Can Mass-Appeal Christianity Thrive in a Scarcity-Driven Culture?
“I Saw Christ Crying in Hermès.” That’s the name of the new single from little-known indie artist, Slow Dakota (real name: PJ Sauerteig), a Fort Wayne, Indiana-based singer/songwriter who often explores themes of religion in his lyrics. Listen to the song here. If you haven’t heard of Slow Dakota or if his style isn’t particularly palatable to you, that’s OK. It’s sort of the point actually (read on).
Sauerteig describes the themes of “I Saw Christ…” in this way:
“[The track] proposes the idea that Christianity has withered (as a cultural monolith) for mostly economic reasons. That is, value is determined by scarcity, and by exclusivity; the harder something is to attain, or enter, the more valuable or desirable it is. Christianity markets itself as all-inclusive, placing all members of society on an equal plane, all equally loved and cherished by its God. In a scarcity-driven culture, though, no idea could be more repugnant. If everyone is given a key, what good is the door’s lock?”
The lyrics to the song are largely from the perspective of Jesus, who weeps in Hermès presumably because he sees that the high-barrier-to-entry exclusivism of a designer label like Hermès creates a more alluring appeal than do most churches that bear his name. He laments:
I made a mistake: I told everyone
That I love them equally;
That they’re all the same to me.
What a foolish thing to do —
Boy, it shows how little I know you!
I should have made my Book exclusive —
Only sold in SoHo stores,
Bouncers at the golden doors —
Then a great big line would form!
A bigger line than Heaven’s had for years!
Cynical though the song may be, it is nevertheless insightful about the state of Christianity in the western world.
I think what Sauerteig says about the value of scarcity and exclusivity is right. It’s true that in our market-driven, consumerist culture, “the harder something is to attain, or enter, the more valuable or desirable it is.” This is why speakeasies with unmarked doors always have the longest lines, and why pop-up restaurants with $200/head reservation fees have months-long waitlists. It’s why merchants can sell (and people will pay for) $7 artisan popsicles speckled with organic cacao nibs, or $9 for a pour-over cup of single estate Panamanian coffee.
Sauertig claims that this is not the way of Christianity, however; that it “markets itself as all-inclusive” and is thus repugnant in our scarcity-driven culture. On this point I think Sauertig has insight, but oversimplifies the issue.
It’s true that some Christian churches and traditions market Christianity in this way, emphasizing universalistic inclusivity. And these iterations of Christianity (e.g. mainline Protestant denominations) do indeed seem to be “withering” in the western world. When there is no cost of discipleship, when all lifestyles are affirmed, when nothing is asked of followers and they are encouraged to act, think, live and carry on as they were before, Christianity is indeed distasteful. Why would anyone bother with something so nauseously polite and politically correct?
But I would argue that this is neither the majority of churches today (certainly not the ones that are flourishing), nor the historical posture of Christianity.
Christianity is, after all, clearly exclusivist. Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And though it is not hard to attain (indeed, it cannot be attained… only received), a faithful life as a Christian disciple is not necessarily a cakewalk. Jesus asks a lot of his disciples.
This is a religion, after all, centered upon a symbol of the most torturous and degrading of deaths: the Roman cross. This is a religion literally built on humiliation. This is a path of losing life to gain it (John 12:25), putting others first (Phil. 2:3-4) and following Christ’s example of “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
To be a disciple of Jesus is to deny oneself (Matt. 16:24), to take up a cross (Luke 14:27), to be subject to persecution (John 15:20; 2 Timothy 3:12). It is to give up the creature comforts of home (Luke 9:58), to forsake the priority of family (Luke 9:59-62; 14:26), to be willing to give up all material possessions (Matt. 19:21; Luke 14:33), to be crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). It is also to embrace the messiness of community, bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2), bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and working for an impossible unity (Gal. 3:28).
Jesus might weep in Hermès, but not for the reasons this song suggests; not because his way is too easy, too comfortable or too culturally acceptable. On the contrary, his church is historically strongest where it has been most oppressed, most underground, most against-the-grain of mainstream society, which is truer to the character of the kingdom he founded.
Where it becomes about power or too comfortable with the surrounding culture, it fades. Where it challenges people to believe unpopular things and embrace discomfort or costly sacrifice, it thrives. Just ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer, early Christians in Rome, or members of underground churches in China.
I suspect this is one of the reasons why Calvinism has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few decades and theologically conservative churches (particularly globally) are growing. These forms of Christianity, unafraid to cling to offensive biblical truths (the exclusivity of Christ, the importance of repentance, biblical sexual ethics), thrive in our scarcity-driven culture precisely because they are countercultural. They are alive, in part because they are fixated on the cross of Christ more than the crown of culture’s approval.
Meanwhile, the “anything goes, ‘you are OK just as you are!’” forms of Christianity are increasingly unappealing, indistinguishable as they are from a Kiwanis Club or neighborhood civic gathering.
Pastors or Christian leaders seeking to avoid the withering of their missional impact would do well to recognize the psychological truism of the scarcity mentality. Not by making their churches into hard-to-find speakeasies or intimidatingly hip communities where even the communion bread is artisan; but rather by simply being honest about the costs of discipleship and Jesus’ countercultural call to a cruciform life.