Book Review: Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to In Your Face

By December 18, 2008

shopping-for-god1.jpg 

James Twitchell. Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to In Your Face. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 324 pp.

James Twitchell, professor of English and Advertising at The University of Florida, explains on his website that his research interests include the effort to “interpret American culture in terms of commercialism.” A glance at his long list of publications reveals the various aspects of American culture he has researched—Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Living it Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury (Columbia University Press, 2002), Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America (Columbia University Press, 1992).

His most recent publication, Shopping for God, examines the American religious marketplace, within the terms of consumer culture. Twitchell explains in the opening chapter that the book “is about how some humans—modern-day Christians, to be exact—go about the process of consuming–of buying and selling, if you will–the religious experience” (p. 1). He is concerned not at all with the spiritual dynamics of religion and the religious experience, but rather with “how religious sensation is currently being manufactured, packaged, shipped out, and consumed” (p. 3).

Twitchell’s narrative of religious consumerism in America is irreverant, easy-to-read, and witty at times. At other times it reads as if the 62-year old is trying to hard to engage the youthful “hipsters” he suggests so many churches try to attract. In full postmodern style, Twitchell reveals his own position in the religious landscape. In fact, he encourages any eager book reviewer to start her book review by identifying his (Twitchell’s) religious identity:

If you want to write a review of this book, here’s your first sentence: “Shopping for God is just what you’d expect from an apatheist” (p. 34).

Simply put, an apatheist adopts the “live and let live” principle in his religious worldview. It is not, he stresses, “atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, secularism, and all the rest.” Rather, an “apatheist believes that religion has an important place in every culture. And that place should be protected and made safe. . . . I’d be out of business without it.” Nevertheless, religion’s place in society should not be too prominent and its approach should not be too pushy. What he later has to say about Mormons can probably be  accurately predicted by the very next sentence: “If a religion has to move out of its place, has to proselytize in order to be true to its calling, that it do so very quietly and politely. Knock first” (pp. 33-34). 

Ultimately, Twitchell concludes that certain religions succeed because their marketing approach incorporates what is known in the advertising world as “lifestyle branding.” That is, churches market a message that defines their denomination not as a belief system, but as a lifestyle. Larger mainline denominations today fail to attract new customers (parishioners) primarily because they continually attempt to sale a product—in this case, Christianity—and fail to market a brand (think Methodism or Presbyterianism).

I am less interested here in engaging this central thesis and the author’s many other sub-theses. Instead, I want to briefly review a few of the several mentions Mormonism receives from Twitchell. I will conclude with a short analysis of the value of his overall approach based on how he addresses Mormonism.

On the general history of Latter-day Saint Church:

This generally docile church (with some exceptions that are now making news for polygamy) began with a few hundred followers in upstate New York in the 1830s. It’s very hard to take Joseph Smith and the tablets seriously, and that’s precisely how the freeloaders were unloaded. The tithe was that you uprooted yourself. Then, properly isolated and anxious, the sect exploded. With an estimated rate of growth of about 43 percent per decade in the early twentieth century, there are now about thirteen million Mormons throughout the world. Domestic growth has now slowed.

As with other systems, the tithe is higher the farther the system moves from the center. The so-called Wasatch effect is the phenomenon that explains why Mormons in Salt Lake City are less sacrificial than those in the hinterlands. This condition is also seen in marketing, where it is sometimes called the “atlanta effect,” explaining why drinkers of Coke tend to be dedicated in direct proportion to miles out of Georgia. Separation makes the heart grow fonder. Or, maybe like sausage, it’s not good to see how it’s made (p. 104).

On Mormon growth:

The centrality of growth as a product informs . . . such [groups] as the Mormons and the millenarian churches like the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They too are spinning the turnstiles with little or no centralized marketing. They are each often increasing membership by about 3 percent to 5 percent annually. And they are doing it the hard way, one convert at a time.

The process is incredibly time consuming, but the experience the efficiencies of cult marketing: few converts fall away. Freeloaders, the bane of any voluntary group dynamic, are kept to a minimum. If you’ve ever had a chance to encounter one of these groups as they are involved in their door-to-door marketing, you may well conclude that these authoritarian groups punish questioning, reward gullibility, and maintain distinct boundaries between Us and Them. But what they really do is generate powerful emotions and long-lasting commitment (p. 56).

On the Mormon TV Spots:

The Mormons and the Lutherans have similar marketing techniques, and they have been at it for a while. The Mormons are doing OK; the Lutherans not. To some degree, this is a function of spending and market placement. The largest single church advertiser in the 1990s was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., The Mormons). For years they have been running boring and self-satisfied spots in which they attempt to own the idea of family. My favorite: a teacher is shown at home in an argument with her husband. We see her next at school, chastising a student in the hall for not doing a makeup assignment on the blackboard. The student tells her that someone else got to the blackboard first. Who? Inside we see the teacher’s husband, writing “I’m sorry” one hundred times on the board. Well, almost humorless (p. 162).

In his review of Twitchell’s book, Matthew Sutton summarized Shopping for God as a “sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating” and “haphazard  look at how Christians buy and sell religious experience.” The same can probably be said for his specific take on Mormonism. For a fuller critique of some of the more glaring shortcomings and problematic interpretive aspects of the book (i.e., Twitchell’s approach to religion and gender), read Sutton’s full review.

I found particularly frustrating that the author made rather striking claims but provided no documentation or evidence for such claims. “Mormons in Salt Lake City” may very well be (but might not be at all) “less sacrificial than those in the hinterlands,” but how does Twitchell come to such a conclusion? And what does he mean specifically by “less sacrificial”? On the other hand, his quip about the Mormon brand including an “attempt to own the idea of family” is not only true, but made me chuckle.

Ultimately, I see Twitchell’s book as significant in that it subtly suggests a number of new approaches to the study of Mormonism. The notion that Mormonism’s success can be attributed (at least in part) to its marketing of a brand with specific and unique products (Christ-centered living revolving around the traditional family, a strict code of lifestyle, etc.) instead of a generic brand (Christianity) deserves further attention. Furthemore, if evidence can be provided of the above-mentioned “Wasatch effect,” an extended analysis of said effect provides a fascinating framework through which to address the internationalization of the institutional church. Additionally, examining Latter-day Saint advertising within the larger context of Christian marketing might be quite revealing not only in terms of what works and doesn’t work in attracting new converts, but also in highlighting how Mormonism navigates the seemingly contradictory waters of the marketplace and more traditional sacred space.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Interesting review Chris. I think you have raised some important and central issues here. I was frustrated in my reading of Twitchell by his assumption that some form of generic “Christianity” exists–it does not. Also, while his thesis about the branding issue is sound, it strikes me as little more than a reader-friendly repackaging of the much older and more technical arguments about the sociological benefits of identity derived from investment. On the issue of sacrifice–I think he was arguing that Mormons living outside of the Mormon culture region end up shouldering more social and even economic costs (transportation costs arising from the proximity of chapels and temples for example) than their Utah-based brethren and sisters. I think such an argument is weak because such costs, in general, would be mitigated by an increased sense of outsiderhood and identity.

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 18, 2008 @ 8:41 am

  2. Thank you for the review. I agree with Twitchell’s point about the costs of membership being greater outside the Salt Lake area. “Separation makes the heart grow fonder”? Hasn’t been the case for me. (Not that I’m going to stop attending, just that I don’t see myself as being any more committed due to distance.)

    I’m wondering about SC’s comment that the increased costs of living outside that region are “mitigated by an increased sense of outsiderhood and identity”?

    I fail to see any benefits to my family based on being outsiders in our community (which we hardly are, since we live in a conservative, fairly religious East Coast suburb that is in many regards similar to a Utah neighborhood) or how our identity is positively affected by the long drive to church, almost impossible drive to the temple, the heavy costs of early morning seminary, the difficulties of associating with any other church members simply due to distance. I suppose these costs winnow out members who are less committed, but that also means that we carry a greater responsibility for some of the day to day details of church membership.

    Comment by Researcher — December 18, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  3. This post was worth reading just for the new word: “apatheism.”

    I love it!

    Comment by Seth R. — December 18, 2008 @ 11:39 am

  4. Researcher,
    I was just gesturing toward the theoretical idea, which is well-developed in religious studies and sociological literature, that a group’s cultural “outsiderhood” helps to define and maintain a strong sense of identity. This idea is coupled with the theory that investment functions as an important commitment mechanism within a community. It may or may not be true in any individual case, but it certainly has been true of Mormons historically.

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 18, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  5. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Taysom, I was hoping you and others with a background in religious studies theory would chime in. Thanks for your insightful and critical remarks. Can you point me toward a book that explores this theoretical model of outsiderhood? I’m intrigued and would like to read more.

    Researcher, thanks for weighing in re: separation making the heart grow fonder. I don’t know about religion, but I am certainly more loyal to the Dr. Pepper brand since living in Utah than I was while growing up in Plano, TX (where DP is bottled and headquartered). 🙂

    I don’t know if this is exactly what Twitchell is going at or not, but I have heard from a number of BYU grads who have traveled elsewhere for graduate school that they felt more at liberty to critique the actions of the church/church members while living in Utah, because they saw themselves as the lone liberal in a sea of cultural conservatism. But now that they are the religious outsiders elsewhere, and find others critiquing the church (quite harshly at times), they find themselves with a renewed desire to defend their own faith. It is an interesting dynamic.

    Seth, I liked it, too. Twitchell did not originate the term, and traces its coinage to an Atlantic Monthly article by Jonatah Rusch.

    Comment by Christopher — December 18, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

  6. As a Presbyterian, I take issue with Twitchell. We most certainly do promote a distinctive lifestyle brand: old, white, stodgy, dwindling, and simultaneously both confused and cantankerous about theology. It’s just not a terribly attractive brand to outsiders.

    Comment by John Turner — December 18, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  7. #6: JT–I like your brand.
    May I rant, please? I find these importations of business-marketing pseudo-scholarship into discussions about religion obnoxious and vacuous on principle. It marred the otherwise fairly entertaining Finke and Starke volume on the dynamics of church membership in America, and this strikes me as the same drivel (based entirely on your review here, admitting my prejudice). Talk about market as God, my stars, now we can’t even talk about God without market? I’m with Steve in #1 that this is appears to be the mere rephrasing of more interesting arguments about religious identity (again, a prejudicial view based solely on how nauseous I find marketing analyses of religion).
    Rant over. (I have nothing against the scholars writing this; I just find this line of argumentation distasteful on a wholly visceral level.)

    Comment by smb — December 18, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

  8. John, Mormonism seems to be more like Presbyterianism than I thought. Old, white, stodgy, and confused theologically sounds like my own faith tradition in many respects.

    Sam, I largely agree with you. You’re quite right about Twitchell’s work mirroring Finke and Stark’s book in many respects. He goes as far as to directly acknowledge the influence of their work on his own conclusions, in fact (though, to be fair, he does briefly mention some of the critiques of The Churching of America). Because of this, his book is problematic for all of the reasons that Finke and Stark’s work is.

    All of that said, it seems to me that what Twitchell and others like him (that specialize in the academic study of advertising and marketing) have to add to the study of religion should not be entirely discounted. Twitchell’s analysis of the advertising techniques, successes, and failures of megachurches is quite insightful, I think. His brief discussion of the ways that technology is changing religion is also significant (I have a short post planned on this topic as it relates to blogging and religion that I plan to put up soon.

    Comment by Christopher — December 19, 2008 @ 12:32 am

  9. Thanks for this review. I think the idea that we are constantly marketing ourselves is one which we are often not aware of.

    I think that our public relations push will be the main legacy of Pres. Hinckley.

    Comment by Chris H. — December 21, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

  10. […] The book Shopping for God and Mormonism. Interesting discussion in the comments. […]

    Pingback by Shopping for God : Mormon Metaphysics — December 30, 2008 @ 2:28 pm


Series

Recent Comments

Hannah N. on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Whoops! Realized it was an older book after I posted the comment. Thank you!”


Ben P on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Hannah: that's because we highlighted the book last year!”


Hannah N. on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Great selection! Thank you for writing this up. I was surprised to not see Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History on this list.…”


Gary Bergera on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Thanks, Terry H. It looks like early next year--maybe February/March.”


Terry H on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “The Arrington Diaries were a highlight this year. Wait . . . they didn't come out yet. Well, Gary's work is always worth…”


Christopher on Mormon Immigrants and Fugitive: “Thanks, Joey. And Stapley - how could I forget about that post? Thanks for reminding me of it here!”

Topics


juvenileinstructor.org