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

“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

1.

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?

2.

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.

2(a).

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).

2(b).

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?”

3.

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 SunMicha 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?

4.

Yesterday, Amber said it best:

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.

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  • pastordt

    I hear your concern, Seth, and was painfully aware of a similar concern during the last ten years or so of my ministry life. I watched my boss, a gifted communicator, high energy guy slowly be eroded into a nervous, uncertain wanna-be CEO when those were NOT his gifts or his calling. Fortunately, he gave up the weekly ‘coaching’ and took a sabbatical! It is insidious – this market-culture language/formational thought/six-easy-steps-to. . . mentality. BUT, there are beautiful ways in which pieces of it can be – and are – being redeemed. God is not absent from the market, not the God we claim to believe in, the one who transcends all and inhabits the praises of the people. And I see that out here almost every day. People making real connection, across miles of geography and culture; truth being told with grace and love; hearts joining in prayer; monetary gifts being sent invisibly across cyberspace, gifts that change, maybe even save lives. So yes, there is a fine line, a balancing point – and we’re going to fall off it with regularity. But I have to say, I’ve never felt more affirmed in my call to ministry than I have in the last 3.5 years of retirement from it. So . . . there’s that. :>)

    • sethhaines

      I so agree with you, DT. I think we’re tracking for sure. I’ve also been watching you (and others), the way aspects of the market have become good and healthy ways to engage. I would guess that it is because you have learned how to properly subject it and and use it for greater glory.
      Thanks for being here.

    • Amen to this! Thank you.

      “BUT, there are beautiful ways in which pieces of it can be – and are – being
      redeemed. God is not absent from the market, not the God we claim to
      believe in, the one who transcends all and inhabits the praises of the
      people. And I see that out here almost every day. People making real
      connection, across miles of geography and culture; truth being told with
      grace and love; hearts joining in prayer; monetary gifts being sent
      invisibly across cyberspace, gifts that change, maybe even save lives.”

  • Micah Smith

    So could you say we should be in the market but not of the market?

    I want to share two quotes I read recently in Philp Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace.” (Have you read this book?) He ties these to his concern that parallels this one, the intermingling of church and politics, but I think his points apply to the intermingling of church and market:

    G.K. Chesterton: “Coziness between the church and the state is good for the state and bad for the church.”

    Neitzche: “Be careful, lest in fighting the dragon you become the dragon.”

    Biblically, when I read your (and Amber’s) recent thoughts on economics, it constantly brings to my mind the moments we see Jesus the most angry, in the temple-turned-market where worship of Creator God has been turned into a for-profit business that glorifies the world above God!

    And I can’t believe you didn’t point out how said three book series will be turned into three movies per book with a prequel and two postquels (or whatever they are called.) I mean, I like Harry Potter, but wasn’t 8 movies enough? Does The Hobbit really need a three part movie series of 3-4 hour long films?

    • sethhaines

      First, I love that Chesterton quote. I ran across it in my college days, and it’s always stuck. Thanks for sharing these quotes, and the wisdom of the Neitzche quote is not lost on me. Hold our feet to the fire on that one.

  • Feelin’ it…

    • sethhaines

      I bet… You’re a good one, Sarah Mae. Keep plug’n.

  • Josh Freeman

    There seem to exist a few things, peculiar tools that we may only tolerate because we must still contend with evil on a cursed field. Like weapons, and marketing.

    Weapons are for projecting effective violence. Marketing is for projecting effective selfishness. Both require a certain amount of unsavory energy to use and maintain. The difference seems to be that more good people understand that about weapons – that a weapon is something to be taken up reluctantly, used sparingly, laid back down as soon as practical, and cautiously curated between uses. I’d like to see more Christians look at marketing in the same way.

    And may we one day have no further use for either.

    • sethhaines

      Your comment makes me want to holler. Yes… may be one day have no further use for either.

  • You always ask the best questions. Thanks for helping us wrestle it out, good sir.

    • sethhaines

      Thanks for wrestling along, good lady.

  • Seth – You and Amber are both putting into words some of the very things I wrestle with in some way quite often. At the end of the day in all that we do, say, tweet, retweet, share, like etc. it is the gospel of Jesus that I hope to see though it all. It is His love in and through us that can magnify His name more greatly.

    Then I ask myself, what should I set aside? When should I be quiet? When and what should I say or add? My heart cries out, “May it all and only be for the sake of knowing Him more and making Him more known.”

    In the daily living where we are planted, and in the virtual world which we insert ourselves into, may it be ultimately for His glory alone. May it be that no matter how we are used for this matter, we are vessels for His light to shine through. May we not trade business for the beauty of the cross. It is such a balance to work through and I hope & pray that it is the Spirit that leads us through it.

    • sethhaines

      May we not trade business for beauty… yes, indeed. Thanks, Jolene.

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  • George Buddy Black

    Think on this…As a business owner I truly believe work and worship go hand in hand…and my business pays a tithe into the Kingdom…Avodah is the transliteration of the Hebrew word for worship and work. Have you ever thought about the connection? Is worship work? Is work worship?

    The root word means to work or to serve. The cluster of words derived from the root give us insight into the nature of both worship and work.

    Work is an essential part and expression of our humanness. It is not, as some mistakenly assume, a result of the Fall. Work was part of Adam and Eve’s activity in Eden before they sinned. They were to “work” the Garden “and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Work is an expression of the creativity inherent in human nature made in the “image of God.” After all, God is continually working, as Jesus pointed out: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17).

    Only work that is drudgery is a consequence of the Fall. Whatever your job, it can be an expression of worship if you do it unto the Lord.

    The words above turn the worlds business on its backside simply because the world is truly about greed, real greed, spirit of mammon (not LOVE of money, NO NO NO) Love of anything that takes Gods place. Matthew 6:24, we have all read it, many times, but have we?…Notice its well-known meaning of property, wealth, especially money. Observe that our Lord does not here contrast God and Satan; he is emphasizing the thought which he has been adducing the relation that his disciples must hold to things of earth, which are summed up by him under the term “mammon” as with us under the term “wealth.” Observe also that it is not the possession of wealth that he condemns, but the serving it, making it an object of thought and pursuit. Gathering it and using it in the service of and according to the will of God is not serving mammon.