An Economic Pitfall

An Economic Pitfall June 12, 2012

Erich Fromm’s “Marketing Character” pinpoints a major frustration I’ve had with Christendom for the past decade. This principle of socio-economics exposes a monstrous pitfall for the Church lying beneath the surface of American social relationships. This one might hurt a bit since it reveals the dangers of cyber-networks, including our beloved Emergent Village Voice.

Fromm’s psychological training and life experience positioned him to see what now is. Post-WWII social dynamics evolved into the ever familiar post-modern virtual hyper-consumerism which has monopolized human interactions via mobile devices. Technology is the product reducing us to salespersons in our most intimate connections as people. Fromm’s fear of the economic implications of the “having mode of existence” objectifying and commercializing humanity has become our daily reality.

The epitome of the having mode is Fromm’s marketing character.  The crux of this lifestyle is the joy of selling one’s personality. In the having mode, pleasure means owning more. Those who own the most have the most joy. Post-modernity has taken this to a new level. With the marketing character, possessing is no longer the ultimate state. Being a commodity or a product consumed by the masses is. Joy stems from being owned by others operating in the having mode of existence. Cults of celebrity are the natural consequence of the marketing character. Consider our obsession with knowledge about famous celebrities, athletes, businesspersons, etc. They are commodities to be consumed by us and our egos. Sports jersey sales, gossip magazines, reality TV shows . . . all pervasive examples of the marketing character.

Within Christendom, mega-churches and televangelists epitomize the marketing character. Successful pastors market their message in weekly TV shows, Christian products, best-selling books, ebooks, DVD series. It’s seen as a positive use of technologies to “spread the Kingdom” and “reach the lost” and “feed the sheep.” The commercial and spiritual enterprises cannot be discerned. For the marketing character money signifies the presence of Spirit. Or, as I’ve heard many times in my fundamentalist upbringing, “Where God guides He provides.”

Countless Christian virtual communities (including this one) market themselves in order to “reform the church” and “revolutionize Christianity” and “combat dead religion.” Although the content is valid and necessary, these messages are packaged in similar ways and through similar means. In all truth, we prophets calling for a new Church are no better than those we protest.

To my shock and disgust, I have seen more clearly the extent I have fallen into the marketing character. I speak as a fellow member in the pit, not as an Enlightened one. Struggling to sell myself on various platforms, watching numbers of hits (or lack thereof), idolizing others with larger platforms. And upon realizing this, I stepped back and turned off the Internet. I decided to delete my profiles and regain my dignity.

As this piece suggests, I am reflecting upon the next steps. I’m eager to hear direction and to receive insight from the great beings of human history. My presence here is purely hypocritical. I have few answers. I don’t know where else to go, to plead, and to vocalize this fear for others to ponder.

What is clear to me is the nature of this problem. A pitfall faces us today. We’re in a hole. The first thing we must to is stop and recognize we’re plummeting. Fundamentally we’re all insurance salesmen. Whether our product is better or more proven than theirs doesn’t really matter. We need to pause and ask ourselves, “What am I selling and why?” Moreover, “Did Jesus call me to sell anything?”

Fromm’s counter to the marketing character is the being mode of existence characterized by Buddha, Jesus and Karl Marx. A rather unlikely lot, but three great men whose movements have shaped the world. Buddhist renunciation of self, Christian dignity, Marxist redistribution of wealth. These men have taken the dangerous road down the paths of being and have boldly declared the pitfalls of having. Each message centers around freedom from having. This is undoubtedly a clanging symbol to our ears, but a necessary interruption for us to stop and to reconsider our steps. We need to meditate upon these calls to renounce our goods — to back away from marketing — in order to embrace the human spirit. We are all God’s workmanship to serve a having obsessed world. We must be examples of how to live differently and how to embody the joy of bearing the image of God as Christ did, to be Enlightened as Buddha was, to be freed from the capitalist masters as Marx plead.

For as human beings we find ourselves resting upon familiar ground. If we are able to rise up from the pit and embrace the person of Christ, we just might figure out how to bring others along as well. This is an opportunity to live counter culturally and live the life of Jesus — to rejoice in the poverty of being which is the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matt. 5:2-4)

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  • Rick Janzen

    I totally understand this commodification of self and others. Consumerism is alive and well everywhere including the church. However, Christ’s comments about salt and light expose heaven’s perspective on being rather than doing or, getting. If the church’s purpose is just to be then its success can’t be measured in converts or larger congregations. If by just being we are acting as saving agents in this world, then let us let go of the oppressive need to prove ourselves with the fruit of converts. No need to sell ourselves and our wonderful way of life to others. Besides, the world is not buying it.

    • Michael D. Bobo

      I think if we propose a counter-cultural way of living we are being and doing what Christ would call us to be and to do. Numbers don’t matter. He told us that few will enter. Success cannot be measured quantitatively in the way of Christ.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Lee in Kansas City

    Thank you. The author is not alone in these perceptions. I’ve often wondered how the majesty, dignity, and sacred incomprehensibility of our Creator (essential for awe), can be conveyed via “marketing” strategies. I’m also unsure how marketing ploys can awaken people to their sublime invitations to living grace. I understand what many on this journey imply when they express excitement over brainstorming for new marketing strategies, but nevertheless I cringe at the terminology. I cringe because I see such mechanisms as consumer-driven, rather than driven by God and His will (by God and his WAYS).

    By consumer driven, I mean “appealing to the lowest common denominators.” As the author well infers, “consuming” doesn’t ask much of anyone, except a garnering of marginal attention.

    On the upside, my faith tells me that any and all efforts to communicate the Good News are divinely supported and utilized. Even so, the medium is the message, and that’s hard for me to overlook. Marketing as a medium is materialistic in its innate “consciousness” (its philosophical/pragmatic scope). Marketing consciousness, for example, spawned an approach I once saw in a TV special, which featured born-again “stripper evangelists” who, after performing, introduced their audience members to Christ.

    I’m not against the idea of trying to market the highest of all realities. At the same time, I’d hope anyone engaging in marketing would prayerfully ask for extra vigilance to transcend the superficial lures of “best sellers,” “market shares,” “web hits,” etc.

    In comparison, Jesus had a message and He was the message. Such spiritual unification is so powerful, that the faith of Jesus still changes lives and speaks anew to all sorts of seekers (regardless of their paths). In light of that kind of power, attempts to disseminate the sacred which aim for unity of medium and message, will shed the most light, and hence, would seem to be the wisest.