Perhaps the medium really is the message

I teach a seminar titled "Exegete the Culture" at Palm Beach Atlantic University that studies the religious content of secular media as well as how the surrounding media culture affects the church. I'be been doing classes on this subject for a decade-plus, so I have read more than my share of articles about the mass-marketing of pop religion. I have also done some time covering the meetings of the CBA (once known as the Christian Booksellers Association) and if you have been to one of those, you know what I'm talking about. You have to hit me with something stronger than hand-knit Christian sweaters for dogs to get my attention.

In the Exegete seminar, one of the things we note is how media have always helped shape the church -- from the Roman roads and St. Paul's epistles to the printing press and Protestant preaching. This is a reality that is hard to miss, but many people do.

Anyway, a small article in the Sunday New York Times covered some of this territory and found an interesting wrinkle or two. I refer to reporter Rob Walker's "Consumed" feature titled "Cross Selling." It focuses on an businessman named -- this is a direct quote -- "Aurelio F. Barreto 3rd" and his new chain of Christian retail stores in Southern California shopping malls. The chain's name is C28, which Walker informs us is a "reference to the verse Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." The goods carry the "Not of this World" brand name.

The hook for the story is that the goods sold in these stores are not your basic Baby Boomer Christian megachurch happy-clappy fare. It is a bit edgy, in a mild way, and -- key point -- not so obviously faith-based that it is like hitting strangers with what one Christian artist likes to call a "Christian brick." Here is Walker on this:

What's interesting is not so much the messages that the hoodies, belt buckles and other items carry, but rather their graphic style, which looks more suited to a skate or surf boutique, or perhaps the goth-ish mall chain Hot Topic.

The Not of This World logo, for example, looks like something from an old Led Zeppelin album cover. On one T-shirt, it's paired with a skull and what look like flames, plus the slogan "Bad Company Corrupts"; look more closely, and you can read what's written around the edge of the design, a passage from 1 Corinthians: "Do not be misled: bad company corrupts good character." . . . The approach is reminiscent of anti-corporate "subvertising" -- manipulating a familiar logo or style to carry an oppositional message -- except that this time the message is not anti-brand but rather pro-Christ.

Read the story for yourself. It has a nice, non-mocking feel to it.

As a news trend, this subject can probably be filed in the post-Contemporary Worship folder along with all of the stories about the "emerging church" movement. But this story is certainly not out of date. It might even be timeless. Note this wonderful quote that Walker uses, from the American Tract Society in 1834: "The young demand something more entertaining than mere didactic discussion."

World without end, amen.

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