March 17, 2006
Pimping Jesus: consumerism and the red-light gospel
Jesus' image can now be found on every imaginable commodity from t-shirts to poker chips. But has our material culture made Jesus' invitation to "new life" itself into a consumable product? Jonathan Yarboro, a church planter from Boone, North Carolina, explores the influence of consumerism on our understanding of the gospel and conversion.
I was standing before 200 people at church when I said it: "Salvation is not a walk down the aisle, a prayer, and wham bam, thank you ma'am, you're done." Jaws dropped; some faces turned white; some turned red. I was clueless, so I just kept teaching. It turns out that the phrase, "wham bam, thank you ma'am," meant something different to me than it did to the rest of the world. Afterward some of my listeners enlightened me. I was embarrassed. I didn't intend to equate one's conversion experience to some sort of sexual encounter in the red light district.
Over the last few years, I have pondered the statement, and despite the fact that I originally meant nothing so profound, I believe the statement to be true - we are tempted to turn conversion into something of an act of prostitution. We are the consumers, and we might as well say it - we've turned Jesus' invitation into a seductive, greasy, trick-turning lifestyle. Doesn't that make your blood boil?
The Bible, especially the Old Testament (see Hosea), is full of prostitution language. But don't make the mistake of thinking that I am calling the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus who ate and drank with sinners, the Jesus who was executed on a Roman cross, and the Jesus who rose on the third day, a whore. There is another Jesus, one we have created, who is a seductive, slick-talking, trick-turning object of our self-pleasure. This is the Jesus that I, along with countless others, assumed I'd met when I was 14 years old. But it was only a wham bam, thank you ma'am gospel.
When you get past the initial response of derogatory disgust, the phrase can shed light on how our consumerist culture has even changed how we think about the gospel. We have changed the life-changing act of introducing people to the real Jesus into an act of prostitution.
We've all seen it numerous times. The guy walks into your worship gathering. His life is falling apart. He has no meaningful relationships. He has given his life to foreign substances. He is in touch with nothing good. He comes to your community because he has nowhere else to go. He is looking for something. He begins to reveal the horrible hell he has been living through. He knows his life is going nowhere, and that's when we speak up.
"Say this prayer and you'll be saved." He may continue to live in hell, but at least he won't die in hell. He can't believe it's so simple. He can't believe it's so quick. He jumps at the opportunity. He says the prayer/incantation and walks out thinking his life is transformed. Wham bam, thank you ma'am, he's done. Everyone feels better. He's finally gotten his big break, and you've just brought another one into the Kingdom. Or have you? What if you just sold him a false gospel? What if the reason he couldn't believe it was so simple and quick was because it's not? What if you just pimped out Jesus, a false Jesus that you brought out to provide a quick answer?
Prostitutes fulfill a need. It's a primal need. It's not something that we've made up. They are a solid, sure answer to a real longing. The customer wants sex; the prostitute gives sex. The wham bam, thank you ma'am gospel does the same thing. Someone comes with a real longing: a new life of forgiveness, belonging, purpose, absolution, strength, or sympathy. We pimp out a fake Jesus to meet the need. The problem is that it is the wrong answer.
There is an underlying need for intimacy behind the need for sex, and the need for intimacy can't be met with a casual, impersonal romp. There has to be something more. Specifically, there has to be relationship and commitment. A prostitute doesn't want intimacy, she wants you to give her the cash, and get back to your life. The wham bam, thank you ma'am gospel wants the same thing. Make your confession, say your prayer, and maybe pay some dues, then get back to your life.
While we've been pimping out the gospel, the real Jesus is weeping because he wants a lifelong relationship that includes joy, forgiveness, brokenness, hardship, and intimacy.
When I was 14, I had a need - I was afraid of spending eternity in hell. So, I paid my dues, I recited the prayer, but I was essentially just paying for a service--a service of self-protection. It wasn't a real relationship. It was the Jesus created by a gospel of consumerism. The real Jesus isn't so cheap. He will not accept a one-time payment for his services or cater to my consumer needs. He makes real demands, and he wants nothing less than an eternal relationship. The red lights have no more allure now that I've found the real Jesus - the Jesus who has called me into his eternal Kingdom.