"We are slaves in the sense that we depend for our daily survival upon an expand-or-expire agro-industrial empire--a crackpot machine--that the specialists cannot comprehend and the managers cannot manage. Which is, furthermore, devouring world resources at an exponential rate. We are, most of us, dependent employees." ~Wendell Berry
This piece started as a reflection. Actually, it started as a story that turned into a poem, that morphed into a reflection, but none of those mediums were quite right. Or maybe they were. Who knows. Each iteration was just another attempt to hide a message under some proverbial rock.
Let's turn over all the stones; shall we?
Yesterday I met a fellow in Springdale, that grand poultry town that cranks out chicken breasts by the ton, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. It's a blue collar town, a town that wears the cologne of tobacco, chicken droppings, feed mill waste, and blue collar sweat. It is an acrid smell, the smell of money.
We met in Springdale for two reasons. First, it's the respectable middle between our discrete communities. Second, it's home to Patrick's, the simple cinder shack serving up the best greasy burgers in Northwest Arkansas. Patrick's hosts an eclectic group of people. Construction men, feed mill line workers, white collar businessmen--they all gather here where the ground seems, somehow, more level.
A smooth-faced kid delivered our orders, and we unfolded the greasy parchment paper that was folded around our burgers and taped shut. My brother wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter. "I wish Christianity would stop being so profitable," he said, then crammed a quarter of his burger into his mouth and chewed slowly. He was letting the words linger.
There was an implicit conversation happening in that moment, and perhaps I should let you in on this contextual tidbit: a curious thing has been happening in our neck of the woods as it relates to the intermingling of faith and business. We've been watching various faith-based businesses undergo significant woes. Without delving into the details with too much specificity, let me say it another way: the market system which we regard so highly in this grand country has been eating faith-based business alive.
Allow me a brief segue for a discussion of market economics.
A human creation, the market (of which I am a member) is the place where we bring our demands and find our supply. It is where we find our chicken, clothing, jewelry, books, and bibles. It is where we buy thoughts, art, and celebrities (and sell them, too). The market is the place where product is exchanged for gold, for money. And the market is insatiable, never satisfied. It always demands more.
The market finds products it likes, seizes them, and says, "if a quarter pound burger is good, I want a third pound burger," or "if one book by my favorite author is good, I want three books, two conferences, and for said author to follow me on Twitter." The market has demands that must be met, and the producers then churn out more to satisfy the demands. After all, if the producer does not churn out more, another competitor will.
Through this competitive free market, the demands of the people are met (at least for a while).
My compatriot looked across the table at me, said "it seems like we've tied our religion too closely to market economics. I wonder whether we're expanding for expansion sake." He took a long slug of his Diet Dr. Pepper, dipped his french fry in Heinz ketchup.
"When the market demands that more Christian product be produced under the notion that we're 'advancing the kingdom,' when it demands that we put enormous pressure on each other to produce, produce, produce, I wonder--what kingdom are we advancing?"
It was a good question, one for which I did not have an answer.
"I'm watching them burnout," he said. "I'm watching the Christian-business officers and employees, the authors, the speakers, the pastors, the nonprofit workers drop like flies. I'm watching them keep an eye on metrics, on relevancy, on growth for growth sake. We give them money, buy their burnout. I wonder whether market pressure is co-opting Christianity?"
I'm not ready (quite yet) to divorce Christianity from the market. Without market demand, we'd have limited access to the works of Christian leaders, and spiritual fathers and mothers like Augustine, and C.S. Lewis, and even Ann Voskamp. Without the market, I would not have had the opportunity to read Jason Locy's and Timothy Willard's Home Behind the Sun, Micha Boyett's Found, Nish Weiseth's forthcoming work Speak, or Preston Yancey's Tables in the Wilderness (and that's just in the calendar year). Without the market, we'd not have access to the freeing message of Jennifer Dukes Lee found in Love Idol. Without market demand, my worship rotation would be thin (though maybe there's an argument here that the hymns of old are plenty good). Without the market, I'd likely only have handwritten bible segments.
Without the market, you likely wouldn't be reading these words.
But still, as I watch the market machine demand more an more content, as I watch the supply chain gussy up Christianity (and its adherents), package it (and them), and sell it (and them) six ways to Sunday, I can't help but ask the same question as my friend--which kingdom are we advancing?
There's a tricky tension here. There's some really fine, holy, good work in the market. There are worthy ideas, and good money being used to perpetuate freeing, life-affirming stuff. There is a sense in which demand, properly subjected, can be used for greater glory.
And yet, when we are buying and selling religion and each other, when we commodify the gospel and all its spin-off messages, when we treat the pastors, speakers, and authors as "idea factories," aren't we implying that the kingdom of God is something that can be bought? Isn't this tension almost to0 taut?
American culture will never have enough. It stands to reason that the church would follow suit. As long as people make a god of relevancy and of gain, they will never be satisfied with church. The leaders and church structures will never be able to offer what it is people feel like they need. If Jesus can’t be packaged and sold to the liking of the people, then people will leave.
These are the things that Amber and I are considering these days. We hope you'll join us.