In a NY Times op-ed this morning, David Brooks takes a plunge into pop and rap by comparing two new songs by Chance the Rapper and Taylor Swift. He briefly dissects what they suggest about the difference between sincerity and authenticity, as well as our cultural regard for “branding.”
“The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about ‘working on their brand,’ and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.
“A person has a soul, which is what Chance is worrying about. A brand has a reputation, which is the title of Swift’s next album. A person has private dignity. A brand is a creation for an audience. ‘I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,’ is how Swift puts it.” It’s worth a read. Consider how this might describe the current cultural moment, its political personalities and existential feel.
But this got me thinking about the world of church and spirituality. For several decades, the church, the American church especially, was captured by the “branding” craze and to some degree in the process lost sight of a more primary and truly necessary component of its work, which, ironically enough, could be described as its soul work.
Branding was meant to distinguish the religious product a particular church had packaged (note how mercantile this sounds) in order to attract an audience (congregation) to fill its pews and prosper its growth. The megachurch came to be seen as the ideal outcome because this meant it had achieved a significant share of an available and hopefully expanding market.
Institutionally, this makes sense to a certain degree because running the “business” of the church requires people and resources. The problem comes when the church’s essential soul work, its deepest commitment to following after the way of Jesus, takes a back seat to promoting a brand. It can easily lose its way in this, and we don’t need to look very far for examples of how cultural forces can overwhelm its primary commitments to loving God and neighbor without distinction.
Christianity is paradoxical: in order to fully embody its grounding principles, believers must readily give themselves away in love as its founder, mentor, and savior modeled. They must be willing to speak a prophetic word, as Jesus did, at least from time to time, risking “market share” for those who will not like having their predilections, biases, and attitudes challenged. Remember that while Jesus did not advance a partisan agenda, his way in the world had political outcomes as evidenced by his own death at the hands of the state. In this way, we dance along the boundary between stability and change, continuity and transformation, even death and resurrection.
There isn’t a clear roadmap through this, other than the one we have in our gospels. We make our way with fear and trembling, recognizing that the life of faith isn’t necessarily easy, nor was “easy” ever the point. Love was the point. Always has been, always will be.