2016-06-30
Reprinted by permission of Faithworks Magazine.

Ancient Rome: Two strangers meet along a dusty road. Miles pass in pleasant conversation. Obscure references to religious ideas slip into the dialogue. The men sense a spiritual kinship but are wary of expressing it. After all, Christianity is a criminal offense punishable by death.

They stop to rest. The discussion rambles from the latest war news to the price of bread and the hijinks of the Roman Senate. The younger of the two pushes his walking stick through the dust as he talks, tracing half an oval.

The older man glances at the mark, then into the eyes of his new acquaintance, and quickly around to see who else might be paying attention. Then with his own staff, he draws a mirror image, connecting with the first line at one end but intersecting it at the other. "He is risen!" he exclaims. "He is risen indeed!" comes the reply.

Modern Rome: Two American tourists meet while waiting to clear customs. One wears a $50 pullover knit shirt. The logo replicates what the ancient Christians drew in the dirt--an emblem of a fish. The other sports a baseball cap with a four-letter acronym on the crown: WWJD?

"Nice shirt," says one. "Great hat," says the other.

What a difference a few centuries make.

The cost attached to that original Christian icon was severe.

Display the fish symbol, and the culture could demand you pay with your life. In the 21st century, the cost of Christian symbols is more ambiguous. Christian gear--clothes, jewelry, bumper stickers, and related merchandise--generates an estimated $3 billion in annual revenue. But the real value of those purchases is more difficult to peg.

Some evangelicals say "Christian wear" is an effective witnessing tool. Others say it does more harm than good, particularly when the actions of Christians contradict their T-shirts.

Some things haven't changed over the centuries. Now, as then, Christian symbols remain a means of identifying "friendlies." But what was once a furtive code for a persecuted religious minority is now a spiritual fashion statement. While early Christians contemplated, often in the dank darkness of the underground tombs of Rome, how to live faithfully the example of Jesus, today's believers, especially evangelicals, are apt to broadcast that intention on brightly colored bracelets and T-shirts asking, "What Would Jesus Do?"

The companies that sell such items uniformly say they create witnessing opportunities. "The average shirt is read 10,000 times!" touts Spiritual Wear on its website, spiritualwear.com. "You're just a click away from ordering some of the best Christian apparel available. Make a statement of faith with what you wear!"

"Proclaiming the Good News one tee at a time!" announces Kerusso Activewear. "With the right message and emphasis, a tee-shirt can definitely help bring someone to Christ."

Living Epistles Apparel (livingepistles.com), whose Christian gear includes everything from clothes to mouse pads, describes itself as "a witnessing company dedicated to helping Christians creatively share the truth of the gospel and to create witnessing opportunities for Christians...."

The websites are the latest angle on Christian marketing, but the same products have been available for years through Christian bookstores. The exhibit hall at the annual Christian Booksellers Association is crammed with as much Christian gear as books and Bibles, which account for only 40% of sales at the average Christian bookstore.

Do these products deliver what they promise? Are they effective for evangelism?

Opinions cover the spectrum. Many people say such items do a better job of identifying and encouraging Christians than attracting non-believers to Christ. And some people fear a negative shadow may fall on Christianity if those displaying the items act like jerks.

Even the minister who instigated the WWJD explosion looks forward to the time the profitable sheen wears off that particular concept. About a decade ago, Reformed Church minister Janie Tinkleberg came up with the WWJD bracelets for her youth group. She didn't copyright the idea, so anyone is free to produce WWJD items. But she doubts the fad is a good thing.

"I think it has diluted the message," she told Knight-Ridder News Service. "I want the fad to fade so [the concept] will wind up where it belongs--back with people wearing them who know what these little bracelets really mean."

"I suspect bumper stickers and bracelets have the most effects on two groups: the people who wear or display them, as a manner of self-expression, and those for whom it is a 'hot button' topic, either agreeing or disagreeing fervently," said William Benoit, who teaches rhetoric, persuasive speaking, argument, and advocacy at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "I doubt that the people in the middle are much influenced."

Tom Collinear, communications professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, says the growing popularity of Christian gear could "signal a search for meaning at a time when the headlines are about things like Columbine, on the one hand, and dotcom/marry-a-millionaire/instant wealth on the other."

Betty Talbert, who teaches spiritual formation at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is overwhelmingly supportive. "Since the time of Constantine, it has been difficult for Christians to maintain their religious identity while being accepted as a part of the culture," she insists.

"Wearing a religious symbol--a cross, a fish, or a WWJD bracelet--is a way some of us testify to ourselves and to others that our commitment to Christ is about everyday living and not just Sunday worship. Personally, I like religious bumper stickers. The first time I put one on my car I did so with fear and trembling. I was a university professor who had just encountered Christ in a deep conversion experience. I knew that people might laugh at me, but I felt it was important to place a symbol of my new allegiance on my car.

"I suspect our feelings about whether folks should wear Christian T-shirts is an issue of personality type and personal taste rather than an issue of correct or incorrect theology. I think it is very important not to judge those who do or do not display their religious commitments in their dress. One thing we know that Jesus would never do is treat a person with condescension."

Guy Mattox, a retired pastor from King George, Va., says Christian T-shirts gain validation when they are baptized with the sweat of hard work. "If someone is wearing a shirt that says he is a follower of Jesus while he is replacing gutters or reshingling a roof or rebuilding a porch, then they are worthy of the name they are claiming."

Almost 40 years ago, when Mattox was a young pastor, he presented his gas credit card for payment to a service station attendant who was giving his large vocabulary of profanity a major workout. When the man saw the "Rev." in front of Mattox's same, he apologized profusely.

Mattox went home, cut up all his credit cards, and had them reissued without his clerical title. His reasoning: His Christianity isn't viable if it is detectable only by a religious title on a piece of plastic. "If there is not something about my life and my attitude that says I belong to Christ, then I don't deserve the honor because I graduated from a theological seminary."

Les Switzer, a seminary graduate and professor of journalism at the University of Houston, sees more than witnessing and fashion behind Christian gear. "Could I suggest that this is an Americanized, sanitized form of indulgence, in the sense that the believer pays money to obtain an icon--for this is what they are--to help deal with their sins, to absolve them of guilt, or at least to make them feel more comfortable?"

Indulgence? Icon? Evangelism tool? Fashion statement?

Or is it just a T-shirt?

Either way, we've come a long way from the catacombs.

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