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The scam of commercialized Christianity

In a recent Religious News Service article , Karen Swallow Prior (KSP) criticized what she termed the “Biblical Manhood Industry” as a scam within Evangelical circles. This industry, she argues, prioritizes stereotypical ideals of masculinity more aligned with cultural nostalgia than genuine Christian virtues. Reflecting on Prior’s assertion, I shared a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response on social media, when I wrote “Why would anyone want to be a biblical man? Have you read the Bible?”  This response to KSP’s insight highlights a broader observation influenced by recent readings.

These readings, including Prior’s “The Evangelical Imagination,” Dr. Jennifer Bird’s “Marriage in the Bible,” and Dr. Leah Payne’s “God Gave Rock & Roll to You,” consistently reveal a disparity between American Christianity and the words and example of Jesus. Rather than embodying the values espoused by Jesus, American Christianity often appears more attuned to capitalist ideologies, shaping believers into consumers rather than disciples. This is put on display almost every day through our cultural practices here in the United States.

For example, James K.A. Smith’s insights in “You Are What You Love” further underscore this point, emphasizing society’s tendency to prioritize weddings over marriage itself. This phenomenon, Smith contends, reflects broader societal values driven by commercial interests rather than wisdom. Smith writes, “The Wedding industry generates 49 to 51 billion dollars annually. Pinterest suggests that wedding-related aspirations make up 80% of the content of the internet. Doesn’t all of this prove that society values marriage more than ever? Estimates indicate that the revenues of the divorce industry mirror those of the wedding industry. Our interest isn’t in marriage but in the spectacle of the wedding. The event in which we get to be center stage, display our love, and invite others into our romance in a way they’ll never forget.” And it turns out what most of us have been taught to believe about the desirability of a “biblical marriage” isn’t supported by anything in the Bible.

Dr. Jennifer Bird’s examination of biblical perspectives on marriage challenges conventional norms, exposing contradictions and highlighting how centuries of evangelical interpretations have influenced contemporary beliefs. By critiquing the objectification of women and the reduction of marriage to mere sexual parameters, Bird prompts a reassessment of traditional notions of “biblical marriage.” Surprisingly, the original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament don’t even use the word “marriage,” but rather “take,” highlighting linguistic nuances that have shaped our understanding of relationships. Dr. Bird raises concerns about how people interpret and apply biblical teachings, noting a tendency to ignore problematic passages or engage in mental gymnastics to rationalize behaviors.

Despite attempts to accommodate problematic passages, contradictions persist, such as the celebration of Abraham despite his mistreatment of Sarah. Dr. Bird highlights how women in the Bible were treated as property, with crimes against them measured by the loss of value to their bodies, perpetuating harmful narratives still present today.

Even in the New Testament, the objectification of women and the reduction of marriage to mere sexual parameters challenges the conventional narrative of biblical support for marriage. As a result, aspiring to a “biblical marriage” may not be desirable, as modern relationships often flourish independently of biblical influence.  But we continue to support this industry with our money because it benefits our traditions and practices, giving very little thought, if any, to the harms these notions of “biblical marriage” may inflict.

Furthermore, Karen Swallow Prior’s analysis of Evangelicalism’s historical development in “The Evangelical Imagination” sheds light on its impact on societal norms. While Evangelicalism historically aimed for moral and social reform, its trajectory has also been shaped by economic factors with popular teachings of Christianity being more influenced by Victorian morality or white normative ideas of culture in the United States, than by the actual teachings of Jesus.

These influences extend to the music, media, and literature, Christians consume and choose to accompany their worship. Music that is produced with profitability in mind. As Dr. Leah Payne observes in “God gave Rock & Roll to you,” “The story of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) is the story of how white evangelicals looked to the marketplace for signs of God’s work in the world. While there were always notable dissenters, for the most part, those within the industry regarded profits as a sign of God’s blessing.” It seems evident that capitalism long ago supplanted the influence of Christianity in the United States.

The pervasive influence of capitalism within American Christianity permeates almost all aspects of worship, entertainment, and politics. House Speaker Mike Johnson’s assertion of a strictly biblical worldview reflects this entrenchment, disregarding the nuanced interpretation required to navigate problematic biblical passages in modern contexts.

Johnson boldly proclaimed:

“I am a Bible-believing Christian, someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘It’s curious, people are curious: What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.'”

Whether it’s the Capitol or the Church, we are all laboring under the cruel taskmaster of capitalism to conform to the predestined identities of marketplace consumers. Capitalism reduces our identity, our worship, our relationships, our civic duty, and our private devotion to mere commodities to be bought, sold, and leveraged.

Ultimately, the dominance of capitalism compromises the fidelity of American Christianity to Jesus’ teachings. As Jesus aptly warned, serving both God and money is impossible. Yet, many contemporary expressions of Christianity in America seem to prioritize economic gain over spiritual devotion, a departure from the essence of true discipleship.

Privilege, power, and status are the altars of this commercialized Christian religion. It seems American Christianity has made its choice – “As for me and my house we will serve the dollar.”

 

Image credit: Pamela Reynoso

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