By Trevor Rankin
Most labels today go hand in hand with a brand. If you think of a label like Target, images of a bullseye, a white dog and the color red come to mind. Even names are often connected to branding. For example, Tom Brady is more than just a person. Tom Brady, also known as TB12, is a brand characterized by competition and a winning culture captured in the moment of raising a Lombardi Trophy. TB12 is a brand complete with a logo, merchandise, a book and a color scheme. The slogan of TB12, “sustaining peak performance,” coined in the subtitle of The TB12 Method points customers toward success in the sports world and beyond. Other labels from every corner of our culture – like Nike, Democrat, Kanye West and Bethel – all have brands associated with them. If you can name it, you can probably brand it.
Brands are designed to market people, products and ideas. Brands are a collage of aesthetics that attempt to embody and represent a characteristic. When I wear a Nike t-shirt, I am doing more than wearing a nice-looking shirt. I am also representing and marking myself as a participant in the spirit of Nike to “just do it.” Brands are marketable because not only does the purchaser buy the product, they also buy a share in the spirit, reputation or character of the product.
Because only those who have bought into a brand can be included in it, brands naturally must have boundaries. A brand defines who is in and who is outside of the brand. When I wear a Bethel hoodie, I am associated with Bethel University as opposed to Northwestern. I am marked as on Team Bethel by virtue of sporting its gear.
Brands are necessary, useful parts of our culture, but when branding tries to encapsulate labels with as much depth as “Christian” or “Jesus Christ,” issues inevitably bubble over.
The label of “Christian” is one we are comfortable assigning to ourselves and others who fit the Christian brand. The brand connected to the label “Christian” usually includes a certain way of talking, acting and looking, which more often than not confuses our own assumptions for Christianity. Much of what we mark as “Christian” are more reflections of our own culture than they are expressions of the heart of Christianity.
The downfall of many of the leaders at the helm of a marketed Christianity show that community with Christ cannot be represented in a brand. The wave of exposure at Hillsong is just the latest example of the corruption that lies below the surface of a Christianity that has been reduced to a commodity.
A Christianity true to Jesus can never be a brand because it is not marketable, profitable or popular. The way of Jesus can never be encapsulated in a brand because it does not create an in-group versus an out-group. When Christianity becomes a brand, all of a sudden those who fit the mold are accepted and those who don’t are excluded, but Jesus welcomes everyone. Over and over again in the gospels, Jesus welcomes the outsider. Jesus welcomes the people we reject.
Christianity can never be limited to the brands we create out of it. Put simply, commodification always distorts Christianity. The call of Jesus transcends the neat ways we try to package the Christian life and challenges us to live radically for God.
The radical call of Jesus is most clearly depicted through the cross. As the central symbol of Christianity, the cross reveals both God and the Christian life to us. You can’t brand that without doing Jesus a disservice. The depth and challenge of the cross, that is, the revelation of who God is and what the Christian life is all about, could never appropriately be reduced to a brand. As we look to live lives faithful to Jesus, the unvarnished cross of Christ leads us.