December 15, 2010
The Christian Industrial Complex (Part 1)
Are Christian bookstores challenging the values of our culture or just copying them?
I went into a Christian bookstore the other day and was surprised to see some of the most prominent display space given over to military flags for the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. These flags, and a vast assortment of Americana merchandise, were on sale for the holidays.
A part of me ached because I know how difficult it must be to run a little Christian bookstore these days. But I winced as I heard the manager fatalistically confess that he resorted to selling military merchandise to “make it.” It is a sad day when we sell our military banners next to Jesus’ enemy-loving cross to make it in a financial recession. (Before long we’ll be pushing posters of scantily-clad women accompanied by a verse from Song of Solomon).
It’s true that my Christian faith gives me a passion for peace and sets me at odds with militarism. But I think I’d feel a similar dissatisfaction if the last resort for economic survival at our bookstores was selling Home Depot or Wal-Mart gift cards. I just have higher hopes for a distinctive Christian witness in the world today, even in a recession… especially in a recession.
I grew up in the Bible Belt. When I became a Christian, I learned I didn’t have to stop buying stuff – I just had to start buying Christian stuff. An entire world of retail spending possibilities lay before me: the Christian industrial complex. There were Christian t-shirts, bumper stickers, even Christian candy (“Testa-Mints”—peppermints wrapped in a bible verse). We were taught “secular” was bad, and supplied with charts that countered popular mainstream bands with a Christian alternative. We burned our old tapes (which is what we listened to back in those days) and went with the Christian albums. We were often sadly disappointed. It just didn’t sound like Metallica. As a friend of mine quipped, “All these Christian artists say, ‘God gave me this song,' and then you listen to it and understand why God gave it away.”
I later learned that Christian art doesn’t have to be a mediocre counterfeit of the original. And I learned that Christianity is not about conforming to the world, but about being transformed by a God who is crazy about the poor, fond of toppling the powerful, and raising up the lowly… and who I’m pretty sure would feel conflicted wearing a “God bless Rome” shirt or doting an “Army of One” sticker on the bumper of his SUV…. I mean, hybrid. I mean donkey. Nevermind. I became convinced the world will not know we are Christians by our bumper stickers and t-shirts, but by our love.
Stay tuned for part 2 where Shane Claiborne shares how Christians stores could become outposts of transformation in our culture.