Although I’m a preacher these days, which still seems a little strange, there was a time in my life when I, like so many “nones” and “dones,” left the church. In my early 20’s, I started a rock band, not that the two realms are mutually exclusive, it’s just what I did. For over a decade, I sang loudly and quite convincingly at the top of my lungs about the vicissitudes of American culture. While I easily lost myself in the ever-exciting carney life and the accompanying taste of fame that came with success, I eventually crashed hard into a concept that had been taught to me in my first class from undergrad, music business 101: “Art and commerce do not mix.” You stir them together and the soul of the art becomes colonized, taken hostage to greed, money, big business. Art becomes something else altogether, something that no longer resembles itself.
A decade later, I became what my jaded music business professors had warned me about – a successful brand. As I constantly observed myself in glossy photos and read the reviews in magazines and papers, I felt myself changing, becoming more commodity than human, a mere product of a large corporation. As the brand, “Me, Inc.,” I began to lose sight of my own depth and dimension. I was searching for the real me, fooled by the constant accolades into believing that I was special, and before I ever made contact with my true self, I had sold her rights to the highest bidder, a major label. A decade after leaving the church, I left the music business, too, and the search continued for some core in me that felt authentic. I came full circle, oddly enough, to a seminary that has as its title, “Divinity School.” I joked that I was learning how to become Divine but what I found there was a story that would lead me home, as T. S. Elliot says, “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
What is true about art and commerce is also true about Christianity and commerce, they are not supposed to mix, but in America, at least, they have always been intertwined. So much so that a visiting historian/philosopher to an early 1800’s America had a hard time telling the difference between the two. Alexis de Toqueville wrote of his disturbing discoveries in Democracy in America that wherever he expected to meet a clergyman, he met, instead, a politician… a salesman. He noted the vast power that the clergy held over the people in matters of morality, and more disturbingly, in the court cases he attended, that one’s church membership or “proof of salvation” was also a necessary and vital piece of evidence in order for a convicted person to gain a hearing.
“Proof of salvation” was not only like having a stamped ticket to heaven, it was seen as a one of the necessities for good standing in the community and in a newly forming civilization, that can mean life or death. Some American religious historians claim that salvation soon became almost synonymous with what it meant to be an American citizen. It was not only protection in the here and the afterworld, it was currency, one could get ahead in society by trading on one’s good name, backed by proof of salvation. Churches often functioned as the civilizing and moralizing arm of the government in a burgeoning nation seeking freedom from religious oppression and creating, in the wake of that freedom, a new kind of religion. Some have named it “Capitalist Christianity,” its main product, salvation.
It wasn’t always this way. When Jesus told Peter he was the to be the rock of the church, I doubt he had a brand platform in mind. It must have been tempting, Jesus was so good at metaphor and the turning of a phrase, a natural born salesman, some say, the greatest salesman in the world. Yet, he simply had nothing to sell, which made him even more appealing. You can’t sell what’s free. We tend to be confused by a Jesus who has nothing to sell. To be Christian was to choose a different way of living, a way of freedom from the exploitative tactics of oppressive governments that treated human flesh like property. To choose to follow Christ was to be restored to human dignity, to the image of God, to be “twice born,” living the soul’s life from one’s truest self. This was known as salvation. It was to opt out of becoming a commodity, to become what Jesus called, “free.”
Early America was a fertile ground for the commodification of Christianity. When Jefferson opened up free enterprise for religion, denominations appeared as numerous as the cereal boxes in our modern grocery store aisles, each claiming to have cornered the market on goodness, with specialized ingredients of salvation, one of a kind differences in doctrinal belief, each one claiming to be the right one for you. Many developed their own boards and agencies modeled after the US Government, their own set of publishing houses, schools, line of churches and ordination processes for its clergy, of varying degrees from what is known as low to high church. And then the non-denominations came, and so on. The intention, of course, was rooted in something true, to all become effective systems for the salvation of the world. But with competition as the driving force, well, you get the idea, from Fruit Loops to Fiber Bran, a vast spectrum of brand mayhem, all claiming to have cornered the market on salvation. The process of branding Christianity evolved over time into the multi million dollar industry of church.
Some call this period of American history, the Great Disenchantment, whenever mystery, spirit and soul are locked up, taken hostage or, as in the case of the great Spirit keepers, the Native Americans, warehoused and decimated, in favor of the progress of the powerful. In Rock and Roll, church or in any realm where spirit and industry meet, there seems to be a template in our American history about how things get done in the world. At some point along the way, many of us reach our breaking point, our disenchantment threshold, and simply fall out, sputter out, spin out of the brand life, crashing, at last, into a thing called the soul. It often feels like failure when it happens, but it is, in fact, the greatest thing that could possibly happen to you, falling into your soul.
When it happens, it’s not so much that we are to run screaming from anything that resembles a brand, or chastise those (all of us) who have to function in a branded world, rather, we learn to live from a truer center, sinking more deeply into the roots of the soul, learning the difference between magic and mystery.
Strangely, back to the strangeness of becoming a preacher, it does still happen in the church, this birthing ground of the soul’s life in the world. In churches where mystery, soul and spirit are still kept alive in the here and now, anywhere we are searching honestly for the Word made flesh. And it is the primary reason for the church’s existence, to offer freedom to the soul as an alternative to being suspended in a branded life.
“and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)