Every generation gets the Jesus they want, need, deserve … or can be sold.
In adman Bruce Fairchild Barton’s 1925 best-seller, The Man Nobody Knows, Jesus is a suave and manly can-do figure, a raconteur and the ultimate corporate motivator, condensing his theology into compact, easily-graspable and memorable sound bytes (also known as parables) and turning a ragtag bunch of bickering, directionless slackers (also known as Apostles) into the greatest sales force the world has ever known.
This mashup of messiah and mammon contradicted Jesus’s teachings not a whit, Barton asserted: “Surely no one will consider us lacking in reverence if we say that every one of the ‘principles of modern salesmanship’ on which business men so much pride themselves, are brilliantly exemplified in Jesus talk and work.” Barton’s fictional Age-of-Boosterism counterpart George Babbitt couldn’t have said it any better.
By 1971, having acquired Superstar status with an assist from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus sang his way onto the Broadway stage and a few years later took his act on the road and went Hollywood.
Comes now, courtesy of HeGetsUs.com, a Jesus rebranded as a neurotic millennial for a generation swimming in angst, tangled up in technology, and feeling hopeless about the future.
According to a new and ubiquitous $100 million campaign concocted by the Lerma advertising agency (whose clients include Home Depot and Avocados from Mexico) and funded by a group of evangelical billionaires, Jesus would be perfectly at home in our anxious age.
This new emo Jesus, the multimedia HeGetsUs campaign tells us, has seen it all. His bona fides as a member of this lost generation? He was: Arrested / Wrongly Judged / A Refugee / Cancelled.
And that’s just for starters. The website lists a litany of Jesus’s travails: Anxiety. Broken Relationships. Loneliness. Target of Trolls. Insomnia. He knew sex workers (Mary Magdalene), Rat Finks (Judas), Crooked Politicians (Pilate) and endured Judean forerunners of our modern miseries (which include Covid and “the 24-hr News Cycle,” according to the HeGetsUs site).
The site features grainy black-and-white photos of troubled youth: this one swaddled in an unkempt bunk, head buried beneath a pillow; that one searching fruitlessly for answers on a smart phone; and — let’s not forget the uplift — yet another receiving revivifying hugs from fellow believers.
It’s a classic ad tactic: 1) Establish a problem; 2) demonstrate to the consumer that they are almost certainly bedeviled by the problem; 3) show how the product on offer solves the problem.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. (That brilliant last directive doubled shampoo sales.) As Lerma executive John Lee wrote for ChurchLeaders.com, re-branding Jesus is a lever to get nonbelievers into the tent by presenting a non-threatening, all-too-human Jesus. Once inside, the real work of hardcore conversion can begin:
We believe we are playing an important role in what my father’s generation would have described as a great revival. We are blessed and called to use our skills and experience in brand strategy to reframe the promise of Jesus for a generation. To reframe Jesus, we must also work to help reposition our most compelling communications touch points: Jesus followers. As this campaign grows, we believe millions of people who start by exploring their curiosity about Jesus will find their way into your churches and ministries. And that is where we will have a new opportunity to introduce them to our savior.
Bill McKendry, CEO of Haven, the agency that produced the ads, was blunter: “Is the goal that people become Christians? Obviously.”
I’ve been a faculty member at a Catholic university for over 20 years. I respect the seriousness with which people here practice and grapple with their faith. My life has been enriched by colleagues and students of different cultures, nationalities, faiths, perspectives and modes of living. My closest friend on campus is a theologian who has broadened my ideas about spirituality and faith.
But whatever creed they follow, whatever beliefs shape their characters, the spiritual people I know are full of questions. The ability to live with questions that cannot definitively be answered seems to me to be the actual basis of faith.
The problem with He Gets Us is the same problem with all advertising. To quote Tom Waits, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away.
The small print in this case (and it is virtually invisible) is that despite the hipster trimmings, He-Gets-Us Jesus is brought to us by a cast of evangelical oligarchs who have (wisely) scrubbed the site of any clues to their identity. The people paying for the ads are anonymous, but they are fronted by a philanthropic investment collective called The Servant Foundation, Inc. (Doing Business As an organization with the Da Vinci Code-esque handle of “The Signatory”). It’s a mostly white, aged crew of midwestern fundamentalists.
Jesus may or may not “get me.” But belief as brand? A market-driven fantasy masquerading as an invitation to faith? A savior for the people constructed and backed by anonymous billionaires?
I wonder if Jesus would get that?
Mike Dillon is a professor of journalism and media at Duquesne University (firstname.lastname@example.org).
First Published April 22, 2022, 12:56pm