Culture At Large

The Christian Brand

Paul Vander Klay

Those of you that thought church discipline doesn't translate into contemporary culture should watch Ellen Degeneres' confession to the gods of Apple. In a culture where identity is achieved rather than received, brand has become the manifestation of chosen community.

Lately, as I overhear the back and forth of our post-Christendom cultural transition, I've been paying special attention to idea of the Christian brand. Denominations are focusing on branding. A large part of what passes for Christian involvement in culture seems to be focused on branding. Put Jesus on a bracelet, on a shirt, in a song, in a movie and you can call it "Christian" as long as it avoids nudity, drug use or that list of naughty words. Evangelicals hold their breath when an athlete known to be a Christian is given the microphone to see if he or she will give a call out the Christian brand. I can't help but see the dust up over Brit Hume's comments as a market fight over the Christian brand along with tussles over evolution, school prayer and displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

I think this fight over branding in fact runs both ways. Not only do Christians seem to understand faith as brand loyalty, but so do those who wish to put as much distance as they can between our time and the Christendom they want to see in the rear view mirror. The actual content of Christianity seems often to be secondary to its perceived brand value in the cultural marketplace of religious ideas.

Brand loyalty and identity are so ingrained in us they dominate our religious struggles. "Hip" and "Cool" is conferred upon Apple faithful by virtue of brand identity. Ellen sinned in humorously speaking the truth about her struggles with the iPhone. Evangelicals are perceived as asserting (and often do) that "salvation" similarly is conferred upon Christian faithful by virtue of their brand loyalty. Roman Catholics get it via their sacraments. Evangelicals seem to get off easier just having to "believe".  "Salvation" is of course reduced to Christian code talk for individual hell avoidance. The predictable not-as-post-Christendom-as-they-thought objection is that this Christian brand assertion is attempting to corner the supposed religiously neutral public square of heaven and hell.

Is discipleship or belief really synonymous with brand loyalty? What if Christians decided to focus less on promoting the brand and instead put more energy into the content of the faith and its practice?

Many of us might quickly endorse such a notion but when people actually do it we get nervous. There is a generation of Christian bloggers, writers and leaders who are attempting to do just this. They are publicly expressing their doubt in the Christian brand while trying to explore the content of the faith. They predictably trigger those who feel the need to defend the brand and would love to have the power to evoke the kind of confession Ellen produced but lack the financial strings of sponsorship that Ellen (and her producers) likely seriously considered.

Jesus' relationship with the brand is worth considering. On one hand Jesus is pretty clear about the important of public allegiance to Jesus in Luke 9:26 yet not much later resists his disciple's instinctive impulse to protect their group intellectual property against a perceived competitor in Luke 9:38-41. The heart of the brand seems in fact to be "the name" which is of course the audacious transference of the importance of "the name" in the Hebrew Scriptures. Both testaments clearly insist that allegiance to the name divorced from witness-embodiment character of the name is worse than never having known the name which should give all of us who instinctively jump to defend the brand serious pause.

In the Internet-authenticity-economy being a fanboy whether it be for Apple, Google or Jesus gets one little credibility. How can Christians bear credible witness to the name without being reduced to fanboy status? It seems to me that only the cruciform life of love of God and one's neighbor has a chance. Once our skeptical, cynical culture catches a whiff that the promotion is self-serving the Christian brand is dismissed as just another religious competitor seeking its well-being at the expense of others.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Social Trends