23 October 2007

Consuming Jesus.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley responds to James B. Twitchell's Shopping for God:

In the early 1980s, the People for the American Way ran a television commercial in which actors were made to say how they preferred their eggs--e.g., scrambled, poached or fried. Everyone should be free, the ad implied, to choose as he wishes: That's the American way. The punch line, Richard John Neuhaus wrote in "The Naked Public Square" (1984), was aimed at moral majoritarians "who allegedly would impose one way on everybody." But of course, as Mr. Neuhaus noted, the matters over which the moral majority felt strongly--e.g., abortion and the death penalty--were not exactly comparable to breakfast fare. The ad amounted to a "fatuous trivialization" of moral concerns.

In "Shopping for God," James B. Twitchell resurrects the spirit of the egg analogy to make an even broader claim. Choosing a religion, he argues, is much like choosing any other product--from breakfast food to beer. He sets out to determine why the "spiritual marketplace" in the U.S. seems so hot right now, and, more pointedly, why evangelical megachurches have become, well, so mega. His theme can be summed up in one of the book's smug chapter titles: "Christian Consumers Are Consumers First."

. . .

But what is it about the evangelical "product" that makes it so desirable? Any number of scholars have noted that, in recent years, it has been the churches that demand the most of people--tithing, bowing to firm doctrines, observing strict rules of conduct--that have grown the fastest. There seems to be something in our nature that requires from religion not just feel-good spirituality but strong moral direction. We are willing to make sacrifices to live by the dictates of a religiously grounded truth.

Mr. Twitchell manages to reduce this profound idea to the dictates of basic consumer theory. Sacrifice, he says--not least, tithing--signifies value. The more you sacrifice, the more you visibly value the product for which you are giving something up, and the more you show other people that you value it, too. "Why do true believers sometimes puncture themselves, walk on their knees until they bleed, fast until they are skeletal or join a monastery and go mum?" Mr. Twitchell asks. "Brand allegiance."

Oddly, this sacrificial principle doesn't easily apply to megachurches. As Mr. Twitchell acknowledges, most don't have "high barriers to entry"--that is, they don't demand a lot of their congregants. They're often referred to as "seeker" churches because they appeal to nonbelievers--and not always successfully. It's easy to get in; but it's also easy to get out.

Here's the whole thing.


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