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Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from in Your Heart to in Your Face

Overview

Not so long ago religion was a personal matter that was seldom discussed in public. No longer. Today religion is everywhere, from books to movies to television to the internet-to say nothing about politics. Now religion is marketed and advertised like any other product or service. How did this happen? And what does it mean for religion and for our culture?

Just as we shop for goods and services, we shop for church. A couple of generations ago Americans remained in the faith they...

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Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face

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Overview

Not so long ago religion was a personal matter that was seldom discussed in public. No longer. Today religion is everywhere, from books to movies to television to the internet-to say nothing about politics. Now religion is marketed and advertised like any other product or service. How did this happen? And what does it mean for religion and for our culture?

Just as we shop for goods and services, we shop for church. A couple of generations ago Americans remained in the faith they were born into. Today, many Americans change their denomination or religion, sometimes several times. Churches that know how to appeal to those shopping for God are thriving. Think megachurches. Churches that don't know how to do this or don't bother are fading away. Think mainline Protestant churches.

Religion is now celebrated and shown off like a fashion accessory. We can wear our religious affiliation like a designer logo. But, says James Twitchell, this isn't because Americans are undergoing another Great Awakening; rather, it's a sign that religion providers-that is, churches-have learned how to market themselves. There is more competition among churches than ever in our history. Filling the pew is an exercise in salesmanship, and as with any marketing campaign, it requires establishing a brand identity. Successful pastors ("pastorpreneurs," Twitchell calls them) know how to speak the language of Madison Avenue as well as the language of the Bible.

In this witty, engaging book, Twitchell describes his own experiences trying out different churches to discover who knows how to "do church" well. He takes readers into the land of karaoke Christianity, where old-style contemplative sedate religion has been transformed into a public, interactive event with giant-screen televisions, generic iconography (when there is any at all), and ample parking.

Rarely has America's religious culture been examined so perceptively and so entertainingly. Shopping for God does for religion what Fast Food Nation has done for food.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Twitchell (Branded Nation) offers a provocative but uneven analysis of the nexus of consumerism and Christianity. Arguing that Americans live in a religious marketplace, where "religious sensation is... manufactured, branded, packaged, shipped out, and consumed," he examines the cultural significance of marquee signs, the appeal and limitations of megachurches and the choreography of Franklin Graham's crusades. The most fascinating sections analyze the strengths and weaknesses of mainline denominations' print and television advertising campaigns. Twitchell helpfully contextualizes the marketing of religion in the larger story of American consumerism, and he intriguingly points out that some of our most important advertising gurus were the children of clergy. Although often incisive and insightful, Twitchell's analysis is marred by an annoyingly colloquial tone and an occasional ahistoricism. Although Twitchell is clearly familiar with other historical moments in which Christianity was marketed, he seems to imagine that in some bygone era, American religion was "private." The claim that "The old-style celeb kept his religion to himself" overlooks the fact that many old-time celebs, such as Henry Ward Beecher, were preachers. Although he rehearses the history of the Great Awakening-when newspapers puffed revivalists-he suggests that religion's status as "big news" for journalists is a new development. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743292870
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/18/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

James B. Twitchell is professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books on English literature, culture, marketing, and advertising, most recently Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Oh Lord, Why U.S.? An Overview of the Spiritual Marketplace

This is not a book about God. Turn back now if that's what you're after. Save your time, money, and perhaps your temper. This book is not about belief, or spirituality, or the yearning for transcendence. Don't get me wrong: those are truly important matters. Rather, Shopping for God is about how some humans — modern-day Christians, to be exact — go about the process of consuming — of buying and selling, if you will — the religious experience. This book is about what happens when there is a free market in religious products, more commonly called beliefs. Essentially, how are the sensations of these beliefs generated, marketed, and consumed? Who pays? How much? And how come the markets are so roiled up right now in the United States? Or have they always been that way?

By extension, why are the markets so docile in Western Europe? In 1900 almost everyone in Europe was Christian. Now three out of four Europeans identify themselves as Christians. At the same time, the percentage who say they are nonreligious has soared from less than 1 percent of the population to 15 percent. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, another 3 percent say they don't believe in God at all. Churches in Europe are in free fall, plenty of sellers but no new buyers. According to the World Values Survey in 2000, in twelve major European countries, 38 percent of the population say they never or practically never attend church. France's 60 percent nonattendance rate is the highest in that group. Here in the U.S., only 16 percent say they rarely go to church.

No wonder Europeans look at us and think we're nuts. Are we? We're consuming the stuff in bulk 24-7. Religion here is perpetually ripe. Are we — a nation disparaged as shallow materialists — more deeply concerned about the eternal verities than our high-minded European cousins? That is doubtful. So what gives?

One answer is that we're doing a better job of selling religion. Or to put it in the lingo of Econ 101, we are doing a robust business in supplying valuable religious experiences for shoppers at reasonable prices. But, if so, how so? And do I really mean to suggest that the marketplace is not just a metaphor, but a reality? Does the small church on the corner operate like the gas station? What about the megachurch out there by the interstate — is it like a big-box store? How come the church downtown with exactly the same product is in shambles? And, while we're on this vulgar subject, how do churches sell? How do they compete for customers, called believers and parishioners in some venues and seekers in others, if indeed they do? They say they don't compete. At least they say this in public.

Are the religion dealers, if I may call them that, in any way like the car dealers on the edge of town? And what of the denominations that they represent — do they compete? How similar is their behavior to what happens when General Motors goes up against Ford or Chrysler? And what happens when foreign lower-cost suppliers (like Honda) and higher-end suppliers (like Mercedes-Benz) enter the market? And how about home-grown low-cost discounters (like Costco) or web-based services (like Autobytel.com) that often sell cars almost entirely on price? The analogy is blasphemous, yes, but it may help us understand not just the spiritual marketplace but the current state of American culture.

If denominations don't compete for consumers (and they say they are interested only in new believers or lapsed believers, not in brand switchers, or what they call transfer growth), why are almost all of them spending millions of parishioners' dollars on advertising campaigns? Why are they hiring so many marketing consultants? We will look at some of these denominational campaigns because it's clear that they are poaching other flocks. There is an entire new business model called the Church Growth Movement to help them along.

Essentially, this book is about how religious sensation is currently being manufactured, branded, packaged, shipped out, and consumed. The competition is fierce. Some old-line suppliers (think Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran) are losing market share at an alarming rate. Some of them are barely able to fund their pensions without dipping into investment capital. For them, things are going to get worse, a lot worse. They can't change their product fast enough. For them, doing church is a two-hour Sunday affair, but for an increasing number of super-efficient big-box churches, it can last for days, even the whole week.

These new churches, megachurches, are run by a very market-savvy class of speculators whom I will call pastorpreneurs. By clever use of marketing techniques, they have been able to create what are essentially city-states of believers. They are the low-cost discounters of rapture that promise to shift the entire industry away from top-down denominationalism toward stand-alone communities. Small case in point: in the last few years, we all have learned a new common language. We use born-again, inerrancy, rapture, left behind, megachurch, and evangelical in ways that our parents never did. Some of us even use the word crusade.

Religion Goes Pop

Religion has become a major source of pop culture. You can see this in the role of celebrity. The old-style celeb kept his religion to himself. Now he's in your face. In a way, however, this represents a return to the original definition of celebrity, namely, the one who celebrates the religious event. Nothing is more revered in American popcult than the renown of being well-known.

So we all know of Mel Gibson's evangelical Catholicism and Tom Cruise's Scientology. And what of Madonna and kabbalah, Richard Gere and Buddhism, Muhammad Ali and Islam? I think it's safe to say that a generation ago, most entertainers did not wear their religiosity on their sleeves, or anywhere else for that matter. Madison Avenue and the film studios saw to that. Now, just the reverse. You wear your belief on your sleeves, right next to your religious bling.

Since the religious experience is moved through media, through delivery systems (of which the church itself is becoming less important), let's have a quick look at the transformations being wrought in film, television, radio, the internet, and even dusty old book publishing. What we'll see is how transformative the new version of Christianity has become on the very vehicles that move it around.

MOVIES

If, as the saying goes, the religion of Hollywood is money, then the returns of Christiantainment have proven a God-send. Back in the 1950s, as television was stealing the movies' thunder, there was a spate of big-budget, big-screen, big-star, little-religion movies called "Sword & Sandal" epics. Some are still cycling through late night television: The Robe, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur. The Bible was invoked more for Sturm und Drang, son et lumière, and, let's face it, really steamy love scenes than for any presentation of dogma.

It was in the marketing of one of these movies, incidentally, that the faux Ten Commandments tablet first appeared in a public space. In many ways its exploitation neatly condenses the theme of this book. As Cecil B. DeMille readied his costly Paramount production of The Ten Commandments for release, he happened on an ingenious publicity scheme. In partnership with the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a nationwide association of civic-minded clubs founded by theater owners, he sponsored the construction of several thousand Ten Commandments monuments throughout the country. DeMille, a Jew, was interested in plugging the film, not Christianity.

A generation later, two of these DeMille-inspired granite monuments, first in Alabama and then on the grounds of the Texas capital in Austin, became the focus of the Ten Commandments case before the U.S. Supreme Court. What was essentially an advertisement for an entertainment had become a deadly serious pronouncement of in-your-face faith.

The modern biblical epic is nothing if not drenched in the blood of Calvary. Adios, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Demetrius, and all those gladiatorial interludes with the smarmy and wonderfully named Victor Mature. Golgotha, usually glimpsed only as the curtain falls in the Sword & Sandal epic, is now stage center. The modern version, viz. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, is nothing if not a total rearrangement of the genre. This film revels in small budget, no star, no love scenes. Shhh, please, this is a serious re-creation of what really happened.

Nothing in film history compares with Gibson's film. It is truly sui generis. And as such, it's a condensation of broader changes. First, it is unflaggingly serious. The language is Aramaic, for goodness' sake. If not literally true, then why use the real language? Next, it was released in a totally un-Hollywood way. The movie was initially shown in a venue aptly suited and wired for this experience: the megachurch. After all, when your projection and sound equipment rivals that of the local cineplex, why not use it to showcase film? And since the megachurch is open 24-7, you can schedule multiple viewings. And there are stadium seats and amphitheater architecture. This place was ordained for film.

The marketing of The Passion was still more revelatory of cultural shifts. The initial advertising did not go from studio-to-you, but from studio-to-minister-to-you. If you ever wanted to see the much-ballyhooed targeted entertainment, here it is. And finally, The Passion was what the earlier attempts only dreamed of: it became a legitimate blockbuster. Not only did it gross some $400 million in the U.S., not only did it revolutionize how movies are taken to market, but it also had what is called a huge back end.

The big money in movies is not just in theatrical display but in this aftermarket. Here is the new way that many movies will be seen, not out of the house and in the theater, but out of the house and in the church. Like King Gillette and the disposable razor, with some products you can give the thing away (the razor, the movie) and make up for it in the aftermarket (the blades, the accessories). The big money is not at the box office gross but in the, say, ten million DVDs that come after the show. People want to own this "text," to add it to their video library. In earlier days, a family had a going-to-church Bible and a stay-at-home family Bible. The family Bible now sits next to The Passion DVD.

So too the merchandise that travels with the experience, as the crucifixion nails (licensed by Mr. Gibson) worn around the neck to announce that you've not just seen the movie, you've suffered the experience. You can buy this memorial merchandise at the store inside your megachurch.

How powerful was The Passion as a marketing event? An online poll on Beliefnet.com, answered by about twelve thousand people, found that 62 percent were reading the Bible more often after seeing the film. The poll also found that 41 percent had a more positive view of the Bible after the movie. But that's not the count that really counted. Show me the money. In Hollywood there is a new term to describe the receipts from such events; they are now being called Passion dollars.

In the parting of the revenue seas are coming the never-ending Left Behind series of novels based on apocalyptic themes, as well as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Gospel, and countless other Christian stories. When the movie version of The End Is Near opened in 2005, it put in a cameo at the Bijou, then went straight to video and then straight to the family library. Left Behind: World at War, for instance, was the first film ever to open only in churches, not theaters. The movie premiered, on a late-October weekend, on 3,200 screens, largely in churches. You could buy the DVD and other mementos at the display table on your way out.

The struggle to find Passion dollars has become so wonderfully crazed that 20th Century Fox, a minor subsidiary of News Corp., has announced an upcoming movie based on John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. Its producer, Vincent Newman, has pledged to keep the script faithful to the original 1667 text. Not that the story of Satan's rebellion and expulsion from heaven and his subsequent role in the fall of man is not a rollicking good tale, but if the 1667 text is followed, it will indeed show how devout faith can be. English professors at least are on pins and needles.

What does this marketing portend? Instead of renting or buying all the seats in a theater, as did many churches with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, congregations themselves will debut the film in their sanctuary after paying a nominal licensing fee. The revolutionary film-release strategy seems like a no-brainer. Here's why: There are more than two hundred thousand churches in America compared to five thousand theaters, and many of these churches already have state-of-the-art projection equipment. But the real marketing genius is to realize that the audience does not regard this as mere entertainment but as something to own and treasure on DVD. See the film. Now buy a copy. From the producers' point of view, that's real rapture.

TELEVISION

While the upper tiers of cable television have been populated by the pant-blow preaching and money-grubbing chicanery of Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Peter Popoff, along with the deliciously wacky Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (who said of liberal professors on The 700 Club [March 21, 2006]: "They are racists, murderers, sexual deviants, and supporters of Al Qaeda — and they could be teaching your kids!"), the next step in religious programming is already happening. It's moving downtown, into daytime programming on network channels, away from the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) ghetto.

So, on one hand, individual churches are buying airtime not in the Sunday morning slot or the late-night wasteland but all through the day on what are essentially local channels. A megachurch like Lakewood in Houston produces Joel Osteen's show and then essentially cobbles together an ad hoc network. By waiting until the last minute, as well as buying time at the beginning of the season, they are lowering their cost per thousand and, better yet, shifting demographics to the "unchurched."

This is especially savvy because as cable stations may become unbundled from the various tiers, subscribers will have a choice of which channels they want. Currently, the religious networks pay the cable carriers to be included in the various tiers, the same way the shopping channels do. A la carte selection is anathema to religious begathon channels. After all, not many people would opt to pay for the privilege of having Pastor Benny Hinn come into your late-night airwaves to save your soul and drain your pocketbook.

But if dedicated all-religion-all-the-time channels are at risk, the networks are picking up some of the slack. Network television stations are also tuning in to the Christian market, a market they once avoided like the biblical plagues. So, increasingly on prime-time television we have characters who converse directly with a higher power, from Joan of Arcadia to Jaye on Wonderfalls. Meanwhile the Armageddon-fueled worldview of the Left Behind books has resurfaced in an NBC prime-time miniseries of gimmickry, Revelations, sold with the captivating slogan "The End Is Near." The End is dear might be more appropriate.

Programmers may not know much, but they knew that Touched by an Angel was the second most watched television program in 1997. And the Nielsen numbers show its appeal cut across all religious boundaries. Advertisers loved the fact that the program mixed evangelical Christian and New Spirituality themes, giving it an aura of spiritual excitement and anticipation, but absolutely no content.

I find NBC's The Book of Daniel interesting, for here we had what looked to be the diametric opposite of in-your-face religion. We had in-your-face religious subversion. Or, better said, the subversion of the old-style religion; in this case, the religion the new Christianity is trying to get away from — hoary old Episcopalianism.

Here's a bit of it: Daniel, an Episcopal priest in an affluent New York City suburb, has a relationship with the real Jesus — well, the Warner Sallman Jesus with the flowing blond hair of Presentation Bibles. Daniel also has a gay son, another son bedding the teenage daughter of an influential parishioner, a daughter busted for dealing pot, a mother with Alzheimer's, and a boss, a female bishop, who's doing the dirty deed with his own father, another bishop. Little wonder that Daniel has been turning not only to Jesus, who rides shotgun as the pastor is out doing his chores, but also to the Vicodin pills stashed in the glove compartment.

Get the point? OK, this is a parody. But mark well that in almost every scene we are told that Daniel is Episcopalian. Again and again we cut to the moss-covered stone church that reeks of old money. It is simply inconceivable that Daniel would be pastor of a megachurch or an evangelical of any stripe. The show drew the immediate ire of the American Family Association (AFA), a conservative cultural watchdog group, which charged that it "mocks Christianity." True enough. But what I found so intriguing is that The Book of Daniel was all about old Christianity, the stumbling, bumbling Christianity that is full of fussbudgets. And there is no doubt, not for a nanosecond, which denomination best represents this kind of Christianity. It's those Episcopalians!

If the old Christianity prizes concepts of blood, heritage, taste, proper accents, clubbiness, Ivy League schools, and gentle chucks under the chin at the club supper, then the new Christianity is nothing but pious, loud, and a tad puritanical. The Episcopal Church used to rule the roost, and now it's in free fall. The word Episcopalians themselves would use is "dysfunctional family."

As we will see in later chapters, this Episcopal dysfunction exists for a number of reasons (ordination of the wrong people, supporter of the wrong causes, and invoker of irony at the wrong times), but The Book of Daniel is an apt condensation of what's happened in the religious markets. The subtle and admittedly woebegone have been replaced by the dynamic and aggressive. The so-called mainstream and mainline have sunk in their own contented sloth. The cocktail hour of American religion is over. The Book of Daniel was cancelled after only a few airings, but not because the Episcopal Church of America objected. The audience was too small, and most of them probably were...Episcopalians.

Far more interesting in terms of television content is that the network news divisions are the ones churning out religious-themed specials, and they are clearly informed by believers, not skeptics. From Dateline NBC's "The Last Days of Jesus" to ABC News's ambitious three-hour special on Jesus and Paul, the networks are realizing what their Hollywood counterparts are finding out: the community of believers is one of the few audiences that will sit quietly and watch. The demographics may not be great, skewed toward middle age, but at least someone is not hitting the remote during commercials or TiVo-ing the program.

So when Barbara Walters did an ABC news special on the afterlife, she covered all the bases: a Catholic cardinal, the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, suicide bombers, and evangelical impresario Ted Haggard. Before cavorting with sin, Mr. Haggard was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest evangelical group in America, and pastorpreneur of a 14,000-member megachurch called the New Life Church, in Colorado. That is, until he was caught up in scandal and forced to resign those positions. The news show was called "Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There?" It was not called "Heaven: Does It Exist? How Did It Recently Become So Important?" ABC is a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. If there's one thing the corporate suits know it's where their audience is located. And Procter & Gamble, sponsor of the show, knows too.

RADIO

If you've turned on your radio recently, you'll hear what has happened, especially on the AM dial. It's become the voice of salvation. The FM band now carries most of the old-time content, both musical and news. AM radio is being further distanced from mainstream listeners by subscription services like Sirius or XM Radio, which are moving listeners farther away into niches. Chances are that if you now get into your car, turn on your radio to the AM dial, and hit "search," you will find only a few orphan stations, and the content will be either Rush Limbaugh or one of the more than 150 syndicated evangelical programs. Check www.christianradio.com and you will see the national coverage, almost all of it coming from small independently owned and often local-church-supported stations. Christian broadcasters now control more than 10 percent of U.S. broadcast licenses.

One of the unintended consequences of the opening up of the airwaves by the Reagan administration was not just that televangelism could colonize the upper channels of the television spectrum, but that AM radio would become overwhelmingly evangelical. Say what you want about the free market in media transmission; it opened gaps soon filled with highly concentrated religious programming.

In a peculiar way, the AM dial is returning radio to its early days, when "Church of the Air" was one of the standard shows on Sunday morning. Except that this church of the air has turned hot and breathy. The content from the 1930s to the 1980s was lukewarm, in part because the middle-of-the-road National Council of Churches denomination's controlled content. Until the explosion in FM bandwidth and a new Federal Communications Commission, the voice of Christianity was the dulcet tones of Fulton J. Sheen or Norman Vincent Peale. Tune in today, it's passionate and proselytizing.

Interestingly, the great transformation of radio content from highcult to popcult happened in the mid-twentieth century, and was not because of words but because of music. Rock and roll made radio the first truly popular medium, and it was a medium supported by advertising. Every year the audience dropped in age and sophistication as receivers became cheaper. Programming moved to the most common denominator: kids. What was once promised as the great intellectual and unifying force (educational radio went along with "Church of the Air") turned out to be Dance Party of the Air.

Top 40 ruled. It soon colonized the AM dial. Christian music, first gospel, then country, went along for the ride and was also transformed, in part thanks to radio. What was once part of a musical tradition from the Gregorian chants to oratorio to hymns has now cross-pollinated with other forms, even rap, and has moved over to FM.

This interpenetration of genres is the context of one of the hottest new musical forms, radio-based Christian rock. Christian rock regularly earns more broadcast time than country, Latin, or classical music. The devil no longer has the best tunes. Completely assimilated into mainstream pop would be the band U2 and lead singer Bono, who often sings about matters of personal faith, but consider groups like 12 Stones, MercyMe, Audio Adrenaline, and Newsboys. They now rival mainstream rock groups on the FM airwaves. The band Casting Crowns has sold more than one million CDs without a mainstream hit by targeting church groups to promote such songs as "If We Are the Body," "Love Them like Jesus, and "Father, Spirit, Jesus." The cross-pollination of religion and rock and roll music also has produced a subset of Christian metal called "screamo," in which the religious lyrics are simply yelled. There's also a weird mutation of Christian rap called "extreme prayer," a ravelike exhilaration in which the participants pray all night, fueling themselves not on Ecstasy the drug, but on ecstasy the Word.

Music is crucial to religion because it is so emotional and resolutely nonintellectual. You can't explain a piece of music, you can only feel it. That's one reason why it is so appealing to adolescents. When you go into megachurches, you invariably hear an excellent band — 93 percent of which use electric guitars and lots of percussion. There's even an ideal acoustic level — 98 to 108 decibels. You invariably see a band room for the boys. It's filled with all kinds of expensive musical equipment, the likes of which mom and dad could never afford at home and the local school is too financially strapped to provide. When I was at Willow Creek (the ur-megachurch outside Chicago) doing research for this book, during some of the sermons the audio and video feed would come from the band room onto the JumboTron screens, and we'd look around at one another and be truly thankful for walls lined with acoustic tile. I realized not just the power of music to get in your face (albeit via the ears) but its power to attract the most recalcitrant churchgoers of all: teenage boys.

INTERNET

Right behind viewing porn, the next most popular use of the internet is for religious purposes. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of the nation's 128 million internet users say they use the web for religious or spiritual purposes. Here are the four most common words involved in generating passwords: God. Love. Sex. Money.

And what is it that people who use God as part of their password are looking for? If the object of their searches is like most other ones, they are not after a coherent compendium but a collection of tidbits, a ménage of factoids and partial conversations about things that matter. As denominations have become less important, or at least more in flux, people are cobbling together their own personalized spiritual plans. They are logging on to blogs, listening to Godcasts, interacting in chat rooms, and, in a sense, creating a highly personal just-for-me-religion that connects with a panoply of other beliefs. Do-it-yourself religion.

There are millions of religious-themed websites, of which the largest is Beliefnet. Beliefnet is gargantuan. It attracts 2.5 million visitors per month. More than 4.2 million people subscribe to Beliefnet's daily email newsletters, which send spiritual wisdom in various flavors all around the world. Generic "good words" is most popular (2.4 million), but right behind that is Bible-based "inspiration" (1.6 million). This service is like those telephone messages telling you how important you are to them each time you call. It's like the greeting card industry gone haywire. And it's very popular and doubtless important in making religion part of the rhythms of everyday life.

Beliefnet also runs Soulmatch, a faith-oriented online dating service, offers spiritual content to cell phone users, and publishes a series of Beliefnet guides with old-line publisher Doubleday. Additionally, Beliefnet regularly partners with ABC World News Tonight on its religion and spirituality coverage. What's telling about the current surge in religiosity is that Beliefnet is not affiliated with a particular religion or spiritual movement. Beliefnet Inc. is a privately held company funded by employees, individual investors, and SoftBank Capital and Blue Chip Venture Company. While it services the worshiper, it also worships the gods of profit and loss.

All the major denominations have sophisticated sites allowing believers access not just to a smidgen of doctrine and counseling but, more important, information about close-at-hand churches. Needless to say, almost every thriving church in the country has a website (some, as we shall see, are quite complex, especially those of the megachurches). Nearly 6 out of every 10 Protestant churches now have a dedicated website. Since 2000, the greatest increase in the use of church websites is evident among mainline Protestant churches (up 79 percent, to 70 percent of mainline congregations); ministries in the South (increased by 87 percent, up to 56 percent), and churches pastored by baby boomers (doubled, with websites now in 65 percent of the churches they pastor). If your church is interested in growth, the first thing you get is a marquee sign out front for clever sayings; the second is a website; the third is a bus.

In churning religious culture and making it increasingly central to modern life, nothing compares to the blogs. We may well look back at them as we now do to the 95 theses posted by Martin Luther that launched the Protestant Reformation. Blogs are stirring an already churned market. These personal vehicles range from intense explorations of particular questions to a simple daily expression of opinion on everything that comes into the writer's head. Bloggers tend to be both writers and readers, linking their blogs together and emailing back and forth. The daily give-and-take winds up connecting people across great distances. There are no scientific studies on the religious attitudes popping up among the world's more than ten million blogs, but the general bias is clearly evangelical. After all, those are the people with something to say. And they want you to hear it.

But content is not the power. Community is. The mechanism that makes blogs work is the ease with which they can call attention to one another through links — a single click, and you can be redirected halfway around the world; another click, and you return, all for free. There is no friction on the web. Blogs thrive through the process of linking to one another, thereby simultaneously defining the community with which they identify and increasing their traffic — and their claims to influence. Such "blogrolls," or lists of links to "Sites We Like," are usually found in the left or right rail.

Why is this so important for religion? Because religion is a voluntary interaction among consenting believers. Religion doesn't come installed at birth. You pick it up along the way. It's organic, a process, viral. Blogging is like what social scientists call collaborative filtering, itself very much like forming and unforming beliefs. Blogging and linking to other blogs becomes an exercise in collective belief making; you're designing and crafting your faith. This linking has the effect of identifying a handful of favorites and then amplifying their influence until they become the favorites of a much larger group. Naturally the hot-button issues — abortion, homosexuality, assisted suicide, and intelligent design — get foregrounded while religious oppression, poverty, and world hunger get left behind.

This process of blog-transformed belief has become so pronounced that the American Academy of Religion, a professional association of scholars and teachers in the field of religion, has established a panel called the New Religions Group to study new faiths generated outside the religious mainstream and the way they interact with already established faiths. As typical of academia, there has to be a journal to make it scholarly (and tenure accruing) — hence Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.

For our purposes, some of the most interesting blogs are those dealing with How to Market Your Church, like the amazingly named but really sophisticated site churchmarketingsucks.com. Here the casual visitor can get a sense of how clergy attempt to position their product in a highly competitive market. They even link you to shipoffools.com, which encourages readers to submit their most offensive religious jokes.

BOOK PUBLISHING

If you want to see how Christianity went from arm's length to the end of your nose, compare the best-seller lists of the 1950s and today. What you'll see is not just an exponential increase in religious fervor, but an entirely new approach. Two generations ago, in and around fiction by the likes of Hemingway, Hersey, Wouk, Marquand, Steinbeck, du Maurier, O'Hara, and Michener, was midcult work like The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson, Moses by Sholem Asch, The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain, or Exodus by Leon Uris. Such fiction was more reportorial than reverential, never disturbing. To be sure, serious religious fiction existed — works by the likes of Anthony Burgess, Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis, D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, José Saramago, and Gore Vidal — but it was usually in the service of the Big Theme. The category of nonfiction — religious self-help — simply didn't exist.

No longer. In 2004, books about religious subjects accounted for 7 percent of all book sales, with $1.95 billion in net revenues. Consumers spent $3.7 billion on "religious books," a category that includes Christian books as well as print paraphernalia like calendars, mementos, and knickknacks. By 2009, industry experts expect the religious books segment to account for $2.91 billion, almost a 50 percent increase from 2004. The category also includes the intriguing subset called "other religious." These books encompass thrillers, mysteries, general fiction, and a burgeoning romance category — no bodice rippers, however, but obvious links to Harlequin Romances in the sense of formulaic fiction.

If you want to see the distribution channel, go out to the strip mall and observe the mushroom-after-rain appearance of the Christian bookstore. It's had an amazing increase of nearly 285 percent since 1983. The only time like it in American economic history was the book market in the seventeenth century. Recall that the first book printed in what now is the United States was a 1640 Puritan psalter titled The Bay Psalms Book, but it was the almost furious printing of the Bible itself that started the entire publishing industry.

No one doubts that one of the reasons for this jump in interest in things religious is the rise of evangelical Christianity, perhaps helped by general anxiety over terrorism. Christian bookstores enjoy a special relationship with customers in many respects analogous to AM radio. They're local, and they are believers dealing with believers. The stores tend to blend a bit of ministry with retailing. If you visit, you'll see that both venue and inventory reflect a much more aggressive approach to selling not just books, but vision.

We'll look at some of the best sellers from megachurch pastorpreneurs later (Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven® Life, Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now, and others), but suffice it to say that New York publishing houses have taken notice. An imprint of the publisher of the book you are currently reading signed a contract with Mr. Osteen for a book that according to some reports may net him some $13 million (approximately $12,950,000 more than this book will earn). The big-box stores and book chains, which consider books just so many stock-keeping units and hence are the most sensitive cultural barometer of modern life, are also aware of what's happening. Target, Costco, and Wal-Mart started increasing floor space for the religious category in 2002, and it looks to me as if at least a quarter of their book space is allocated to this genre. Amazon has an entire category called "Christian Living."

There are some pitfalls that publishers must be aware of. Here is an example: Zondervan is an old-time religion publisher; in fact, the largest Bible publisher. Now owned by HarperCollins, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, Zondervan is trying to introduce a new franchise product — Today's New International Version of the Bible (TNIV). This is a modern English translation featuring updated language and scholarship.

As part of an advertising campaign, one of the ads shows a serious young man apparently pondering the problems of modern life. The text touts the TNIV as a source for "real truth" in a world of "endless media noise and political spin." A blue Bible peeks up from the corner of the ad. The Onion, the weekly satirical magazine, carried a similar ad, and even Modern Bride featured an ad of a woman in bridal white promoting True Identity, the women's study version of the TNIV. More ads were booked for websites, and for cable channels VH1 and MTV. God isn't mentioned in any of these ads, only in ads placed in Christian media such as Relevant, a Christian monthly magazine aimed at hip twentysomethings. But every ad carries this slogan: "Timeless truth; today's language."

That assertion of "truth" evidently triggered a rebuff from Rolling Stone magazine, which refused to carry the spot. But this was only the beginning of Zondervan's problems. If there was concern about "timeless truth," it was nothing compared to "today's language." TNIV is in gender-neutral language. Some American fundamentalist Protestants claimed that the publication of a gender-inclusive Bible was a travesty to the inerrant word of God. Of course, the word of God has always been up for grabs, as translators have been shifting grammar and language for generations. Only Homer Simpson's pal Ned Flanders believes otherwise.

In any case, Zondervan felt the pressure as a number of prominent evangelical leaders like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell openly voiced their rejection of the TNIV. Additionally, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions denouncing the translation. In a way, reminiscent of how important translations used to be when just the act of translation was heresy or publishing the wrong translation meant death, the open and vociferous response not to errors in belief but to relatively esoteric matters in the gender wars is symptomatic of how intense these finger-wagging concerns can become.

But in the book-publishing community, the big news in recent years was the reception of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. As we all know, whether or not we've read the book, this is a theological whodunit with an entirely new spin on Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Not only does it shows traditional Christian followers as a little strange (such as "the hulking albino named Silas" limping through Paris, spiked band jabbing his thigh, thinking, "Pain is good," while whipping himself bloody with a scourge), but it makes a free-for-all of old-style Catholicism itself. If The Book of Daniel is parody, The Da Vinci Code is travesty.

What is also extraordinary about The Da Vinci Code is the number of readers who are convinced it is true. Some fans, mostly Americans, even make pilgrimages to sites mentioned in the book, including the Louvre, the Château de Villette in France, and Westminster Abbey in Britain. Could this be because the religious climate has become so fecund that belief itself is sprung loose of historical rigor and has become a matter of over-the-top enthusiastic taste?

As in Brown's other religious-themed best seller, Angels & Demons, there is a sense that decorum is no longer necessary. Let 'er rip. Believe what you want, especially if it flies in the face of old-line denominationalism. This book as well has become the print part of an industry spawning not just the predictable movie but fusty commentary — most of it wishing for the days of the 1950s when certain subjects (the Catholic League and Opus Dei, for instance) were treated at arm's length. The Catholic Church, which has complained hat no Protestant denomination has been so pilloried in popular culture, has a point.

The Da Vinci Code was published by an imprint of a mainstream publisher, Random House, which, by the way, owns its own religious imprint, Waterbrook Press. Little wonder that Anne Rice, after stupendous sales for her tales of vampires, witches, and just plain lust, has turned to Jesus — personally and literarily. Her innovative novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, published by high-cult Knopf, depicts Jesus as a seven-year-old lad, speaking in his own words as the holy family moves from Egyptian exile to Nazareth. She, as well as her publisher, intends a series of chronicles like the one she hatched with the now long-of-tooth Vampire Lestat. When Farrar, Straus & Giroux gets on this bandwagon, I predict, the market will hit a top.

The Free Market in Faith: The American Religious Enterprise

One reason why the American religious enterprise is so explosive is because it is just that: an enterprise. There is a famous quote, so on-point that it has lost its specific source:

In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.

(Attributed to Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United States Senate)

The religious enterprise in the United States is perpetually "in play." Here's why: at the macro level, roughly equal minorities of the American population, say 35 percent to 40 percent, hold contrasting and ultimately irreconcilable convictions on the purpose of life. That's what makes a market.

One group, composed overwhelmingly of those who adhere to the basics of Christian Revelation, is God- and faith-centered. Members of this group believe they have the right and duty to participate freely in American politics and culture to influence laws and customs in ways that reflect the sovereignty of Christ the King. I call them "hot Christians." They are also called Dominionists or Christianists. They tend to drive cars with "Christ Is Lord over [your town's name goes here]" bumper stickers.

The second group consists, for the most part, of people who, while they may acknowledge the existence of God in minimalist fashion, base their lives in the mundane. They are not focused on the afterlife. They are believers, but mainly on Sunday morning. They are lukewarm Christians, and so, as you might imagine, the hot variety like to quote a little Revelation 3:15-16. Lukewarms support what Thomas Jefferson called "public religion." It's out there, yes, but not in your face. These two groups endlessly jockey for position and, in a sense, are dependent on each other for sustenance.

Divided by God

And they've been at it for a while. Both sides know how to play their roles. No cue cards are necessary. There are certain times in our history when the religious marketplace tips in favor of the true believers, and then times when it tips the other way. One might predict this has to do with threats to well-being like war or terrorism and what we have come to call "Islamic extremism," but I suspect otherwise. I think our current religiosity has more to do with shifts in marketing, in supply chains, in brand extensions, in packaging, and in consumption communities. Don't get me wrong. Megareligions compete. But the most fierce competition goes on in the cultural bedroom, so to speak, between churches.

We are in one of those periods of competitive spatting that old-style historians called "awakenings." The believers are holding forth. I suspect that by the time you read this the forces of contraction will have taken hold, and cultural enthusiasm will have waned a bit. But because this subject is so unwieldy, and because we are still in the middle of the market burst, let me just hint at the perplexities by stringing together some statistics.

The numbers are coming at you in an undifferentiated bunch, not because they make sense when joined, but just the opposite. They often contradict themselves. But they show the depth and breadth and complexity of what has been happening in the American religious marketplace in the past generation. They show an active market. They may also show that you can't trust people to tell you the truth about religion.

(The data are gleaned from reputable sources: the Gallup Organization, Barna Research Group, Beliefnet, Newsweek, Center for the Study of Global Christianity, The Economist magazine, Pew Research Center, Harris Interactive, and American National Election Studies. True, you can lie with statistics, but if you can get enough of them, complete with variations, the lies become cushioned with some truth — or at least some entertaining oxymorons.)

In order to get to a potpourri of data in three main categories — belief, Bible, and church attendance — we are bypassing the indubitable fact that the United States is the most religious nation in the developed world. Detractors love to point out that we also have some of the highest rates of murder, infant mortality, teen abortion, and teen sexually transmitted disease in that same world. Religious fervor does not seem to have made us a better world citizen, but that melancholy, thankfully, is not the subject of this book.

Belief: Just about every American — 96 percent, in one poll — believes in God. Eighty-five percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. Sixty percent of the two billion Christians in the world think of themselves as evangelical. In the United States, being born-again is now a self-described condition of about eighty-eight million people. In the 1980s two-fifths of American Protestants described themselves as born-again. The percentage has climbed to more than half. Born-again Christians now make up 39 percent of America's adult population. Further, 4 out of 5 Americans say they have "experienced God's presence or a spiritual force," and 46 percent maintain it happens to them often. A larger fraction of American adults now believe in life after death than did a generation ago. The belief has been so powerful that Jews and persons with no religious affiliation have become more likely to believe in an afterlife. Well over half of Americans believe in miracles, the devil, and angels. Sixty-seven percent of Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and 82 percent believe Jesus is the Son of God. Three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth as in evolution. And almost half of the U.S. population — 45 percent — believes that human beings did not evolve, but instead were created by God, as stated in the Bible, about ten thousand years ago.

Bible: Ninety-two percent of American households own a Bible; 59 percent say they read it at least occasionally; 37 percent say they read it at least once a week; 14 percent say they belong to a Bible study group or something similar; 60 percent say it is totally accurate in all its teachings; 50 percent of adults interviewed nationwide could name any of the four Gospels of the New Testament; 37 percent could name all four Gospels; 58 percent cannot name five of the Ten Commandments; fewer than half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible; 12 percent believe Noah's wife was Joan of Arc; 87 percent say the universe was originally created by God; 81 percent say angels exist and influence people's lives; 35 percent of Americans deem the Bible the "inerrant word of the Creator."

Church attendance: Sixty percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives; 41 percent say they have attended church or synagogue in the last seven days, but various weekly attendance records indicate that the real number is closer to 20 percent. Since 1970 the number of Americans who said they attended church every week has dropped from 38 percent to 25 percent, while the number of Americans who say they never attend church has risen from 12 percent in 1970 to 32 percent in 2002. Sixty-four percent of Americans say they pray every day and attend church (43 percent reportedly attend a service once a week or more), but only 20 percent report reading a sacred text every day (36 percent more read texts monthly or weekly).

Scramble Competition

Can we agree on just one fact? American religion is a wonderful free-for-all that has been studiously overlooked by all except a few die-hard economists and marketing scholars. It deserves more. What makes it unique is that it allows new suppliers into the market with little more than a prayer. Consider: In 1900 there were 330 different religious groups; now there are over 2,000. This happens only in America. And it is not hard to explain. We have learned how to buy and sell almost anything: hospital care, art, education, philanthropy; you name it, and you'll soon find a market trading it. Everything in this culture goes to market. Why should religion be any different?

Pretending otherwise is exactly what distinguishes this market. What a nifty irony that some Christian denominations don't care for the Darwinian model when applied to biology or social engineering, yet they themselves have to hustle, innovate, adapt, mutate, grow new appendages, or become the lunch of those who do. Before "scramble competition" became an economic term, it was a biological one. Now it's a religious one.

How come there's so much scrambling in our religion marketplace? Easy. What makes us unique is that our religious markets are protected to make sure Darwinian scrambling happens. The explanation is to be found in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Consider the amazing separation clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." Not only does the Constitution prohibit a state religion, the law goes on to protect all suppliers from one another as well as from the state. Essentially this mandates two freedoms: the freedom to believe, and the freedom to act so as to get others to believe.

Oddly enough, we didn't start off this way. The Protestant pilgrims, after all, were fleeing religious persecution by Anglicans who, themselves, not many years later were fleeing for their lives when things turned nasty under Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. But the Puritans wanted religious domination, a theocracy. As the old saying goes, they fled tolerant Holland so that they could come to the New World and be intolerant. By the eighteenth century, we had learned our lesson. Puritans are no fun, and theocracies stink.

The First Amendment, written just a few years after the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, essentially mandated an open market, a scramble market, in the salvation of souls. Left without the guarantees offered by state monopolies, congregations would live or die by their own efforts in recruiting members, getting their money, and kindling their enthusiasm. Churches would have to hustle, or they'd be hustled out of business. And they have.

To understand our spiritual market, imagine that the soap aisle down at the supermarket was mandated to carry not just the barely differentiated products from Procter & Gamble and Unilever but also every product from Tom's of Maine to Bill's of Duluth. From a marketing point of view, this means there will not be a monopoly supplier, no "Church of America." In such a market, extremes are not just welcomed — they are encouraged. Well, up to a point, as David Koresh, Joseph Smith, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, John Humphrey Noyes, and some others have found out. In such an aisle, the competition for eye-level placement is furious, packaging is paramount, and price matters. You don't get bought unless you make noise.

American religions have been noisy from the time the constitutional ink was dry. By the time Alexis de Tocqueville, patron saint of cultural historians, arrived on these shores in the 1830s, the pattern was set. The charismatic off-the-wall preacher, the bewildering variety of new denominations, the determination to innovate, and the across-town and across-the-street cutthroat competition were good to go. Ironically, the farther religion was kept from state control but under state protection, the more frantic the competition.

If you want to see what a scramble market looks like, check out this 1879 cartoon from Puck magazine. There they are — a few of the suppliers we still recognize — lined up at the carnival of culture, each jostling for a piece of the action. Written on the fringe over the various booths: "U.S. Faith." "Take Your Choice." Lower right under a banner reading "Rapid Transit to Heaven" is a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church taking in money for selling indulgences. In the next stall is a smugly satisfied Henry Ward Beecher selling white souls, at least according to his placard. A buck-naked Baptist is offering soap-free hot or cold immersion in his water drum — for a price, of course. Up top on the roof is a charlatan conducting a spirit show for the mingling crowd. An elderly gent is promoting polygamy as "the only sure & pleasant road to salvation," an Episcopal priest is touting the rewards of ritual, while to his right is a pedo-Baptist claiming the "foot of salvation." In the center is a toy monkey presumably held together by wobbly pins like the synods in the Presbyterian church. He is waving a guarantee of salvation. Over by the stairs is the Jew brandishing a huge knife, probably a reference to circumcision or to "blood libel," a common belief that Jews required the blood of Christians, mostly newborns, for use in rituals. Meanwhile, at the foot of the heavenly stairs, sprawls a cupidlike baby in top hat and tails holding a scroll that reads, "The best route, integer vitae scelerisque purus [unimpaired by life and clean of wickedness], clean hands and a pure heart" implying that this marketplace is indeed the religious Vanity Fair. Plus ça change...

Separation of Church and State Creates This Carnival

While individual suppliers go at it hammer and tongs on one side of American culture, religion is kept at arm's length by that half of the population who tremble at the sight of the true believers. Thanks to them — the lukewarm Christians — there are more legal obstacles to religion in American public life than there are in almost any other important country except China. Both sides duke it out, confident that religion really matters.

Just consider schools, for instance. Kids in state schools are not allowed to say a short prayer together before a football game. We endlessly nitpick over who can or cannot be in the school Christmas crèche — a reindeer yes, a baby Jesus no. In fact, it now looks as if nativity scenes are forbidden from all public schools no matter who's in the manger. Some loony school district is always trying to ban some work like Goethe's Faust (the devil), Miller's The Crucible (witches), or Rowling's Harry Potter (magic) on religious reasons. And they almost always manage to find a tone-deaf judge to go along for a while.

And let's not even discuss the argument over intelligent design, which has been roiling both the religion and school markets. Who cares that this cockamamy scheme undermines not only science but religion itself. (If you found an Intel chip on a deserted beach, would you infer that God created it or some Silicon Valley whiz kid?) It's great in-your-face marketing, however, and it annoys the hell out of the lukewarms. Ironically, by ensuring that religion is a private and protected matter, nonbelievers have never let it suffer the debilitating infections of education. American secularists have ensured that religion not only flourishes but that the most innovative and sometimes the noisiest versions triumph.

Or take politics. Hot Christianity, because it depends on shared faith in something essentially unprovable to promise a better future, has much in common with organized politics. When it becomes political, however, religion invariably weakens. Kept apart, religious groups continually energize one another with competitive promises. Observe cultures where church and state have been close, and you see that they both become complacent, blaming each other for failures of vision. European religions like French Catholicism, English Anglicanism, and Scandinavian Lutheranism show the problem of inclusion. Religion suffers when it takes on the failures of the state.

Theocracies in the West, as John Calvin and Oliver Cromwell found out, are potent but short-lived. That's because sooner or later the state invariably screws up. It gets into the wrong war, or it forgets to take out the garbage, or it just horses around too much with taxpayer monies. The man behind the curtain shows the lipstick on his clerical collar. The key to religious suppliers is that they be, at least while making the sale, infallible and deadly serious. To make the sale, they have to argue that, yes, there is one God and many religions, but only this religion, my religion, is the true one.

Politics is flypaper to religion. Observe Sweden and the Lutheran Church. For generations, everyone born in Sweden became a member of the church. The church was supported by state taxes. In 2000 the church was separated from the state as part of the country's secular trend. Swedes could write to their local parish, telling the vicar they no longer wish to be members and opt not to pay taxes to the church, which range from 2 percent to 3 percent of their income. They did. Although some 85 percent of Swedes are church members, only 11 percent of women and 7 percent of men go to church. American fundamentalists may rue the day they flew into the arms of the Republican party. But Republicans will suffer more.

Here's the take-away. A secular government that enforces religious tolerance often ends up fostering more furious religiosity than does the pious state that enforces intolerance. More specific, the free market in religious choice has increased the levels of religiosity. That's because in highly competitive markets suppliers have to stay on their toes, be innovative, be resilient, and always be selling. Coke sells more going up against Pepsi. McDonald's needs Burger King. When markets are supplying interchangeable products, selling can become frantic. Brand war! The complacent get killed. Think anemic Dr Pepper or almost kaput Royal Crown Cola. Remember Burger Chef. The suppliers who increase market share really do have to "get in your face." Hustle, baby, hustle.

How I Came to This Subject

I am often asked how an English teacher ever got interested in this subject. Here's how: When I'm doing my day job, I'm talking about stories. I teach romantic literature: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and, well, you know the rest from high-school English. These stories are part of literature, and stories get into this category by being a little complex. My job is to explicate them.

In addition, these stories are often quite powerful. They get power by delivering a specific sensation. Sometimes we group them by that sensation. So you can have a course in comedy (stories that make you laugh); horror (stories that make you shiver); melodrama (stories that make you cry); or tragedy (which, as Aristotle first said, are stories that make you feel pity and terror).

About twenty years ago I became intrigued by how we were attaching stories to consumer products. This process is called branding. What separates Evian bottled water from tap water is that it comes with a story that delivers a feeling. Ditto Coke and Pepsi. Or, say, the General Motors Cadillac Escalade and the Lexus GX 470. If I were to blindfold you and drive you around, could you tell me which car you were in? But the minute you see the nameplate (story), you know how you feel. The taste separation is in your imagination, not in the product. That's because machine-made products are essentially fungible, interchangeable, but the brands (stories) are not. As they say on Madison Avenue, you drink the advertising, not the beer. In other words, the story is what is sold; the product is thrown in free.

I started to write about this storytelling-on-the-take and ended up dealing with a special group of products called "luxury goods." If you go into stores such as Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, or Fendi, you see much the same inventory, but the logos (again, stories) are all different, and so are the consumers' responses. Often the products are the same, made on the same machines, of the same fabrics and textures. The sensations are very potent and come to us not from the product but from the marketing. Luxury is a sensation, and it can be attached via branding (you know what that means) to such things as bottled water, scarves, vodka, ties, works of art, shoes, handbags, schools, wine, automobile tires, and then retailed for a higher than seemingly rational price.

In the chapters that follow, I look to see whether the same condition exists in church markets, most specifically in the Protestant markets. Here's the central question: are there doctrinal/ingredient differences among and between Protestant denominations that generate value for the consumer? Or are the denominations separated more by other factors, like marketing, competitive amenities, packaging, a better selection of friends? There used to be an old saying that paid tribute to this lack of doctrinal distinction: A Baptist is a Christian who has learned to wash; a Methodist is a Baptist who has learned to read; a Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college; and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments have turned out well.

If I blindfolded you and put you into a Presbyterian, Methodist, or Episcopal church, could you tell me where you were? And if the separation is not in doctrine but in the marketing, how does that happen? Once we get a grip on branding, will it help to explain why merged churches and churches in the middle are failing? Or help to explain why some extreme (luxury, in a way) churches that demand high sacrifice (high prices) are growing like Topsy?

Is Confession Good for the Soul?

One more matter before we begin. In the last few years, I've read a lot of books on religion. At the beginning, the author invariably tells us how important religion has been to him (and usually it's a him writing about this subject). He's been a member of the blankety-blank denomination, even though perhaps he's grown in faith a bit over the years. Or he was a believer, viz Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and has now found a new passion. When the critics get hold of the book, just like clockwork they will say, "Hey, whaddaya expect from a blankety blank."

So here are my bona fide blankety blanks. On religious subjects I'm a blank, not just a tabula rasa but a tabula Teflon. A lot has been applied; alas, not much stuck. I'm one of those who don't go to church. Or at least I didn't. In the last few years I have gone to church a lot. In fact, I often take long trips just to go to church. I like going to church. I like singing. I like the sense of community. I especially like observing the people around me. What are they feeling? I like looking at what's on the walls, and I really like a good sermon, a stem-winder.

I should confess that I have trouble reading the Bible, especially the King James Version. I've certainly tried, but it's tough going for me even though I'm supposed to be a professional reader. I must not be the only one, as the publication of such "trots" as The Light Speed Bible and The Bible in 90 Days attests. Sometimes I think the Bible is toted around in public rather the way graduate students of a generation ago used to lug around Finnegans Wake. You didn't have to really read it; you only had to look as if you'd like to. It's comforting to hold, perhaps a bit of a fetish.

I do like to hear Bible stories explained. I often think that I would explain them differently. So for me, doing church is a bit of a busman's holiday. After all, the pastor is usually doing almost exactly what I do. He calls it exegesis. I call it close reading. We should be cultural cousins. After all, we come from the same place historically and only recently went our separate ways. From time to time we even wear the same dark robes to prove it. And we have the same concerns about not putting our charges to sleep and getting them a little anxious about the final exam.

In church shopping for this book, I was occasionally curious about which denomination was best for me. And so in the service of full disclosure, here's the result of my taking the "Belief System Selector," a twenty-question sampling from more than two dozen world religions from SelectSmart.com. I'm not alone in my curiosity. The site gets about seven thousand hits a day and has even generated its own jokes. One patron claimed to have received a mixed test score of "100 percent Unitarian Universalist" and "100 percent Jehovah's Witness," which means that he knocks on doors for no apparent reason. On the basis of my "indwelling beliefs," here's where I belong and how much of me is affiliated:

HERE ARE MY RESULTS

1. Humanist (100)

2. Unitarian Universalist (92)

3. Atheist/Agnostic (81)

4. Theravada Buddhist (76)

5. Liberal Quaker (71)

6. NeoPagan (63)

7. Taoism (51)

8. Mainline to Liberal Protestant (47)

9. Orthodox Quaker (45)

10. New Age (44)

11. Mahayana Buddhist (39)

12. Baha'í (27)

13. Jainism (27)

14. Reform Judaism (27)

15. Sikhism (27)

16. Christian Science (18)

17. Hindu (18)

18. Latter Day Saints (18)

19. New Thought (18)

20. Scientology (18)

21. Seventh-day Adventist (15)

22. Mainline to Conservative Protestant (14)

23. Eastern Orthodox Christianity (9)

24. Islam (9)

25. Jehovah's Witness (9)

26. Orthodox Judaism (9)

I now think of myself as a cold Christian or, better yet, an "apatheist." I lift this coinage from a recent Atlantic Monthly article by Jonathan Rauch. It means "a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's." This is not atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, secularism, and all the rest, because the apatheist believes that religion has an important place in every culture. And that place should be protected and made safe. We live in a Christian culture; we can't pretend to be unaffected by its profound influence. I'd be out of business without it. Apatheists also believe, however, that if a religion has to move out of its place, has to proselytize in order to be true to its calling, that it do so very quietly and politely. Knock first.

So, if you want to write a review of this book, here's your first sentence: "Shopping for God is just what you'd expect from an apatheist."

Copyright © 2007 by James B. Twitchell

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Table of Contents

Chapter One: Oh Lord, Why U.S.? An Overview of the Spiritual Marketplace

Chapter Two: Another Great Awakening?

Chapter Three: Let's Go Shopping: Brought to You by God®

Chapter Four: Hatch, Match, Dispatch, or Baptized, Married, Buried: The Work of Denominations

Chapter Five: Holy Franchise: Marketing Religion in a Scramble Economy

Chapter Six: The United Methodist Example

Chapter Seven: The Church Impotent: What's Wrong with the Mainlines?

Chapter Eight: Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Missionary Fields

Chapter Nine: The Megachurch: "If You Are Calling about a Death in the Family, Press 8."

Chapter Ten: And This Too Shall Pass: The Future of Megas

Endnotes

Index

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