We have a huge billboard on our property, and I can see it from my kitchen and bedroom window. It's not an offensive image, and I'm so used to it, it barely registers. I'm actually glad it's there, because the billboard company pays us rent right around the time our vehicles send each other that secret "Let's both break down!" signal. Still, I am annoyed if a corner of the billboard gets into a nice photo I'm taking of the kids. When I toddle down memory lane, I want to see little girls in sundresses frolicking in a field of black eyed susans, not a grinning blond lady with her shiny new SUV.
So I especially liked this image that's been floating around Facebook:
Okay, so it's a teensy bit precious and preachy, but it's hard not to sympathize. If you leave the house -- or even if you turn on the radio or TV (yes, even public radio or public TV) or internet, it's ads, ads, ads. You can filter them out, but nothing can compare to not having to filter them out. The joy of not being sold anything is a precious and increasingly rare joy. Capitalism brings many good things to my life, but that doesn't mean it should be allowed to seep into every corner of my experience.
A friend of mine objected to the message, saying that advertising can often be a good thing. After all, we're charged to go out and sell the word of God to the world -- to advertise the good news. He said that that's what St. Paul was telling us in his letters: to broadcast the word of God.
Well, there are some similarities: the Christian has something good, and needs to tell everyone about it, and explain why they need it, and explain how they can get it. You have to stir up interest, get your message out there. And it's just an analogy, when we compare evangelizing to a sales pitch. I get that.
But analogies are supposed to clarify, and this one -- comparing evangelization to advertising -- just muddies the waters. Here are just a few of the problems with handling the word of God as if it's a product to be sold:
It creates the expectation that we, as "consumers" of the word of God, are entitled to a certain amount of satisfaction -- that we know what we're getting, and deserve to get what we want or think we need. Approaching the Faith this way is asking for some grievous disappointment. See here. As C. S. Lewis said in God in the Dock, "I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity."
It implies that God, like a salesman, needs something from us. Commercials and ads try to create the impression that the consumer needs a product, and that the manufacturer is graciously supplying. But smart consumers realize that they are powerful, and that the business that's offering a product depends utterly on making a sale. Consumers depend on manufacturers and corporations to produce what they want, and manufacturers and corporations depend on the consumer to stay in existence.
But when God seeks a relationship with us, it's not because He needs us -- not at all! He created, redeems, and sanctifies us out of the overflowing of His love. He wants us. But He doesn't need us. We, on the other hand, need Him, or we would literally be nothing.
And it quietly implies that the "product" itself, the Word of God, is somehow lacking as-is -- that it needs to be gussied up, improved, made snazzier, so that today's savvy consumer will think that it's a good thing. I am all in favor of making the Faith accessible. But there are ways of doing this without inventing anything new (especially since, by the time the Church gets wind of it, it's likely to sound kinda old). Christ's words are startling enough on their own, and can be quoted freely in ways that will grab the attention of even the most jaded consumer. We have two thousand years' worth of arresting, incredibly varied artwork to choose from -- and the whole natural world is the work of God, too. No need to borrow from Coca-Cola for something eye-catching.
The whole point of Christianity is that it's something different from what the world has to offer. Not "just like the things you like, only better" but something radically different, something new.
Is this all to say that Catholics ought never to go public with our faith? Obviously not. We're told very directly not to hide our light under a bushel -- to "go tell it on the mountain." Catholics absolutely need to bring our faith into the public sphere, in social media and on the street corner Billboards, bumper stickers, pamphlets, TV and radio spots, internet ads -- these are all wonderful ways to spread the wonderful news that Jesus Christ heals and saves, and that the Church is here to help you find Him and receive His grace through the sacraments.
But let's be very careful not to blur that line. We're sharing a gift that was given to us, not selling a product that is rightfully ours. God is our Father; Christ is our brother. There is no business transaction going on between us. We're supposed to conform all of our practices -- business and otherwise -- to the Gospel. Let's scrupulously avoid anything that smacks of making the Gospel conform to business practices, even by analogy.
That phrase "the joy of not being sold anything" says so much about how God operates. He compels, He invites, He cajoles, He welcomes, He demands, and occasionally He hides. But He does not sell, and He does not wish to be sold.