’re fooling themselves,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more.

Second, many Christians seem to believe Jesus Junk promotes Christian community.

It is somewhat natural to feel this way. After all, the Christian culture warriors raise millions of dollars with a steady drumbeat: “We are besieged. We are marginalized. We are going to lose the culture war if you don’t send in your money.” And people don’t like feeling un-cool, out-of-step, or weird. Therefore, Christian gear comes to the rescue by helping us feel like a mighty, Christian band. I don’t know about you, but nothing makes me feel more powerful than seeing someone with “This Blood’s For You” emblazoned across their chest pass by me on the sidewalk. Now, I know that there are 7,000 who haven’t bowed their knee to Baal!

This is a false and shallow idea of community. Acts 2:42-47 describes community in terms of sharing in doctrinal teaching, meeting one another’s needs, and breaking bread. When we advertise our faith for purposes of identity, we are truly cheapening how the Gospel plays out in our lives. And it can also be very misleading. Just because the “outside of the cup” wears a Jesus Junk shirt means nothing about the condition of the heart. Parents, who are perhaps the largest demographic of Jesus Junk purchasers, can be easily deceived here.

Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary and the Director of the Carl Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement, sat in for Al Mohler on his broadcast and weighed in on the debate over Jesus Junk. Dr. Moore interviewed Wolfe as well. Wolfe said the whole genre is a cop-out. He talked about how Christians have false hopes that this stuff will change the culture, but “the culture shapes you more than you shape the culture.” He blasted Christian rock when he said, “Is that the best you can offer?”

One lady who called in differed, saying that it was better to buy something with a Christian message on it than something with a secular one. “After all, if you have the choice, choose Christ,” she said. We are now guilty in a consumeristic society of weakening the choice between Christ and the world to a point-of-purchase display at kiosks.

Third, many people seem to be in the business because of pure commercialism.

If there’s a buck to be made, who cares how you have to do it? Of course, nobody will ever say that, but you could smell it as you walked through Vanity Fair in Denver. “What Would Jesus Do?” He’d be flipping tables and whipping costumed pirates. Christ has been moved off the cross and onto sandals. He’s not transcendent. He’s cute, cool, and chic. After all, as one backpack boasts, “He Rocks!”

The LA Times interviewed sociologist Charles M. Brown about this very point.

In recent years, Brown has interviewed dozens of Christian vendors and retailers; he’s concluded that many are motivated not by profit but by a genuine sense of calling. “They really do see what they’re doing as a form of ministry,” he said.” Is this what pastors are to equip the saints to do?

Well, I hope to persuade many of you who read this and who are consumers of Jesus Junk to stop it. I hope you throw away the shirts. Remove the fish symbols. Buy normal jewelry. Be satisfied with Nike, Wrigley, and Top-Flite. So in order to help people up the discernment value, let me give you five questions to ask before you purchase more Junk.

1. Does the joining of the holy with the common compromise the message of the cross? We can knock out about half of all Jesus Junk if we just decide not to purchase anything that blends two worlds. Budweiser beer and gambling have never been a friend to grace and to endeavor to meld them into cutesy clichés harms the credibility of the Gospel. You can now purchase poker chips with John 3:16 on one side that says “Don’t Gamble With Eternity.” Then you flip it over, and it quotes Mark 8:36 with the phrase, “Accept Jesus Before You Cash In Your Chips.” This is compromise.

A lady called in to Dr. Moore, expressing her belief that purchasing Jesus Junk was wholesome. After all, buying your child a Bible with the colors of his favorite sports teams on the cover could make him like it more. I have problems with that thinking. Why not buy your child a Bible with the University of Tennessee colors on it? Easy. You’re blending two worlds that are at war with each other. You’re blending two loves.

The blending of Christianity and naked commerce can be seen in how the church has become the new marketing niche. The Passion movie changed how secular people viewed the church. We became more than a voting bloc or cultural crusaders; we became a marketing niche. A big one at that. Now our kids can get free Fazoli’s sandwiches for going to Sunday school four weeks in a row. Pastors get free movie passes to any film that can pass as “wholesome” in hopes that they will tell their congregations to turn out in droves. Avon carts in shopping malls want to “network” with us. Why not go all the way? Why shouldn’t we just stand up in the pulpit with a suit coat plastered with as many patches as a NASCAR race car?

The lost world is a lot more nice to us now. They see that we have deep pockets. This is vividly seen in the book and music markets. Multnomah just sold out to Random House. Another evangelical publisher is owned by a godless company.

Jesus would be irate. Not that the world is attempting to manipulate us for their benefit. That’s a given. He’d be irate that we let them.

This is perhaps where I should insert why I’m not against all Christian T-shirts and memorabilia. If a T-shirt displays John 3:16 fully written out, that is, the Gospel unencumbered with logos and clichés. If it’s not mingled with some graphic that makes Jesus out to be just as weighty as Jimminy Cricket.
2. Does this smack of using the name of Jesus for the sake of profit? Getting this one right will deal a deathblow to another 20% of Jesus Junk. The proliferation of Junk has revealed how low Christians will go to make a buck. Why do we need a product that turns Paul’s journeys into a board game? Why do we need a video game that allows you to:

  • Conduct physical and spiritual warfare: using the power of prayer to strengthen your troops in combat and to wield modern military weaponry throughout the game world.
  • Recover ancient Scriptures and witness spectacular angelic and demonic activity as a direct consequence of your choices.
  • Command your forces through intense battles across a breathtaking, authentic depiction of New York City.
  • Control more than 30 units types–from Prayer Warrior and Hellraiser to Spies, Special Forces, and Battle Tanks! (I won’t tell you where to buy this product because I’d hate to be responsible for someone wasting God’s money.)

When did Monopoly cease to be enough? I was recently given a video game in which you could be Jonah and ride on top of the whale’s spout and collect points by jumping through hoops in the sky. After you get puked up on shore, you stand there smiling, waiting to go on your evangelistic journey. Do I need to go much further?

You may ask, “What is the difference between this and Christian books? After all, there are junk books, junk book companies, etc.” This is a valid question. I would recommend that people be discerning in all purchases, especially those that give shape to their faith. Buy books that:

  • Move people from the common to the holy, rather than the other way around.
  • Articulate the message of the Gospel with accuracy and credibility.
  • Are published by companies that are credible when it comes to Christian commerce.

null 3. If it is used as a message for evangelism, will the message be taken seriously based on how it is delivered? Picture this. A man, dead in trespasses and sins, sits on Waikiki Beach as he gazes across the mostly naked bodies baking in the sun. He decides to take a stroll/strut down the water’s edge to “see what he can see.” Luckily, he glances down and sees an impression in the sand–right there in bold letters on the sand “Follow” and a little further “Jesus.” His eyes follow the footsteps and sure enough. About 15 feet further down the beach is a beautiful babe wearing just enough clothes to keep a squirrel warm on a windy day. Conviction overwhelms him as he gazes at her. He runs to her and grabs her hand and says, “Please, give me a reason for the hope that lies within you.” She says, “I’d love to. I’ve been waiting for this divine appointment.” He takes in her breath, recently made fresh by her Scripture Mint. And right there, she flips her hair over her shoulder, takes out her EvangeCube, kneels with him on the beach, and leads him in the sinner’s prayer. As they part, she encourages him to take her sandals and continue to spread the Word wherever he goes. After all, how beautiful are the feet of them …

Dr. Moore’s interview seems to focus on whether or not this type of evangelism actually works. I’m not nearly as concerned with the pragmatic argument as I am with the reductionist argument. This type of “evangelism” cheapens the Gospel and reduces it to easy-believism on its best day. Jesus hung on a cross and died to atone for our sins. To be saved, one must repent of his sin and self-righteousness and receive Christ. A bloody cross, a risen Christ, and a humbled sinner cannot be communicated in sandy footprints.

4. Do we need to make a “Christian” everything? Walking through CBA, I was accosted by jugglers, stilt-walkers, and clowns. The new “Christian” Cirque de Soleil was in town. It was too much for me. We have created a subculture. Our kids join Christian soccer leagues and Christian book clubs and go to Christian concerts. In Colorado, we even have a Christian rafting company, Noah’s Ark, which is derided by the secular rafting companies. It’s known for toting legions of home-schoolers down Class IV rapids in bright, yellow-padded helmets. It may just be me, but give me a pot-smoking, ski-bumming pagan to row me down the rapids. At least then there’s a clear distinction, and we can talk about worldviews in conflict. In my opinion, that’s better than a pot-smoking, Third-Day listening, religious-tattoo-splattered raft guide who goes on Saturday nights to his evangelical church, Grounded. We claim the same Jesus, we read the same Bible (although his is probably waterproof and divided into one-minute reading sections), but we have conflicting worldviews that bother me almost as much as the pagan’s.

We don’t need a “Christian” everything that creates a Christian subculture. We are not to cloister in safe communities, but rather to penetrate the culture with the light of the Gospel.

Let’s join the soccer leagues filled with unbelievers and share Christ. Let’s ride rafts with those who need a Christian witness. Let’s join book clubs and confront this culture enthralled with the theology of Dr. Phil.

5. Do you seriously desire to be associated with all of the other Christians who cover their bodies with Jesus Junk? A girl called in to Dr. Moore and explained why she quit wearing Jesus Junk. A guy came in late to class one day, drunk out of his mind, and wrapped around his wrist was a WWJD bracelet. If community is why you wear it, you better take a better look at the community.

I don’t want the symbols. The greatest apologetic to a lost world will not be stickers, pens, or tattoos, but rather a life that exemplifies Jesus. This ethic will change how I treat my neighbors, how much money I give away, whether I obey the speed limit or not, and how I act at the company party. A man I meet with for discipleship and accountability recently told me what took place at his job at the fire department. He has made it clear to his co-workers that because of his faith, he does not cuss and swear. He does not forbid them from doing it, but he will not. One of his friends, in a quiet moment, said to him, “Just say one word. Come on. Just once.” Nate smiled and turned down his request. His life is already beginning to speak. What speaks more? A Jesus tattoo or a Jesus life? Those who are serious about their faith need no props. Props and crutches are for weak and wounded people. The Gospel needs no credibility. Its messengers do.

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