According to scripture, upon returning to heaven after his death and resurrection, Jesus sat down in a chair next to God. I imagine them sitting like this often, watching the events on Planet Earth and making commentary. My guess would be that, after lengthy dialogues regarding natural disasters, poverty, disease, and whether or not to keep Bono on retainer, God and Jesus might discuss more shallow topics such as politics, popular culture, and America’s version of Christianity. Oh to be a holy fly buzzing around heaven’s throne as God the Father and God the Son dish about topics like Glenn Beck, Ted Haggard’s GQ spread, and the theologically-charged tweets of @JohnPiper. Now, I doubt that God and Jesus are as exciting as the women on The View, but depending on your theology, the estrogen levels might be similar.
What God and Jesus think about how Christians celebrate them is anybody’s guess; however, you don’t need a seminary degree to notice the myriad of discrepancies when comparing the current “isms” of American Christianity to the teachings of Jesus from the four Gospels. While most of America’s self-identifying Christians claim to follow and celebrate the ways of Jesus, the majority of us also invest and celebrate the returns of a “Jesus” that we’ve created, branded, and printed over and over again onto preshrunk cotton. Humanity has long manipulated Jesus’ teachings to condone power, hate, and a long list of other attributes not mentioned in the beatitudes. But it took America’s unique love for God, hell, and capitalism to help brand the Christian faith into something that not only affected the outcomes of local and national elections, but also offered us the ability to move mountains (of merchandise).
My friend James had recently converted from Baptist to agnostic when he accidentally coined the phrase “Jesus with a registered trademark” during one of our many conversations about why he left the faith. “People act as though they have Jesus all figured out,” he told me, “But as far as I’m concerned, most Christians have created a Jesus in their own image, one that they can edit, control, and use to make money.” In emails James began referring to the branded Messiah as JESUS®. While I knew that some of James’s proclamations were based solely on his own experiences and the anger that he was still working through, I also knew that there was truth to what he was saying. Angry truth. But still, truth. In one email, James wrote, “Jesus and I would probably get along just fine”–which at the time, I highly doubted–“but Matthew, I can’t stand his PR.”
I don’t think I fully grasped what James meant until a few months later when I was in Atlanta at the annual International Christian Retail Show (ICRS). Standing at a table in the middle of the ICRS exhibit hall, a five-acre room featuring every kind of “Jesus”-inspired merchandise you can imagine, I looked down and sitting on a table in front of me, was a cardboard cutout of Jesus “announcing” a new product line called “Praise Panties.” Yes, Praise Panties–all-cotton briefs for women who wanted to hide God’s word in her pants. If I had any doubts that JESUS® was real, seeing with my own eyes his name and words printed across the crotch of pink, yellow, and baby blue panties turned me into a full-fledged believer.
Unlike the Jesus who preached humility and peace and told his followers that the last will be first in the kingdom of heaven, branded Jesus® is an easier sell, I suppose. Believing in JESUS® allows pastors to promote a faith that promises prosperity, blessing, and holy interest rates far better than banks offer. JESUS® happily sides with a political party. JESUS® loves helping Christian NFL players score touchdowns. JESUS® hates gay people, Muslims, and France. JESUS® loves gimmicks, schticks, memorabilia, and three minute pop songs that promote its message to 12-year-olds. But JESUS® isn’t perfect. It can’t handle questions or doubt or most conversations that involve Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Furthermore, if JESUS® is unable to convert you, convince you, or shame you into joining the club, it usually defaults to using fear-tactics involving guilt and eternal damnation.
But JESUS® has cool t-shirts, artsy coffee mugs, and can throw one hell of a church worship service. And as long as you wear them, drink from them, and show up for them on a regular basis, it’s easy to believe that JESUS® loves you. But JESUS® also tends to make us prideful, unmerciful, and bent on being right–all of the same attributes that the religious leaders possessed during Jesus’ time on earth.
That’s because JESUS® turns “faith, hope, and love” into a tagline printed in a script font across a pair of panties. But to Jesus, faith, hope, and love are spiritual realities that we as humanity can pursue, believe in, and occasionally experience. Unfortunately, that’s not an easy sell.
If God and Jesus do find time to converse about the lesser important events that happen here on Planet Earth, I’m sure they find some value in the brand of faith that we Americans have created. I mean, sure, we lack humility, and grace isn’t always our strength. And yes, some of us still think patriotism is a spiritual gift. But if they ever decide to develop their own product line or run for office or develop a social media strategy, they know who to call.