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Re-branding Jesus

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

Opening speech by Bishop Jess Wilby Dumas at a private convocation of American Christian leaders:

Gentlemen (there are no women among the national Christian leadership): I am going to be blunt with you. I believe Christianity is at a crossroads and that we must recognize we have a crisis on our hands and act soon if we are to save the faith for the future.

Let me share some figures with you. I guarantee you will find them anything but dull. In a Pew Forum survey in 2007, 16.1% of American adults said they were unaffiliated with any religion, and that was more than double the number who said they were unaffiliated as children. In the American Religious Identification Survey of 2008, when asked to identify their religion, 15% chose “none.” This was nearly twice the percentage choosing “none” in 1990. As you can see, the “nones” are gaining rapidly, and at this rate, in a few decades we Christians will be a mere lunatic fringe of a highly secular society.

I think we must re-position Jesus in the marketplace of ideas if we are to survive. Yes, I am suggesting that we may need to re-brand Jesus. We have done well with the “relationship with Jesus” angle, but that campaign is clearly losing steam. But there is a lesson we can take from that campaign. It worked quite well for a long time, even though Jesus never once used the term, “relationship.” So, we don’t need to adhere too closely to the bible.

Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and others have been doing very well with the “prosperity gospel,” and should certainly continue their efforts. This approach plays beautifully in a country where wealth is practically worshipped and the working and middle classes are losing ground. If a religion appears to be on the side of what people naturally want, then it serves the wish-fulfillment needs of the public. This philosophy has been at the heart of Christianity since its inception. “Heaven” works. Of course, Jesus spoke of the unlikelihood of the rich attaining heaven, and that we should sell our possessions and give to the poor, but surely Jesus would understand that times are different now and we must keep him relevant and acceptable in the modern world. After all, in his day, most people had very few possessions. Today, nearly all of us have many possessions.

In this vein, a little “tweaking” of Jesus’ ministry is certainly justified. This has been done before, so there is certainly clear precedent. In the Gospels, Jesus said over and over that the end of the world was nigh, but did our predecessors in the church leadership just drop him when this proved false? Of course not, they merely reinterpreted his wisdom, pointing out that, to a god, a thousand years may seem like a day. The typical believer, of course, ignores the fact that the bible was written for the instruction of man, making this observation irrelevant. For the most part, simply ignoring Jesus’ failed proclamations on the end of the world and the coming Kingdom of Heaven has worked quite well and likely shows us the best path into the future.

In recent years, much has been made by Richard Dawkins and others concerning the apparent immorality of a god who once drowned nearly all of humanity, ordered the destruction of numerous cities, towns, and tribes across the Holy Land, and threatens us all with eternal torture. But we should see this as an opportunity to promote Jesus as the enlightened one who has given us a new covenant which makes irrelevant all that ancient nastiness. Never mind that it was Jesus who first spoke of eternal torment in hell. Most believers are not aware of that anyway, and it’s better left unsaid.

Jesus brought the new covenant that belief in him is all that is needed now for salvation (John 3:15). Okay, maybe good works are required too, as cited in Matthew 24, but this bit of confusion has never been a serious problem for the faithful anyway. One sect takes it one way and the next sect takes it the other way. A bit of flexibility is probably necessary to avoid our being nailed to the cross of contradiction. As a famous musical group of the past century said, “Let it be.”

The clergy pedophilia scandal of the past few years has tarnished the church, and perhaps led to many leaving it, but it need not bring it down. Blaming it on the free-love and other movements of the sixties and the over-secularization of society, as the Pope has done, appears to be gaining some traction, and we can soon begin claiming that all the “bad apples” have been removed from the barrel. To think that the faith has lost the moral high ground from this scandal is clearly a gross exaggeration. We merely need to continue and increase our efforts to “immoral-ize” homosexuality, gay marriage and abortion in order to continue to be seen as the last bastion of morality in a fallen world.

Speaking of morality, perhaps the “What would Jesus do“ slogan should be phased out, as it appears to be backfiring. You may have seen bumper stickers such as, “Who would Jesus invade?” We all know that Jesus didn’t have to deal with the complexities of the modern world, so perhaps we should acknowledge that he didn’t have quite all the answers and we sometimes have to make up our own morality for the modern age.

We are, despite our waning membership, making some progress in the political arena. The movement to get intelligent design into the public schools and textbooks has not ceased just because of a court ruling, and school voucher programs which will pour money into the educational arm of the faith appear to be sweeping the country. This latter development may be crucial to our future as it guarantees that the next generation of adults will include a significant population wedded to the message of Christ and not led astray by science and secular reason.

I once worried that George Bush’s claim that god told him to invade Iraq could be a serious problem for the faith. Imagine, blaming that blunder on god! Fortunately, Bush’s ineptitude has done nothing to dissuade the voting public from supporting other overtly religious politicians such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and others. In fact, it’s beginning to look like no politician in the Republican Party can hope to succeed unless he aligns himself with a strident religious philosophy. Even Obama seems to be cashing in on this trend. In his campaign, he promised changes in the faith-based charity programs concerning hiring and evangelizing practices of recipient organizations, but he has made no move to follow through on that promise.

So, while the polls show Americans are trending away from Christianity, we need not see this as the beginning of the end. Politically, we appear to be gaining ground. Despite some embarrassing setbacks, we have continued to claim the moral high ground and the public generally seems to be buying this.

Perhaps the answer is political influence. If we can convince the voting public to continue to elect people of faith, then we can continue to get most of what we want, over time. While Jesus portrayed himself as a meek, compassionate man who encouraged a broad acceptance of the prostitute, the Samaritan, and others who thought differently, perhaps we need to put more testosterone into his image. Maybe we need to transition the Jesus brand from - if you’ll pardon the expression - compassionate wimp to aggressive moralizer. The apparent emigration from liberal churches into more fundamentalist cultures across this country would seem to speak for this strategy.

I don’t have all the answers. My purpose here is only to press upon this convention the need to develop a new strategy and to act aggressively to stanch the flow of the faithful into the ranks of the “nones.” Is a complete re-branding necessary, or merely a refurbishing and re-doubling of effort? I don’t know. I welcome your ideas. Please help us to save the faith.

Of course we must continue to pray for strength and guidance, but we must also never forget that god helps those who help themselves. Or at least it will look like it’s the help of god if our efforts succeed, and for the faithful public, as we all know, appearances are everything. Thank you.