I live and work near several major universities, and my town is college football crazy. Go out on game day and you’ll see everyone on the street decked out in the colors of the local university. Bars and stores are full to bursting; every single local shop has at least a small stock of university merchandise and apparel.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. I like football, too. And though ice hockey is my real obsession, I understand the nature of fervent fandom.
But I saw something this past Saturday that made me do a double take. My husband and I were at a local craft fair, inspecting various booths and displays. Many were selling university merchandise – everything from university-themed Christmas trees to special sweatshirts to tiny university sweaters for dolls. But at a stand stocked with American flags and plaques with spiritual sayings, I stopped and gawked at the biggest sign on display: a giant wood-burned cross with the university mascot and logo stamped where Jesus would have hung.
I stared at it for five minutes trying to make sure it was real. And then I watched with alarm as more than one person loaded up their bag with one of those plaques. I looked at my husband only to see that he was bewildered, too. I stood there in unease for some time, trying to figure out what, precisely, was bothering me.
In the end, it was this: I think sometimes we’re very selective with our definition of idolatry, and of what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain.
Look. We’re part of a culture that commodifies everything. We love brands and we often buy into the mythologies and ideologies behind them without even realizing that we do. And if believers aren’t careful, we can fall into the trap of commodifying God, too. We can, without meaning to, use God as a tool to sell something. We can slap His name and the images associated with Him on an object as a “brand” in the same way McDonalds or Starbucks slaps their logos onto cups. We can reduce Him to a t-shirt we wear or a poster that we have: a thing that we Instagram as an advertisement for lifestyle and identity.
And we lose so much by doing that. We cheapen the very nature of what God did, the very depth of His love, and part of the reason I felt so uncomfortable looking at that plaque in the craft fair is because it felt so…small. It felt reductive and wrong. The God of the Universe, the I Am, Maker and Redeemer of All Things, with His sacrifice reduced to a craft object plastered over with the logo of a football team.
Moreover, it’s easy to fall into the trap of money-as-salvation, and the belief that if only you buy enough God-branded stuff, and pay for enough God-branded retreats, you’ll be living “the Christian life”: for, lo, according to the gospel of the dollar, our souls are redeemed by our accessories. But in reality the Christian life has nothing to do with any of those things, and God treasures the downtrodden, the struggling, the poor, the bereft. We can’t buy our way to salvation. We can’t buy salvation for others, either.
It’s not necessarily wrong to buy a “Christian” item: I have paid for, among other things, a Bible cover that I love, roughly 10,000 Christian bookmarks, cards, sundry knicknacks, and jewelry. One of my favorite rings of all time is a sterling silver icthus ring that my mother gifted me when I was in middle school. It has lasted all these years, and it’s significant to me: a reminder of, and proud announcement of, my faith. But when we come to the places where God and money meet, where God may be in danger of becoming a “brand,” there are two questions we should ask ourselves:
- Does this reduce, minimize, mock, trivialize, or undermine the nature and glory of God?
- Am I buying this with sincere motives and with a pure heart, or is this an attempt to “buy” salvation, spiritual peace, or a proper Christian life without attending to my relationship with Jesus?
Edited to add a third question: is this where my money is best served for God, or should I direct it to a more immediate need in my community?
Answering these might give you the help you need before you make a purchase – or, heaven help you, if you wind up at a craft fair.