On the Market Machine, Christianity, and the Idea Factories (Part II)

This is a continuation of my exploration of “Market Christianity.” This piece might not be for everyone, fair warning. After you take a gander here, though, jump over to Amber’s site for her series on revolution.

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1.

I wish Christianity would stop being so profitable.”  This he said over his cheeseburger with no hyperbolic flourish. It was an emphatic statement, less of wish and more of a manifesto.

To be clear, he used the word “profitable” in the sense of monetary return, not in the sense used by Paul when he indicated “all scripture is breathed by God and profitable for teaching…” (2 Tim 3:16) I don’t suppose I blame him. He was a Christian businessman in a Christian business that was charged with the task of delivering competing metrics to its investors–a monetary return on investment to the investors, and a spiritual return on investment represented by lives changed. He’d seen the ugly side of things when the desire for inflated metrics set in, when the machine needed more money to grow bigger and affect more lives. 

Eventually, everything becomes about the money, powerful as it is. It is the unfortunate truth: in the free market, monetary return and spiritual formation are often at odds.

2.

The word profitable finds it roots in Old French, and was first used to convey the specific sense of “money making.” In the west, we’ve perfected the process of profitability, have turned everything into a printing press for the Dollar. Goods, services, information, sex, self (celebrity), justice, mercy–these are all for sale in today’s economy, all subjects of profit-motive. And make no mistake, profit is not a bad thing. By profit, we meet the needs of our lives. By profit, we are able to facilitate good and holy work, too.

The profit-motive, though, carries with it unique challenges. Before we consider them, lets first consider the apparatuses needed to generate profit.

An effective market cannot function without the following component parts: (1) raw materials; (2) factories to shape those raw materials into products; (3) marketers to inform the consumer of the latest product; and, of course, (4) the consumer to purchase the product. These component parts are neither good nor bad, neither holy nor evil. They are, quite simply, necessities of an effective market complex.

We see this playing out across a broad spectrum of industries. To take a simple example, in the winter, the consumer demands heat. A workman, then, chops wood (raw material), sends it through a wood splitter (the factory), and takes out an ad in the local paper that says “WOOD FOR SALE” (marketing), which lures the consumer to the point of purchase.

Consider a second example. Needing energy, the market demands coal production. A mining company extracts the coal (raw material), sends it to the power plant (the factory), and produces commercials letting the consumer know of its clean-burning benefits (marketing). The consumers, then, purchase the energy produced to run their homes.

These market mechanisms, just like profit, are neither good, nor bad. They simply are.

But what happens when the lumberjack or coal factory get a taste for the finer things money can buy? What happens when they thirst for more profit, for the increased growth required to generate more profit? In the same vein, what happens when the consumer wants more heat, more power? What happens when the market demands the constant production of the material?

By way of avarice and over-consumption, by way of the profit-motive gone awonk, we cause powerful problems: deforestation and strip-mining.

3.

Let’s not be deceived. Every profit center is subject to the same pitfalls. No matter the market, if avarice and over-consumption sneak into the market apparatus, things go askew. We demand that the factories continue to produce, and produce, and produce. Raw materials become scarce, factories begin to wear out, the market becomes bloated. Eventually the cogs in the machine need replacing. Eventually the forests are no more, the tops of every appalachian mountain are scraped clean. Eventually, the market desires different products and businesses close, marketers are out of work, and factories shut down.

Do we delude ourselves when we believe that tie between commerce and religion is somehow immune from these results?

If Christianity is a marketplace, consider these questions:

1. What is the raw material? The message of God?

2. What is the factory? The messenger of God? The non-profit or missions organization?

3.  What is the product? The book? The sermon? The song? Worse yet, the objects of our ministry (the third-world, tribal nonbeliever)?

4.  Who are the marketers? The church? (Perhaps, here’s where things have the potential to get wonky.)

5.  What is the price of avarice and overconsumption? Are we strip-mining the good news for gain?

Again, Christianity and the marketplace can function together in healthy and good ways. As I asked last week, without this joining of forces, what would have happened to the works of Augustine, Lewis, and even Voskamp? Would their works line my bookshelves, provide me with the encouragement I so often need? Without the ability of Paul to raise funds by making tents, would he have been able to advance the good news?

Anyone who argues that the Christianity has no place within the marketplace, then, discounts the healthy ways in which the market assists in the distribution of good and holy messages.

That being said, what happens when avarice and overconsumption creep into the Christian marketplace? What happens when the producers of the message seek growth for growth sake? Don’t we require the factories to overproduce? Don’t we strip-mine every raw material?

4.

There is a tension here. Can you see it?

We use the marketplace to disseminate ideas. The market, subjected to the authority of God, held in check to the power of God, can be a good and holy thing. The market gone awonk, though, is a beast. When it demands more profit, more consumption, and growth-for-growth sake (even if that growth might have good results, as in the case of fair-trade Christian businesses), it chews up and spits out the messengers of God, and robs the raw materials of their power.

And if I’m honest, this–I think–is the grand travesty of modern American Christianity.

I do not wish that Christianity would cease being profitable. That kind of desire might have unintended consequence. That being said, perhaps my friend was on to something with the insertion of one little word. Perhaps we should hope that Christianity does not become “so profitable.” In the “so” we find the roots of greed. In the “so” we find the seeds of overconsumption. In the “so” we find a market imbued with too much power. 

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  • I love perspective from those who have grown up outside church culture. I had this conversation over the weekend and used the word ‘church planter’. I had to stop and explain what that term means. Why someone would start a new church in an over saturated field. He gets this big smile on his face as he ‘gets’ it. “Oh I know how that works. You locate the suburb where the money is!” Then the conversation went into target marketing (church ‘vision’) why some church plants target working professionals. What happens when someone outside the economic vision shows up. What their worth is. What their risk is.

    • sethhaines

      Wow… Yes. I totally get this. By the same token, I gain great hope from those who are doing it differently, who are bringing themselves low, into the sameness of humanity.

  • shawnsmucker

    What aspects of the gospel are we strip-mining for our own gain? Ouch

    • sethhaines

      The real ouch sets in when I think about my own strip-mining and deforestation. You know?

  • I’m drinking it all in, both Amber’s and your thoughts here. Good, good stuff. Thank you.

    • sethhaines

      We feel like we’re learning more and more from the people just a little down the road. We’re seeing lives lived both differently and lives lived in conformity. Too often, we fall into the conformity camp. I think it’s sparking a number of questions.

      Keep writing poetry. It’s giving me something to read in these online spaces these days.

  • Josh Freeman

    I keep hearing from you and others that market and profit and so forth in the sphere of Christian ideas is important because it offers power to be used for good. I don’t directly dispute that, but I think there’s room to question whether that good, powered in that way, is indispensable. Is this the only way for our time? Would the Kingdom disintegrate if we stopped raising money, or global awareness, or whatever, and just loved well those within our natural reach? The things that might not get done… would that diminish God’s purposes, or just our ways of feeling good about our own contributions?

    Because I do know that Satan can’t be overthrown by the power of Satan, and I have serious questions about the nature of any power derived from self-focus. Even playing along for a bit has consequences.

    I don’t think that all the tools we have are always inherently evil. I think there may be ways to use them, sometimes, in a way that doesn’t wind up being harmful. David knew that Saul’s armor wasn’t the power that would win the fight, but when Goliath’s sword was near at hand and there was a head needing to be cut off, he didn’t eschew the sword on principle.

    But the tension, indeed. Sticky, messy, hazardous. No recipes or checklists. Absolutely essential to always be listening for the Holy Spirit and asking ourselves the hardest questions.