Monday, July 11, 2011

Branded Butter Spread Too Thin (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: Branded: Sharing Jesus with a Consumer Culture, by Tim Sinclair. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011. 143 pgs. (including preface, intro, and all appendixes)

Introduction: The history of 20th to 21st century Christian evangelism can be viewed as oscillating between an exercise in futility and a three-ring circus. Exactly how a child of God and follower of Christ is to effectively engage today's culture and its people while neither succumbing to its wiles nor alienating the souls attempting to be sought has proven to be a messy and frustrating affair. In Branded: Sharing Jesus with a Consumer Culture, author and radio personality Tim Sinclair attempts to tackle this hairy issue, bringing with it his on-air sense of humor as well as his many years of marketing experience. As explained on the book's back cover, Tim hopes to address the main problem that besets contemporary evangelism as well as to motivate and inspire us to "share our faith in ways that are honest, authentic, and---most importantly---effective."

Summary: Tim starts by explaining that Branded is not meant to be a how-to guide since there is "no one-size-fits-all methodology" to "showing and sharing Jesus" (10). We each have to create our own plan, one unique to our own circumstances. Thus, Tim plans to use his book to set a "backdrop" (viz., defining the problem and stressing the need to deal with it) while letting the reader fill in the methodological blanks.

Tim's thesis is simple: Christianity today has an "-ing" problem. We're awfully good at saying, acting, and pretending that we're Christians, but we're very bad at doing, being, and living like we're Christians (11). To put it another way, we're very good at classifying ourselves but lousy at living out that classification as though it were real: we can talk the talk, but we fail to walk the walk. As a result, we come off as hypocritical, insincere, and unauthentic.

In order to "compensate" for this "deficit," we create an impenetrable illusion of authenticity by using things to "brand" our relationship to Jesus. By the use of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, posting the right quotes, listening to the right radio stations, etc., we market Jesus to the world and (so we hope) create an image of authentic Christianity (11-12). Tim's response to this futile technological web-weaving sets the tone for the whole book: "Sharing Jesus with today's culture" has nothing to do with branding Jesus; rather, it "has everything to do with being personally branded by Christ" (12). If we want Christ taken seriously, then we need to start taking Him and our relationship to Him seriously.

Tim spends the whole of the book's thirteen chapters drilling down on this idea, first by explaining the main problem for 21st century evangelism: We live in a post-Christian world (13-15) where Christianity no longer has the "monopoly" over culture that it once had (28). Thus, we can no longer take our faith for granted, which has done nothing but give us a passionless Christianity (28) and a valueless Christ (33). In a post-Christian world were every viewpoint is consider equally valid, Christianity cannot afford such a state of affairs in its own house. It must once again passionately believe that Jesus matters.

Tim lays down several key principles that he (more or less) repeats throughout the book: in sharing Jesus, it is our methods that need to change, not our message (20-23); the Jesus we present must be based on the real thing, which only comes if we have had (and continue to have) actual contact with the real thing (37); and everybody has a different culture/perspective, and we must share Jesus in the language of "that person's reality" (43). In the end, Branded's overall point can be summed up in this way: sharing Jesus with others must be based on a diehard, sincere conviction that Jesus is truly "the best" choice out there (20), a conviction born out of our own relationship to Him (73). In doing so, our witnessing will be personal (71) and honest (84), producing a life based on Christ-like love (88), which is the true foundation for all evangelism: "Unless a person has actually seen Jesus in you and me, God's words aren't going to mean a lot" (92).

Review: I enjoyed this book and found most of what it said to be absolutely true. My only real problem with it is its thinness of content. Tim's decision to avoid presenting any strict or solid "methodology" was sincere in its good intentions but hurt the book overall. His call for a more "relational," "authentic," and "passionate" Christianity is a valid concern, but it becomes repetitious halfway through, and your interest isn't really piqued again until the last chapter where he outlines his list of "radical" ideas of how we can show ourselves to be branded by Christ (rather than simply branding Him). Here he offered concrete, practical advice that truly grabbed and engaged the mind, but it was only given one chapter. The book could have used more of this methodological approach and a lot less "backdropping". 

Branded is not bad by any stretch of the imagination. There are just so many wasted potentialities. His critique of our secular marketing approach to evangelism (especially in regard to Facebook and Twitter) is timely and needs to be restated, for our evangelism is in danger of drowning in a shallow, johnny-come-lately culture of our own making. In addition, Tim's approach to sharing Jesus is highly incarnational (as opposed to the deferential nature of market-driven evangelism), viz., evangelism must be about the incredible collision between the real Jesus and the specific cultural universe of  the individual being evangelized. Furthermore, Tim heavily stresses a meeting of head and heart when sharing Jesus, a principle perfectly stated in what is easily the money quote of the whole book: "That's the beauty of a relationship with Christ. It's designed to be a combination of head and heart. Of knowing and feeling. Of what the Bible says is true and what we experience to be true in our daily lives" (90). Such beautifully stated truths are littered all throughout the book, but they are given cursory glances at best. In truth, every one of them could have been made into their own book.

Recommendation: I would recommend this book as a starting point. Its truths are not new, nor are they incredibly fleshed out, but they are still necessary. Its "radical" ideas in the last chapter, as well as its "Discussion Questions" appendix, make it a good introductory text for a bible study on evangelism. Tim's tone and style is easy to understand, and the whole book could be read in one sitting and still be edifying. If you want meatier fare, however, I suggest that you look elsewhere.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

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