religion sells

The following post is a collaborative work between myself and Greg Attwells. In a bit of an experiment we decided to write a blog post over successive emails. Here is the result.

“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2: 13-16)

We often think inside the parameters of the very systems that God wants to overthrow…

Many people have made the point in the past that Jesus did what he did in the Temple because he was reacting to the corruption of the Temple’s marketplace. This is, in a very real and major sense, true. But the issue was not so much that the Temple marketplace was unfairly trading sacrifices for exorbitant amounts of money, but more that the entire Temple system was unjustly exploiting the poor and marginalised, and excluding Gentiles and other people who were deemed “out of covenant” with God.

In this way the religious system of Israel had itself become exploitative and exclusive, much like the Roman Empire that it claimed to despise, under which she herself was a victim.

Interesting.

The very imperial system to which Israel herself was prisoner had become the system that she began to imitate. This was especially true of the religious aspect of her society. Imperial religion… how very frightening.

In saying this, the money changers in the Temple had a very valid reason to be there. There was a genuine need for currency to be converted in order for tithes and offerings to take place as was custom among the Jewish people for centuries. On top of this, the people selling livestock had an even more important reason to be there – try travelling a great distance on foot and keeping your goat ‘unblemished’ at the same time! It was a system that could potentially aid the people. It made sense in their culture… it wasn’t inherently corrupt.

“See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah 1:10

Before you can build & plant you need to uproot, tear down & overthrow the things that will eventually kill what needs to grow.

“How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” Jesus shouted…

What Jesus is doing here is planting the seed of a Kingdom, one that simply cannot grow in an imperial religious industry like the Temple system had become.

The Temple’s gone but the system remains.

Someone once said, “Christianity started in Palestine as a community, then moved to Greece and became a philosophy. From there it travelled to Rome and became an institution… only to arrive in America as a fully fledged enterprise.”

To America’s credit they are not the first to industrialise religion. It was happening in Jesus’ day; people earned a living from selling religious goods and services. However, we’re sure many entrepreneurs throughout history would stand in awe of some of the ’empires’ created by Christian men and women in our world today.

Let’s be honest, Christianity has in many places become the business of selling Jesus (or maybe a pale representation of the real first century Jewish peasant), and the only ones really buying it are Christians themselves.

Let’s just imagine for a second that we lived in a world where famous Christians don’t travel on private jets – they get to places the way normal people do.  In fact, all ministry efforts (including Christian resources) are gifts shared between believers. Books don’t have price tags, speakers don’t have ‘appearance’ fees, pastors actually serve people and not vice versa, and the body of Christ freely gives and it has freely received.

Sound familiar?

“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come buy and eat. Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Isaiah 55:1

“You received without paying, give without pay.” Matthew 10:8b

“What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” 1 Corinthians 9:18

Of course, you’re going to have ‘famous’ Christians no matter what – it’s the nature of the beast. Jesus and Paul were both known throughout the land; still they looked very different from many of the ‘famous’ Christians of our day. Jesus travelled the way normal people did back then – on land he walked, and by sea… well admittedly he walked then too. 🙂 He wasn’t chauffeured around from city to city by a chariot, and when Jerusalem threw a parade to honour him he rode in on a donkey. He didn’t charge people entry to listen to his sermon on the mount, and Paul didn’t charge the Corinthians $12.95 each for a copy of his letter. They demonstrated the Kingdom in both their ministry and the systems that supported their ministry. Sure they received donations and offerings, but the point is they never charged… they never turned their gifts and teachings into products.

We realise by saying all this we may be on a fast road to making many enemies. We have many friends and admire many people who sell their resources, charge for their time and make money off their ministry gifts. We love and respect these people, some of whom we could only hope to become half of who they are. Many of these folks give much of the income they earn away to various ministries and charities. These people really are amazing and we want to honour them and the contribution they are making to the Kingdom of God.

However…

The system that supports them is flawed and needs to be questioned and reformed. Please understand us; we are simply saying the system is flawed – We’re not attacking the people it supports. The fact that Jesus overturned the tables says to us he was more interested in uprooting the system that supported what the people were doing, not the people themselves.

We just want to make that clear.

Here is the issue.

Jesus may have cleared the Temple but the money changers have returned, and my generation has inherited an imperial religious industry far more advanced and insatiable than its predecessor. Those who feel compelled can’t simply start overturning tables at their local Christian bookstore and expect to reform the system (if you decide to do this then let us know because we’d love to watch). We are dealing with an empire. It won’t treat insurgents and radical thinkers very well. It never has. It may even crucify them.

Be that as it may.

The way we speak communicates our message just as much as what we say. We cannot sell the kingdom of God in a religious marketplace and expect to retain the integrity of its message. If you cannot serve both God and money, why do we think we can offer God in exchange for money? Do we imagine we can control God?

The Temple system of Jesus’ day economically supported an aristocracy of 2-3% whose affluence came at the cost of the lifestyles of peasants who made up 90% of the Palestinian population. The comparable problem with the contemporary industrialisation of the Christian religion is not that people earn money from it per se, but rather that Christians unquestioningly engage in the capitalist enterprise without ever challenging it, or the tyranny it creates for the majority of the world’s population.

Thus the religious empire actually undermines the very thing it is trying to sell – the good news of the kingdom of God. This is because the empire/kingdom of the marketplace that supports the elite and exploits and excludes the remaining majority actually competes with and opposes the empire/kingdom of God which seeks a different reality. In Jesus, God kicked off that grand plan called the kingdom which rejects the imperial systems of the world and offers a totally different kind of empire – one of love, equity, justice, peace and mercy.

“To those who sold… he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” John 2:16

Strong words… Much stronger than our own.

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Posted on June 8, 2010, in Church/Ecclesiology, Mission and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. James Castle

    Bravo gentlemen! My personal difficulty with this great post is the response. Who will begin this reform? It has to start with someone.

  2. Great work guys. I have felt uncomfortable with the system for quite some time (although have benefited immensely from some of the products in it), but there is something left that I can’t quite get my head around. So much has it perplexed me that I have walked away from much of what I was doing within ministry.

    My question is this: If we accept that we ought not to turn God into a commodity, then where does that leave those of us who feel called to a life making those things which we feel we shouldn’t make money from? Should a singer become a ‘secular’ artist just so that they can feel comfortable making money from their job? Either we have to abandon devoting our lives to producing Christian music, books, etc etc, or it can only become a part-time pursuit, done after we get home from a long day at work and with the little spare change we can throw at it. The reality (of which I am sure you are aware) is that living costs money, and it has to come from somewhere. What do I tell my child when he is 10 and can’t do all the other things children do (parties, presents, outings, sport, music lessons, holidays)? ‘Sorry, darling, but mummy and daddy work for God so you have to be a social outcast. Try not to let it screw you up!’ These things may not be essential, but I don’t want to risk my child resenting God because he perceives that He is the reason his family were so poor.

    Interested to hear your thoughts, because I agree with you, but don’t have an answer for this.

  3. Shane Clifton

    Enjoyed your post guys. But i too am interested in your response to Lauren. Can human communities survive without system, without institution, without industry? Are you suggesting we do away with the pastorate, with the the bible colleges, and should authors not get paid for the time they put into writing their books (not that there is any money in publishing anyway). Or do we want to retain these things but have people work for nothing? Personally, i would love to do so – but then i come home to my teenage boys and realise that life in this society demands more than mere idealistic critique of the ‘system’.
    Of course, i probably sound like a ‘sell out’ at this point – but i am too tired at this time of night to say anything more profound!

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Lauren and Shane – loving the points you have made. I have spoken to Greg today and we are looking at writing a follow up post to deal with the issues raised (rather than comment). Hopefully we will have something up soon.

  5. Religious non-believer

    Have you ever read Richard Dawkins ‘The God Delusion’?

  6. Religious non-believer

    Thank you, glad to be here. I’m impressed – as a Christian, what are your thoughts on it and Dawkin’s general ideology?

  7. I probably have mixed feelings about TGD, and you’ll have to forgive me if I am unclear or plain wrong about the details because I read it about 3 or 4 years ago.

    I remember agreeing with much of what Dawkins wrote, especially in regard to some of the more shallow or fallacious methodologies employed to attempt to “prove” God’s existence. Indeed, I don’t know that such a task is all that possible in regards to employing scientific method.

    But of course the argument works both ways – scientific method cannot prove *or* disprove God in my view because it is necessarily consigned solely to the natural world.

    I found that Dawkins overall was actually quite naive in regard to a large number of topics, not least the nuanced views of Christians across the world. This is best demonstrated in his straw man belief that the overwhelming proof for evolution disproves religious belief…

    … as a Christian who believes in evolution I find this quite ridiculous to be honest.

    Moreover Dawkins’ understanding of Christian theology was quite demonstrably ignorant. Again, his straw man arguments probably convinced a lot of people of the apparent stupidity of Christian (or other religious) belief, but to someone like me such arguments were at best illustrative of one segment of faith alternate to my own, at worst plain misrepresentation. I found Dawkins’ representations of religion to be largely caricatured.

    I also find it ironic that Dawkins, in attacking militant religious fundamentalism, turns out to be equally dogmatic. It is quite telling that Prospect Magazine, which once called Dawkins one of the top three intellectuals in the world (a fact noted on the back of TGD) also gave TGD a shockingly negative review entitled “Dawkins the dogmatist”, labelling the book “incurious and rambling.”

    I am certainly no fundamentalist, so I find a level of agreement with Dawkins in regard to critiquing fundamentalism, though I suppose to many people (theist and atheist alike) Dawkins came out looking ironically similar.

    I also would acknowledge that for a scientist Dawkins spent relatively little time weighing up the scientific probabilities compared with adopting philosophical arguments, and in this field Dawkins is no expert. I find this curious…

    I suppose what I have said here does not directly address the question of ideology, though such is possibly implied. I find it interesting that Anthony Flew called Dawkins “a secularist bigot” – perhaps this at least describes the ideology behind the book. The implication that religion should be kept out of the public democratic sphere is in itself undemocratic – it implies that some values are acceptable and others are not. It also privileges some forms of knowing (empirical forms) over others forms of knowing (experiential and emotional forms), though a world without all of these forms would be unbalanced. Indeed, the deepest form of knowing I am aware of is *love* – a conglomerate of cognitive, experiential and emotional connection. I think we could learn a lot from love…

    I’m not sure how much I answered your questions, but I am keen to keep dialoguing about this kind of thing. I hope my critique of TGD did not come across as overly harsh. As I said, I found agreeable assertions in the book, and may have more in common with Dawkins than he may wish to believe.

    Matt

  8. Hello there Matt, I just stumbled across your blog…very interesting so far after my quick perusal. Have you written a follow up to this little spanner yet?
    Thanks,
    Rach

    • Rach,

      Unfortunately Greg and I have not written a follow-up to this blog yet. He has sent me something that I just haven’t had time to have a look at. Come August I’m hoping to have some more time to work on some ideas, including Part 2 of our thoughts on this stuff.

      Thanks for commenting! I hope to hear more from you on this humble blog!

      Matt

  9. Picked up your blog post via google the other day and absolutely think its great. Keep up the truly great work.

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