« The Emperor Has NEW Clothes »

I don't think anyone is surprised at the facts of commercialism at Christmas. Even my favorite Christmas special, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (from 1965) was well enough aware of the issue that a holy day was co-opted by commercial interests. Okay, well enough, we're all on the same page. What bugs the hell out of me is one company in particular, C-28, that has popularized their brand most notably with the "NOTW" image, which when read in full form means "Not Of This World." The reference is to the answer that Jesus gave to Pontius Pilate at a trial before execution. Pilate wanted some clarity about this kingdom that this man supposedly reigned over, and Jesus was mostly speechless except to say that his kingdom was "not of this world."

It was one way of saying, as Walter Wink, the theologian-writer says, that Jesus' kingdom was not shaped by the values of the world putting him on trial. Wink encouraged reading it as "my kingdom is not of this domination system." Or, more clearly, Jesus' value system was opposed to what Rome stood for, something that was cause enough for death at the hands of the empire, particularly if one was so bold to say it so clearly. Rome was only concerned with its own power and glory, and not some would-be scene stealer. So that was cause enough to put this treasonous man to death. So, to say "not of this world" is to reject the prevailing standards of right order in political, social, and economic aspects of life. Later on, the Revelation of John, written a few years after Rome stormed through Jerusalem with a scorched earth approach following the Jewish Revolt, goes to great lengths to portray the Roman system (in metaphorical terms as Babylon, the other hated empire of history) as a whore. John's vision also decries the economic dominance of Rome, the sad situation that to remain outside of Rome's dominance is to wither and die economically, and to be part of it is to be sold out just the same, to be complicit with an evil system. Jesus' statement was to place himself apart from the empire and its emperor. A daring thing indeed. The book of Revelation deals a lot with establishing clarity for the believer: you gonna get with this Christ program and leave that Roman stuff behind, or not?

These days, one can argue that the US is Rome, but I'd prefer to put a finer point on it. The economic model popularized in the US, and its narrative of material pleasure for individuals, lends itself to abuses that have cost the world dearly. Whether we worship the same historical god is not the issue now; these days the "in" people and the "out" people are defined more according to whether they are believers in the might of the market, believers in free trade, open markets and the like. My association with Jubilee Economics Ministries has led me away from that line of thought before it really got the better of me. A couple years ago Lee Van Ham presented an exceptional forum on how to unwrap Christmas itself so it was not commercial nor even the tame little tale that gets represented in pageants and other bits of dramatic interp. Lee took us to a place where many in this land typically haven't gone. At least, in my 35 years I had never heard these things. This year, after a year of close interaction with Lee, I asked him to present that forum in a blog series on the JEM site. You can read the five part series here.

But back to C-28. C-28 and the NOTW icon irritates the hell out of me. I say this because one can see the NOTW sticker on the backs of the biggest trucks and SUVs and tricked out cars on the road. C-28 is a clothing and "lifestyle" company that sells all sorts of Christian themed stuff, all borrowing heavily from popular culture and a bad conservative interpretation of megachurch style Christian messages. At best, I consider this kind of dreck as remedial Christianity that maybe has the power to draw some people Christward but only in the same way as chocolate chip cookies could start to nourish a starved man. Eventually one will have to get some real nutrients to finish the job. At worst—and this is what I'd like to put before you now—I consider it a complete co-opting of the Christian message by "this world." I already said that the NOTW stickers are all over giant vehicles, or ones that otherwise are displays of conspicuous wealth or material interest. Tell me, exactly what world do those cars come from if not from "this world"? How does one put such a sticker on such a car? Well, first, one has to have no fucking clue what Christianity means. And that is easily enough done today. After all, it has been co-opted by right wing politics, the military, and of course, the marketplace. If you go to C-28's website, you can get the same kind of right wing Christian propaganda as you'd get at a rally or concert (indeed C-28 funds that too) but with the added bonus (for them) that you can show your apparent conversion and acceptance of Christ with these great pieces of apparel (some looking a bit slutty), accessories, or stickers to add to your monster truck. What Would Jesus Do?, indeed!

The marketplace has become the new Caesar. Caesar, in the time around Jesus, took a fancy to being called "Augustus," or "the Revered," "the Great." These days I only half jokingly call the market by its Roman styled name: Marketus Augustus. The Revered Market. Market, The Great. There are some who already recognize this. I am not claiming to be unique. But it is far from being a widespread realization of what is at work. People, particularly during this rough recessionary time, are on bended knee before the holy Market and its grace or they are feeling damned by its fickleness. If you read Lee Van Ham's essays about the cosmologically explosive Christmas story of angels and wise men being the messengers of God's trumping of Caesar, then one must believe that we could experience that today—something has the power to shock us out of this love affair with what "this world" has given us. What I find contemptible is that something like C-28 obscures the way with their mixed message of Christianity and consumerism. What is it gonna be, Aurelio? (The founder.) You want to serve God or Mammon? Capitalists for Christ? If C-28 was in the business of donating plain T-shirts or hoodies to poor people with "Jesus" in black Helvetica, would anyone care about the Jesus reference? Or is Aurelio primarily a salesman who found a willing bunch of suckers who just need some clever designs? If you go to C-28 today as I did, you might not know it from any other hip site except for a few links, including a chance to buy a copy of the founder's testimony about how he "came to Christ." Well, I don't get it. If this isn't from this world, then what world? Because it sure seems pretty indistinguishable to me!

From the C-28 FAQ page:

Q: How does Christian apparel further the Gospel?

A: It is a tool for Christians to use as a conversation starter about Jesus. T-shirts with Scripture puts God’s Word out there and many people get a chance to read the message whether it’s waiting in line at the store or wherever. It’s also a way for Christians who aren’t so bold to talk to a stranger about Jesus to have His Word out there in public. Most people will never pick up a Bible or hear a verse quoted, but they will read a t-shirt.

Great. Now Jesus gets to be worn along side all the other bits of wisdom printed on T-shirts.

In Hans Christian Andersen's tale about the Emperor's New Clothes, it took a young boy to see through the lie that some snake oil selling weavers were foisting upon the emperor, his keepers, and indeed, the public at large. The power of a lie is great, especially if it is repeated often enough. This Christmas season, I take my place as the kid (admittedly not the only one) shouting out that the emperor has no clothes—the commercial Christmas is crap, all a lie we share in to feel better about a truth that we can't bear, even though it would do us good to face that our economy is teetering on collapse. And no amount of consumer spending is going to patch up the damage for long, like a band-aid on a chest wound. We're seeing through the delusional picture that Caesar has sold us. The Market is fallible. That is plausible enough. But for me, there is the added disappointment and betrayal that comes with seeing so-called Christians peddling their wares all the same. The Emperor isn't always wrapped in the traditional garb of power and glory. These days, it seems the Emperor—this world—is coming dressed in Christ-logo wear. The Emperor has new clothes, indeed. I wonder what "developing world" sweatshop they are made in. Sad. Sad. Sad.

Oh, by the way—Just 19 more shopping days till Christmas.

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