Zach posted an intriguing blog about billboarding the other day. While growing up, he did not feel the need nor cultural pressure to advertise his faith through bless-ed threads. Only now, as an atheist, is he making use of ideological branding to share his views.
I share the younger years indifference to outward marketing of my “faith.” To be fair, I did not take my faith very seriously so any displays of religious affection would never have even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I started following Jesus at age 17 that I felt emboldened to make sure everyone knew I was a Christian. T-shirts (including the “Lord’s Gym” shirt Zach mentioned,) bracelets, necklaces, wallets, patches, car emblems, car stickers, guitar case stickers, hats, sweatshirts, and the ultimate self-branding: tattoos. Thankfully, I was smart enough to get good-looking tattoos independent of hyper-evangelical memes.
The situation changed as I became more aware of how such in-your-face “witnessing” came across to others—even other Christians. I admire people who are bold and open about their faith. But I admire those who are free to share because it is a part of who they are and they use genuine interactions and situations to show what their faith means and provide solid commentary when appropriate. The Gospel does need to be told; but so often it’s told very poorly because of awful theology or communication. Billboarding and branding usually exhibit both.
I don’t wear Christian shirts anymore (except one from my seminary, DTS, which says “Hallelujah” in Hebrew—I mean, come on, that’s cool.) I don’t wear bracelets period. I took the Jesus fish emblem off of my guitar pick guard. Why? Because I don’t want to be lumped together with every other person who has those things. Let’s be honest: a lot of people have fishes on their car who are awful drivers and show no respect for anyone else on the road. History is replete with examples of people who call themselves Christians yet act like monsters. I don’t want such an easy association to be made with me (I’ll screw up my witness to others by myself, thank-you-very-much.)
On the other side of the discussion, just because someone wears the WWJD bracelet doesn’t mean they are so easily categorized, either. The trouble with branding is that it conveys things beyond one’s control. Even in close, lengthy, detailed conversation people can get the wrong impression. Billboarding just makes it that much more difficult to be clear.
Zach mentioned his son’s bib with “Damn Atheist” embroidered on it. Like Zach, I get the joke and in private it’s relatively harmless. But Christians aren’t the only ones who have public image obstacles; atheists come in all shapes and sizes and colors and don’t always agree on everything. To brand oneself is one thing. To brand someone who can neither live up to nor fail to live up to the branding is another. We want our kids to think for themselves! However right we think we are, we don’t do any service to our kids by stunting their intellectual growth. Not only that, we set ourselves up for parental anguish if we over-anxiously set an intellectual course from which they could later diverge.
And lastly, evangelicalism and company have done a terrible job with branding anyway. As a fan of good comedy, sharp design, and well-thought expression, I think Christian shirts and stickers suck (www.randomshirts.com being a notable exception to the rule.)