God as commodity

Several years ago, I accompanied two friends — Eastern European university students who were visiting the U.S. for the summer — into a Christian bookstore. One of the two, Andrei, was a Christian who wanted to visit the store while in America to purchase some Christian music. The other student, Sasha, was an admitted atheist who was merely along for the ride. While Andrei went to a “listening station” to preview the latest contemporary Christian music album, Sasha and I walked around the store, looking at the vast assortment of such products as “Bibleman” videos and “Testamints” candy.

It was then that the atheist Sasha made an observation that is particularly damning to the contemporary evangelical subculture. He said, “Christians in America market God just like everything else. In my country, Christians take God more seriously.” I couldn’t help but sadly agree, and I could offer no defense.

This was at a time when books constituted roughly a third of a given Christian “book” store’s inventory — the remainder of the stores were usually filled to the brim with cards, music and kitsch, all branded with the name of God. I have no recent statistics, but that ratio is likely even less today, as many chain stores have dropped the word “book” from their names altogether. Don’t get me wrong, such merchandise isn’t necessarily wrong in and of itself (more on that in a later post…), but it too often makes God out to be more commodity than Creator.

Of course, the merchandising of God is not limited to trinkets. Even books, Bible studies, and academic programs can lead us to this folly if we’re not careful. Eugene Peterson captures this well:

It isn’t long before we are standing in line to buy whatever is being offered. And because none of the purchases does what we had hoped for, or at least not for long, we are soon back to buy another, and then another. The process is addictive. We have become consumers of packaged spiritualities.

This is also idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective “Christian.” But idolatry it is nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk or lucrative.

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, p. 125

How dangerously ironic it is that we humans seek to control, manage, and market spirituality when our spirituality should be managing us.