October 18, 2017

Recommendations and Reviews: Brand Jesus by Tyler Wigg Stevenson

brandjesuscover11.JPGHow do you know I like this book? I spent three hours writing the review, hit publish and WordPress promptly ate it.

I’m rewriting it.

Tyler Wigg Stevenson
is a writer, preacher and political activist with credentials as wide-ranging as a Yale Divinity M.Div., a year as an assistant to John Stott and being part of the beginnings of a Strategic Security think-tank with the late Senator Alan Cranston.

He’s also part of the new voices within evangelicalism that defy easy categorization as “left” or “right,” but who are offering evangelicals a new, more honest, view of themselves as Christians living in “the empire” that is the modernized west. The discussion of Christians and empire involves mostly scholars from the center/left of the evangelical spectrum- Wright, Crossan, Walsh and Keesmaat- but the applications of that study are desperately needed among Christians and churches that are unlikely to ever hear it from their pastors.

Stevenson’s new book Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age, is perhaps the most accessible and convincing recent critique of consumerism in American religion that you could give to a layperson, minister or college student. Beginning with a well-illustrated and convincing historical analysis of why we find ourselves addicted to mammon, Stevenson then moves to an exegesis and application of Romans 1, 2 and 12. In those chapters, his debt to John Stott is obvious, as he cuts no corners in establishing that the worldview-shaping potential of the Roman empire parallels our own situation as loyal members of the American, western empire of materialistic identity and fulfillment.

Evangelicals like their guilt in small doses, generally aimed at predictable places and never challenging their folk theology. Stevenson skips the guilt entirely, and instead builds the case where Romans does: what is idolatry- and mammon is idolatry- doing to us? How is it shaping and changing us? His answers are powerful and undeniable, and by including us in the Romans diagnosis, right down to hyper-sexuality in the church, Stevenson opens the door for the help that comes from Romans as well.

Because evangelicals are so imitative of the culture, the issues raised by Stevenson become quite fundamental. Have we joined the life of Jesus or asked Jesus into our consumerism? Are evangelicals Christians in the New Testament sense or a niche market with particular loyalties to religious brands? Have we really grappled with the collective expressions of consumer culture that go down to the most basic levels of our economic life? Have we considered how the Lordship of Jesus Christ changes economics for anyone in any empire?

These are questions that younger evangelicals are ready to ask. Many other evangelicals might be tempted to throw this book into the bin alongside Ron Sider and Jim Wallis, but Stevenson is quite different in tone and approach. He is not advocating the predictable entrenched positions on issues relating to cultural issues- and some on the right will quickly note that- but he is walking us through the awareness of spiritual compromise that can bring the first steps of repentance and reformation. This isn’t a rant or a condemnation, but a helpful diagnosis and prescription for a cure.

When Stevenson does critique the Religious Right for their implication in a consumerist Christianity, he can fall short of the kind of convincing case he makes in the rest of the book. When he takes off on examples of specific kinds of Christian materialism, like t-shirts, you might wonder if the point is solidly founded as the material from Romans. These parts of Stevenson’s case may not be quite as convincing to all who need to read this book, but Stevenson’s application of Romans 12 is solid and the examples of Christian consumerism do give evidence of a 7 billion dollar business that evangelicals have created. You and I might want to look away, but that’s not the way of wisdom.

This is a subject that church growth, seeker sensitive churches won’t get near. It’s a subject that conservative evangelicals avoid because of an assumption it leads to liberal politics. It’s a subject that young people need to hear about, but once the issue is raised, the application and actions that might follow make many parents and churches uneasy. All that being true, this is a book that needs to be reviewed, read and distributed now. It’s time for the American church to face its own failure and a more hopeful future.

The book is close to 200 pages. It’s well-written and a good first book. Pick it up for yourself or start a discussion group at your church or ministry. It’s very provocative book and it will do everyone good to grapple with the issues Stevenson raises.

Comments

  1. We should ask Paula White what she thinks of the book.

  2. An excellent companion piece to this is “On Earth As It Is In Advertising?” by Sam Van Eman. He points out how we are sold a bill of goods that aren’t any good. His name for it the “sim-gospel”. I’ll make sure I pick up this new one. It sounds quite good too!b

  3. Stevenson misunderstands the role of branding and marketing in the church. His article is mislead. See my response:

    http://theophilogue.wordpress.com/2009/01/10/to-brand-or-not-to-brand-the-gospel•___•__•_•-a-response-to-tyler-wigg-stevenson/

    Also, see my interview with a guy who does branding and marketing for the cause of the gospel (it’s only 8 minutes long) here:
    http://urbanglory.org/index.php?id=114

    These give a different perspective on the discussion, so you should expose yourself to them.

    Blessings,

    Bradley