Marketing to the faithful

Last night I read to my son from an illustrated book called New Testament Stories. The book fell open to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, and my impulse was to skip over it to avoid having to explain the image of Jesus using a whip. But my son wanted to hear the story, so I relented. I told him the basic outline of the story and conveyed the message that temples and the churches are houses of God, places where the Holy Ghost can be. That makes them special, and we don’t do everyday things in them like buy stuff. I hope it was a good enough explanation for a 4 year old.

However, I didn’t talk to him about another facet of the story, which is the morality of making money in the context of worshiping God. In the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, sellers were exploiting the fact that temple worshipers needed an animal to sacrifice, setting up shop right there in the temple and probably overcharging people the same way movie theaters and airports have rip-off concessions. Jesus called it a den of thieves.

We Mormons can be quick to condemn people who make a living working for a church. I’ve heard lots of Sunday School comments about how our model of lay ministry is superior to other churches whose priests and pastors are paid – the implication being that their pay cheapens their work (it’s not sacrificing, like ours is…), that they’re not all that principled about doctrines (it’s just a job for them), or that they have an easy life of free support (they preach on Sundays and get to just kick it the rest of the week). Anyone who’d make those assumptions has obviously never seen a priest or pastor on the job. It’s seriously hard work, and it’s not that well paid compared to other professions where you need a graduate degree. Imagine being the bishop, the Relief Society president, the Sunday School president, and everyone’s home teacher simultaneously and you kind of get the picture. No one could possibly do all that and maintain another job, which is why these people must be paid.

The same goes for church musicians. My husband is the music director at a non-denominational protestant church and when I tell some Mormons what he does I’m sometimes asked if he gets paid for his work. Um, yes. We are not in the financial position for him to spend his days doing volunteer work. The next question is whether it is a full time job, as many people seem unable to imagine how running a church’s music program could possibly consume 40 hours a week. Without going into details, I’ll just say it usually takes more than 40 hours a week.

So, given that half the bread in my home comes from a church, I have no problem with people making money in the context of worshiping God. Except that I do.

Let me give you an example. One of my husband’s colleagues recently gave him a CD with music by a Christian contemporary musician. I wasn’t impressed. All the songs sounded the same, her lyrics were unoriginal, the backup music was bland and repetitive, and her singing voice wasn’t very good. Then we learned what her fee is for doing one service at a church – almost a month’s worth of my husband’s salary – and I was disgusted. But this isn’t just a case of sour grapes. There are reasons why I’d judge her services not worth what she’s charging for them. For one, church music directors have to compile a new musical program every single week, gather and rehearse groups of volunteers, and learn new repertoire – not just play the same musical sets again and again. And they very often have graduate degrees in music and are quite skillful musicians. Compare this to a traveling “contemporary” artist doing several dozen gigs a year and playing the same set of (dare I say it) drivel every time, and you can see why their fees rankle me.

I also can’t stomach poorly written novels and banal visual art which are marketed to a religious audience and solid at a tidy profit because consumers apparently think that because of its “Christian” or “LDS” label this stuff must be worth their money. Honestly, I have a lot of suspicion and even some contempt for music, books, and art marketed as “Christian.” But contempt isn’t a Christian virtue, and I’m trying to analyze why I have it. What is it about this stuff that feels so wrong to me?

It’s not the fact that it’s spiritual or religious content presented in a genre typically reserved for the secular. Garth Brooks can sing “Unanswered Prayers” and Allison Krause can sing “In the Palm of Your Hand” and I love it. It’s not the fact that artists, authors, and musicians whose work is on religious themes are making money (even a lot of money) from their work. It’s using religion as a marketing device that I can’t stand. It’s OK with me if Six Pence None the Richer makes money on their album titled “The Dawn of Grace,” because they’re good musicians who’ve made their reputation by creating good music, not B, C, or D-grade musicians who create sub-par music and rely on a Christian label to make it sell.

With so much content out there, and much of it offensive, I can understand why people are looking for music, art, and literature that is in tune with their religious and moral sensibilities. And in the era of Google, I guess calling something “Christian” can help sort through the mounds and mounds of possibilities. But on the other hand, people’s religious and moral beliefs are not something to be exploited, and I truly hate to see low-quality work be given a boost because it appeals to those beliefs. But on the other-other hand, it’s a free market and no one is forcing anyone to buy D-grade Christian contemporary music. I guess some people actually like that stuff, and maybe I’m just a musical snob eating sour grapes.

What do you think? Is it OK to make money while worshiping? Is it OK to sell to the faithful at the highest price the market will bear?

  • Mike S

    Listen to any General Conference broadcast. As soon as it’s done, the TV starts blasting ads for LDS-themed products – a new book, or food storage, or something else.

    Deseret Book sold President Monson’s new biography for the mid-$30s, and you couldn’t get it discounted on Amazon or anywhere else. They knew members would shell out full price for a hard cover.

    We have top leaders making 6-figure salaries from the Church. They also have access to a private jet to travel to meetings around the world. We have people who work for the church creating media content, running the music program for the Tabernacle Choir, doing advertising, running polls, etc.

    Our education facilities employ in the tens of thousands is you include universities, institutes, seminaries, etc.

    So, overall, we have at least tens of thousands if not at least a hundred thousand people whose primary support is the Church.

  • Ben S

    I think “priestcraft” gets thrown around too loosely, and I think it’s ok to make money in connection to religion. The NT is pretty clear on that last point. But there’s not a always bright line between justified compensation and preying on the flock. In some marketers cases (Deseret Book, I’m looking at you) the flock is more than happy to spend their money on that which has no worth.

    I think Jesus objection was less to the sale of such things and more to the location the transactions were taking place.

  • Urbana-ite

    While I certainly agree that DB sells plenty of things with no worth, and while I’m fairly certain that that’s not how you meant it Ben, because of the Mike’s statement, one could interpret your statement to mean President Monson’s biography is of no worth.

    Again, I believe this is mistaken, but could you clarify for certain Ben as to whether this was or wasn’t what you meant to imply? I haven’t read this specific biography yet, but 30$ is not an obscene amount for a hardcover biography these days…

    P.S. You’ve been getting a lot of spam comments lately. Which saddens me, what’s up?

  • Emily U

    I didn’t think Ben was saying the Monson biography was of no worth. Didn’t get that message from his comment at all…

  • Ben S

    I haven’t read Monson’s bio yet, but with a few exceptions (and Monson may be in there), DB generally markets low-quality schlock. Unfortunately, I think they do it because it’s what sells, it’s what the market wants.

  • Jacob Brown

    One interesting thing to note is that many scholars believe that the reason Jesus showed such a display of indignation at the temple was to get the attention of the Jewish religious elite. Afterall, people needed to be able to buy the ritual implements to perform the expected rites. What did Jesus expect them to do? Move the market for temple goods a few blocks away?

    Really this dilemma isn’t much diffent than the LDS requirement that one be a full tithe pay to enter the temple. Isn’t that in some way attaching a monetary value to the exhalting ordinances? Isn’t it a business model for income that depends on the religious value people place on their temple attendance (or just being able to hold a recommend)?

    Am I the only one, or did renting clothes at the temple feel weird? I think that’s the main reason I felt I should buy my own stuff as soon as possible. It felt really wrong exchanging money at the clothing desk for the ceremonial robes. It’s even in the inner part of the temple past the recommend desk. I know it wasn’t much money. It’s just weird. I guess the new mini-temples don’t have this problem.

    Oh wow. The whole church as a business thing (Deseret Book, City Creek Center, etc.) is troubling in our Modern Mormonism, right? I mean, the early Mormon church was very much about theocracy and religiocapitalism. They had no problem mixing in business and politics with religion.

    The early missionaries survived by selling the Book of Mormon and tracts (when no one would take them in). Can you imagine our missionaries selling Liahonas, Ensigns, and Book of Mormons today? LOL!

    When Joseph Smith was running for president, he sent Brigham Young and several other apostles and missionaries to the East Coast to campaign for him. Can you imagine our missionaries campaigning for Monson to be the President of the United States? Mormonism really is fundamentally different today because of how its history evolved.

    Today, we have assumed a lot of the mainline Christian idealogies about religion, and all the churches involvement in profit-making just feels a little wrong at times. The good thing is that if you live outside of Utah, you probably don’t hear about any of the Church’s business deals. It’s just not really talked about.

  • David Naas

    It’s not just Mormons. Here’s what an evangelical sees (and no finger pointing, please), and the parallels are too obvious.

    It isn’t religion, it is America.