Shopping for Jesus

November 25, 2006 | By | 9 Replies More

Could this headline ever run in a major newspaper?   

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Of course not!  Never is the alleged wall between the news department and the sales department of newspapers so low as during the holy season of senseless spending. 

Yes, I changed this headline to make a point.  The real headline disturbed me and I was struggling to effectively explain why.  I even considered an alternative make-believe headline: “In the name of Jesus, newspapers promote the buying of useless things, through purported news articles, to make their advertisers happy.” Both of my false headlines reflect the deep and disturbing reality of what drives modern day American Christmas better than the headline that actually ran.  Here’s the actual front page headline reporting the earth-shaking news that Thanksgiving Friday retail sales were brisk:

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The actual headline works hard to convince us that we the shoppers are heroes trying to conquer the challenge of shopping on a deadline or, perhaps, victims of the long lines.  I seriously question both of those characterizations.  I would say that many of us have been hoodwinked by fake news.

For the next thirty days or so, newspaper “articles” and television “news” reports will work hard to convince us to buy expensive and unnecessary consumer goods, allegedly to honor Jesus Christ.  The message is absurd.  Absurd, but powerfully seductive.  After all, what is Christmas without conspicuous consumption?  Not much of anything, according to all of the ads we’re about to see.  Incredibly, this seductive message is built into almost every Christmas story ever written. For an example, see my earlier post on the Grinch who Stole Christmas.  

If Jesus really existed and he returned to Earth to go shopping during Christmas (yes, this is far-fetched) He would really get pissed at what was going on in his name.  I would love to see the look on His face as scores of sincere but credulous Christians tried to justify the American Christmas “celebration.”  When each additional attempt to convince Him that the American version of Christmas is “wonderful” or even “normal,” the veins in his forehead would pop out yet another notch.  Until He went on an all-out rampage, trashing all of the Christmas displays in the Wal-Marts, K-Marts and all the other corporate-owned stores promoting unnecessary and expensive consumer goods in His name.  How do I know all this?   Because the dollars we blow at Christmas are fungible and because I read the Bible:

21:12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,  
21:13 And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. 

Matthew 21:12-13.  No, it’s not exactly a parallel.  This passage isn’t relevant because we’ve turned churches into stores (though we’ve actually done this).  Rather, it’s because we’ve turned our stores into churches. 

The American tradition that consumer lavish spending is a necessary part of Christmas Day is a classic non-sequitur.  What is a non sequitur?

1. Logic. an inference or a conclusion that does not follow from the premises. 
2. a statement containing an illogical conclusion. 

For their own selfish reasons, newspapers and other advertising media instruct us to buy lots of unnecessary stuff to honor Jesus.  But how is buying things (or killing trees) “because it’s Christmas” any more logical than playing ping-pong or weeding the garden “because it’s Christmas”?  Is the New Testament message really to “love one another” by buying each other unnecessary (and often useless) things?  Or is it to love one another in ways that require real sacrifice and thus are more deserving of honor?

And why aren’t the churches working hard to teach their American flocks that the standard Christmas message (buy lots of things to honor Jesus) is utterly absurd?  Could it be that the main function of most churches is to provide salve for the conscience, to clear the way for the status quo?  I dare any person to pick up any present he or she was ever given “for Christmas” and to explain how that gift honored Jesus.  Go ahead, pick up that Gameboy, or that perfume, or even that new cordless drill.  If you didn’t really need those things at all, then you certainly didn’t need any of them on Christmas. 

The need to buy gifts for Christmas is a major league non sequitur that ranks right up there those other classic non sequiturs promoted by many versions of Christianity:  A) Jesus died to save us (as though God couldn’t simply save us without slaughtering his son); and B) People who aren’t religious are moral degenerates (as though non-Christians never lead generous, kind and praiseworthy lives). 

If repeated often enough without critical scrutiny, non-sequiturs take on the ambience of logic.  It’s Christmas, therefore I must buy gifts.  If this doesn’t seem patently absurd, it’s because you’ve been exposed to thousands of repetitions already.  You’ve probably started hearing it while sitting on your father’s lap.

“Buy a gift for someone to honor Jesus.”  What kind of gift?  It doesn’t matter, of course.  Frivolous gifts, expensive gifts, quirky gifts, gag gifts or even gifts “for the man or woman who has everything,”  “Why?”  Just because!  Repeated 1000 times, “Buy gifts because it is Christmas” starts to sound undeniably logical, but it isn’t.  It seems logical thanks to habit and thanks to your constant exposure to unrelenting social expectations, expectations fueled by manipulative news stories like the one at the top of this post.  “Because” is a very powerful frame, indeed, even when it is not connected up with any valid reason at all.  

Given that we crave lots of unnecessary stuff, it’s not very difficult for creative beings to conjure up reasons for justifying that stuff.  Though I must admit, it is one of humanity’s finest bits of mental gymnastics to develop a system of getting stuff by giving stuff–-promoting it as a duty for everyone to give gifts–all that giving culminating in the mass receipt of gifts back to the gift givers.  Great Yankee ingenuity!

I couldn’t help but notice how our advertisers promote compulsive shopping the same way that our government promotes the war on terror. First, stores make everyone nervous by suggesting that there are long lines at the stores and that there might not be any presents left by the time you get to the store.  Next, they show lots of pictures reminding potential shoppers that they need to buy useless things because everybody else is buying useless things.  That is the way of the herd, and we are people of the herd.  There is no better technique for selling slippers or for empowering the executive branch than by scaring us into conformity.

Since I’m mid-rant and a little out of control, here’s another question I need answered: why is a materialistic orgy any less odious during the Christmas season than it would be on any other day of the year?  No one is raising any hands, so I’ll move on.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is the only major newspaper serving a metro area of 2.5 million people.  It commonly promotes useless consumption as if there were nothing more important to write about.  The Post-Dispatch has degenerated so much over the past few decades that they ought to just call it “Post-Integrity.”  Though this sounds harsh, let me explain.  The actual headline about “Black Friday” followed on the heels of other front page articles that primed the newspaper’s readers to hit the stores hard on Thanksgiving Friday.  Another front page headline last week promoted Sony’s PlayStation.  The unrelenting message of all of these “news stories” is that we must celebrate the King of Kings with the purchase of things and more things.  And most of America buys that message.

I truly do wish each of you a wonderful Christmas season.  But screw the stores that suggest that buying stuff at Christmas is somehow about Jesus.  And to hell with the accomplices of those stores, all of those “news” sources who spew the lie that the only path to cosmic truth and family harmony runs through the well-lit aisles of their advertisers’ stores. 

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Culture, Meaning of Life, Media, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Shopper trampled in the name of Jesus | Dangerous Intersection | November 29, 2008
  1. Deb says:

    This orgy of buying seems somewhat related to the Native American tradition of potlaches.

    The old practice in many tribes was that the leaders, the most respected individuals of the tribe, were generally the least affluent. They were the poorest because they were the most generous. They saw it as their responsibility to give to those who had the least, the widows, the disabled, etc., and many times did without so that someone else would not. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case these days. Like the dominant culture, where power means money and the government leaders have lots of both, tribal chiefs or tribal chairmen often live in the best houses, drive the best cars, and have lots of other advantages other tribal members lack. One has only to see the residence of Hollis Roberts, disgraced chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (convicted sex offender), complete with electronically monitored gate and the best paved road in the county. Roberts is no different than most other men of power, though, so I don't mean to particularly single him out. Bottom line is that in both cultures, native and anglo, our leaders tend to be the wealthiest among us.

    One tradition that illustrated the belief that giving was good was the potlach. The potlach was a 'give away' where the giver accumulated social status by giving things to others (mostly opposite of our 'gimme' dominant culture). In some tribal cultures, particularly in northwest North American, potlatch was the custom. At some significant event, such as the birth of a child or a marriage, a great party was held. The host not only provided the feast, but gave away food, clothes, tools, and other items to guests. It was a mark of great esteem to give in abundance, and in some cases, even to the point of the host giving his home. This all seemed to work pretty well since it cycled around. The recipients at one potlatch would often be the giver at another. It worked pretty well that is, until European influence changed the cultural landscapte.

    When the tribes were defeated, they became very poor, for a multitude of reasons. Being poor did not stop the potlaches, in fact, they became much more intensive. They truly believed that "giving was receiving" and so attempted to better themselves by giving more. In some instances, the potlatch host would give away everything, his home, his food, his clothes, and be left completely destitute, homeless, naked and starving. Missionaries were the face of the American government on the reservations, and made all the rules, so they forced a stop to the potlaches.

    The ban on potlatches worked for a while. No more potlatches to celebrate births and marriages, to mourn deaths. But since the potlatch was a deeply ingrained tradition, there was an answer: hold the giveaway on December 25. The missionaries didn't stop that. Records from that time reflect that the missionaries were pleased that the Indians had decided to celebrate "Christmas."

    Nearly every tribe still has a similar tradition. Pow-wows are often held to celebrate tribal events, to honor veterans, celebrate graduations, etc., and at these events, there are 'give-aways.' A special song is sung, during which a person or family wishing to honor someone will give many items away: blankets, shawls, money, food items, tobacco, etc. Some of these items will be given to certain persons the family names, and sometimes a call will simply go out to the elders, or to friends, to come take what is given.

    I often wonder if the Christmas gift giving orgy we see today is a corruption of the generosity of give-aways. As with anything, if a little is good, a lot is seldom better.

  2. Scholar says:

    I like the use of a graphical representation to examine/attack Christianity. This may help some "readers" who may not be literate enough to be able to "read" more than the headlines. Or those who may choose not to read articles they find heretical. The word "orgy" of course would be reason for many to disregard this headline as a hoax, however accurate it may be.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Here is a nice tradition for holiday giving: donate money to a needy charity in the name of the person to whom you are making a gift. In doing so, you satisfy the unofficial obligation to give gifts, you contribute nothing to the overload of stuff that already burdens the lives of your friends and relatives, you help people during the holiday who actually do need more stuff, and you give charities another name on their mailing list, so next year maybe the tradition will spread. The way I understand Christianity, true giving is not exchanging presents with friends and relatives who are giving you reciprocal gifts; true Christian giving is giving to people who have real needs and who you know will not reciprocate to you.

  4. Sarah Boslaugh says:

    If it makes anyone feel better, I have read that the day after Thanksgiving is only the fourth most active shopping day: lots of foot traffic but not so much in sales compared to the days immediately preceeding Christmas. Personally, every Thanksgiving I give thanks that I don't have to get involved in the mall crush (or the holiday buying frenzy in general).

  5. Martian says:

    Not to mention the fact that Jesus wasn't born in December at all.

  6. Dan says:

    My family has adopted a "buy-nothing" format for our personal gift-giving. I personally am writing some songs on my guitar for my family.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Martian writes: "Not to mention the fact that Jesus wasn’t born in December at all."

    Is the actual birthday of Jesus known? Emperor Aurelian chose December 25 to co-opt existing pagan festivals — both longstanding winter solstice festivals and the "birthday of the invincible sun" celebrated by followers of the god Mithras (see http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa….

    According to the book, "Pagan Origins of Christmas," quoted on the above website, Mithras was a "sun-god, born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, and worshipped on Sunday, the day of the conquering sun…He died and was resurrected in order to become a messenger god, an intermediary between man and the good god of light, and the leader of the forces of righteousness against the dark forces of the god evil."

    With so many obvious similarities between Mithras and Jesus, why does only Christianity exist today even though Mithraism was practiced for 1400 years before Jesus was born? Perhaps because Mithraism did not permit women to participate, so it was far less inclusive and presumably less popular than Christianity.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's a comment to this article from reddit.com:

    Your commentary is what is absurd. Nobody is alleging that "buying expensive and unnecessary consumer goods honors Jesus Christ". Nobody. You are a rebel without a brain.

    And why aren’t the churches working hard to teach their American flocks that the standard Christmas message (buy lots of things to honor Jesus) is utterly absurd?

    It's absurd because you made it up. "Buying lots of things to honor Jesus" is not "the standard Christmas message". Never has been. What in the world are you talking about? Of course churches teach the true meaning of Christmas. Yes, there is a lot of gift buying going on, but I defy you to find anyone who thinks that "buying expensive and unnecessary consumer goods honors Jesus Christ". What a foolish premise!

    Here's my reaction:

    I dare–DARE–church leaders to stand up at the pulpit just before Thanksgiving and tell the flock to CUT IT OUT! Stop pouring money into Christmas dreck! The plastic lights, angels, excess toys, this materialistic tsunami that occurs every year. The failure to deliver this message squarely is a green light to shop for Jesus.  Whenever a parishoner comes up and tells a church leader that they've indulged in a needless senseless materialsitic orgy for Christmas, do you know what they get?  I've seen this countless times.  They get a smile and silence.  They don't hear a word that spending big money frivolously is poisoning their souls and pissing on the poor.

    Church leaders from coast to coast know what drives the flock to celebrate Christmas and they dare not touch the third rail or the flock will run off to some other church where their consciences aren't pricked.

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