“Jesus” for Sale

God may not have appeared to Mother Theresa, but He needs to promote His book.

For the uninitiated, Book Expo America started as an annual convention for largely secular booksellers and has since morphed into a monster marathon featuring seminar series, schmooze fests, and, of course, sales. Literary lions, baby bestsellers, and the latest kiddie creations sit perched in the autographed section, greeting the throngs of literati wannabes. Bookish princesses don their best in preparation for the bestseller ball. But like Cinderella’s carriage, most of their wares will turn into pumpkins. Book Expos are no easy task for any author, for it is here that one sees exactly how one’s book goes from page to stage. Like watching sausage get made, seeing the inner workings of the book factory makes it tough to maintain one’s palate. The more savvy publicists and publishers know how to walk that fine line between promoting and pimping. They’re the ones I go to for the best Godstuff. The rest provide more than ample fodder for my satire. Take, for example, the two lapsed-Catholics-turned-“humor”-writers who tried to market their anti-Catholic joke book by giving away “Baby Jesus stigmata cookies,” a gag that conveniently forgot that Jesus didn’t hang on the cross until he had been out of diapers for about three decades. No wonder their crud tasted lousy. As always, the large publishers dominated the main stage of this three-ring circus, using giveaways to push their product. Plastic Jesus figures give a tacit bobble-headed approval to the madness. A side of me wants to storm the exhibition halls and throw a temple tantrum. But I’d better leave the table-turning-over to Jesus. I have to wonder how he’d feel if he saw himself branded like he was the newest shiny theological toy. Unlike some, I don’t presume to know the inner workings of the Savior, but I seriously doubt these depictions were on his mind when he contemplated the cross in Gethsemane.

Buy the book.

Forget about trying to find any signs of the risen Christ. Something tells me Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t exactly like “doing lunch” with his classier counterpart Commercial Christ®. Despite the business books proclaiming Jesus as the perfect model for today’s corporate CEO, he doesn’t own the proper Armani suit or even a decent pair of shoes. For sure, he’d get shown the door for blowing his stack at the shareholders one time too many and probably end up in jail for giving away all the company’s assets. On his blog, author Kester Brewin asked a number of writers to respond to this question: “What are the ‘grand challenges’ for theology for the 21st century?” I answered: “The challenge is finding ways to communicate theological change without becoming yet another crass Christian marketing machine.” Rob VanAlkemade, director of the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? often gets asked, “Isn’t it hypocritical to ask people to pay money to see a film promoting anti-consumerism?” He responds, “No, but it is ironic.” Labels like emergent, evangelical, and even Christian can be helpful points of reference, provided one doesn’t take the label, turn it into a designer logo, and market the product as if it’s more important than Christ. How can anyone preach against empire with a marketing team? This makes about as much sense as a Quaker owning a gun shop.

Il Papa makes an appearance.

I must confess, though, that the Book Expo brings back memories when I became a full-blown spiritual book junkie. During the 1980s, I was highly involved in both the Episcopal renewal and adult children of alcoholics movements. In my never-ending search for the next holy high, I consumed spirituality and recovery books like they were crack. I couldn’t get enough theological porn to satisfy the cravings in my gut. After a while, the buzz wore off when I realized that, once you get beyond the flashy covers and the feel-good endorsements, most of these books deliver the same prepackaged content. The product placements and promotions are the same wherever there’s a concerted effort to capitalize on a movement of the Spirit. When these sparks get overhyped and mass-marketed, it isn’t long before the light that attracted folks in the first place flickers out. Although these hucksters pushing the latest faith fads provide me a never-ending supply of material, my heart does go out to those hordes of authors whose first novel showed a lot of potential but instead of honing their craft, they sold out to the highest bidder and began to churn out material catered to the whims of the market rather than the stirrings in their souls. The promise of financial stability, coupled with the lure of power and fame, can present a really tempting piece of forbidden fruit that even Jesus struggled to resist. One of the advantages of belonging to the weaker sex is that I seldom get even a peek at the Garden of anti-Eden, the Judas-type opportunities to cash in at the expense of Christ. So I am not faced with the temptations that beset those mostly-male authors who find themselves suddenly thrust into the spiritual spotlight and anointed as the new Messiah. Even though I satirize the sellouts, I understand why actors, musicians, writers, visual artists, and other creatives decide to take the money and run. I’ve taken on tons of non-writing gigs just so I could eat. At times, I’ve questioned why I don’t just hop on the faith-fluff bandwagon and churn out bunny beatitudes with the rest of them. I’d be living a lot more comfortably, that’s for sure. But whenever I drift off into Commercial Christian® country, the thought of Jesus coming back to earth and turning the tables on me shakes me back to reality. Adapted from Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ (Zondervan, August, 2010). Hear a portion of this excerpt at Christianaudio.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).