I’ve always found American Christian culture’s diminishment of the sacred to be extremely troubling. In a manner foreign to other faiths, evangelicalism often obscures the holy in a cloud of kitsch.
Take, for instance, the Christian t-shirt. Now here’s a phenomenon that serves absolutely no purpose. Oh, I know that they’re sold as powerful tools for evangelism, but let’s be honest. Have you ever met someone who saw a “Lord’s Gym” t-shirt and fell to the ground crying, “WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED!?” Feel free to leave a comment if you have (unless you’re a marketer for Kerusso).
Reducing the beauty of the gospel to a witty—and occasionally aggressive—sandwich board doesn’t seem like a great way to draw people. In fact, it seems like a better tool for Christians to identify each other in a crowd.
I have a hard time not believing that this is what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain. Here’s 10 examples why:
1. Do the Jew
One popular t-shirt strategy is to take a well-known product’s slogan and create some kind of Christian spin on it. Walk through any Bible bookstore and you’ll see tons of these, and many of them are just as questionable as this one.
The intention: Obviously it’s a take on Mountain Dew’s “Do the Dew” tagline. The addition of the John 4:14 snippet is supposed to tie it together and give it some gospel gravity.
The reality: “Do the Jew!?” Seriously!? First of all, Jesus’ exchange with the woman at the well is incredibly profound and inspirational; to reduce it to this parody is beyond pathetic.
Imagine you know nothing about Jesus, and while you’re at the DMV you see some guy wearing this shirt. What are you going to assume “Do the Jew” means? I can’t figure out of the producers of this shirt are just incredibly naive or just intentionally tasteless.
2. Original superhero
We need to make sure to cash in on the current superhero shtick! Because why wouldn’t we want to reduce Jesus to a comic character with super powers? But seriously, why isn’t there an Avenger who can turn one beverage into an another alcoholic beverage for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs!? We could call him The Mixologist!
The intention: I honestly don’t know what they’re hoping for here.
The reality: Here’s the truth—there’s no graphic design so lazy and ridiculous that it couldn’t be made stupider with the Papyrus font.
3. Doctor Who
Ah, ye olde bait and switch. When you can take someone’s intellectual property and then tenuously tie it into Scripture, you’re definitely on to something!
The intention: “If I wear this into public, nerds will be drawn to me like moths to a flame. When they get up close to check it out *BAM*, they just bought a one-way ticket to gospel town. They’re going to see this message about Jesus, push their spectacles up the bridge of their nose, and beg me to tell them more about Jesus!”
The reality: No, they’re not. You’re just going to go home and watch Blink again with your six cats.
4. QR code
Quick response codes (QR codes) were super popular for about a week. They allow you scan a two-dimensional barcode and read the information attached to that code. It didn’t quite take off because, you can usually Google the info faster.
The intention: I don’t know if the QR Code on this shirt is legit, so I am going to assume it is (otherwise it’s just another “hey you know that thing you keep seeing everywhere? Here’s another Christian version” t-shirt). I guess you scan the shirt and get to read a Chick tract?
The reality: Like I said, QR codes never really took off, but even if they did . . . do you honestly expect someone to walk up to you and scan your shirt? Seriously? And even if they would, you’re pretty much phoning in this whole sharing your faith thing at this point, aren’t you?
5. The Godfather
This classic movie from 1972 is on the top of most lists of the world’s greatest films. Why wouldn’t you want to identify this violent film about organized crime with Christianity? It seems like a win/win.
The intention: If you really want to share the gospel—but only with people over 35—this is the shirt for you. It’s perfect. You’ll be in the grocery store and some guy will come up to you and say, “I love The Godfather! Man, when Don Corleone puts that horse head in that . . . wait a second. This is a Jesus thing? Sign me up!” Act now and we’ll throw in Christianized t-shirts for Sophie’s Choice and Chinatown!
The reality: Look at this shirt a second. The classic image associated with The Godfather is the hand holding the marionette strings. The reason that image is so iconic is because the head of a mafia family is manipulative and controlling. Do you really want to associate Christian obedience with manipulation? Why would you play into one of the biggest cultural criticisms of the church?
To make matters worse, the marionette handle has been elongated to make it a cross. So . . . you’re now communicating that the very tool which represents sacrifice and service is one of control and coercion? Come on. Verdict: Leave the shirt; take the cannoli.
6. Jesus is like ketchup
I think the thing that blows my mind the most about this shirt is the fact that it’s an adult large! I know the style that it’s attempting to emulate (a big problem with most evangelical Christian art), but what you’re left with here is one large “WTF?”
The intention: I guess the intention is to provide another alternative to shirts like this? Although, I don’t think I’ve ever saw a shirt like this and thought, “that’s in incredibly poor taste; I wish there was a Christian alternative.”
The reality: Okay, forget the fact that the only reason you put ketchup on french fries is so you can enjoy eating them. This shirt’s another example of something meaningful being devalued.
You can’t miss the fact that this adorable french fry is being covered in something that strongly resembles blood. To be “covered in the blood” is New Testament imagery that’s pretty significant for many. Before I decided to follow Jesus, I remember wondering why Christians were so fixated on blood. The constant singing about fountains full of blood and the significance of communion seemed pretty macabre to me.
Perhaps this isn’t the most profound way to introduce people to an idea with so much metaphoric significance.
7. This blood’s for you
While we’re on the subject of blood . . . Do you remember in the 90s when you couldn’t get away from gory, bloody Jesus shirts? It was the most God-awful form of evangelism. “Hey mom, I’m going to wear my Jesus snuff shirt down to the mall to do a little evangelism!
The intention: Take a well-known brand tag line (in this case Budweiser’s classic ‘this Bud’s for you’) and spin it in a way that will make people really think long and hard about their spiritual need.
The reality: Like the last example, this doesn’t make any sense to the uninitiated. Sure, they’ll get the reference—despite the fact that Budweiser hasn’t used this slogan for years—but so what? This doesn’t make any sense to the average person.
Here’s an idea: why don’t you build rapport with people and introduce them to your faith in a relational, meaningful manner. No? Well, it was worth a try.
If Facebook was a country, it would be the most populated country on earth—not to mention the most annoying. Why wouldn’t you turn that popularity into an opportunity to share the gospel on a cotton t-shirt? It seems only natural, right!?
The intention: Well, turning Facebook into ‘faith’book seems clever, right? All you need to do is get someone’s attention with what seems like a Facebook reference and then hook them with the encouragement to “add Jesus as their friend.” This will inevitably make them think, “hmmm . . . if walking with Jesus is as easy as sending a friend request, I should give it a shot.”
The reality: It’s interesting. Using the metaphor of following Jesus on social media is the dumbest picture of faith and, at the same time, a brilliant indictment of American church culture.
Think about it. Adding someone on Facebook is about as simple and sacrifice-free as most of the sinner’s prayers that we lead people in. What’s nice is that once you “friend Jesus” you can unfollow his annoying updates but still keep him as a friend. It’s kind of perfect.
9. I love church boys
I. have. no. words. Seriously, what is this!?
The intention: One of the biggest fears in the world for Christians is the idea that their kids might date or fall in love with someone from outside of their faith. Obviously this shirt is a cute way to remind girls that 2 Corinthians clearly says not to be unequally yoked. Harmless and cute . . . right?
The reality: I’m thinking that if a guy wore a shirt that said “I heart church girls,” it would be deemed pretty inappropriate. Why does this not raise any flags? I have a hard time not feeling that the church is still in the business of telling young women that their job is to marry a Christian man, have his children, and fulfill his wishes.
We already imply through constant emphasis that the goal of the Christian teen is to get married and raise children. We don’t need to encourage them to see our gatherings as a smorgasbord of safe, potential dates—especially when we consider the fact that church boys are often not any more “safe” than non-church boys.
10. The Bible’s my ammo
Does the New Testament include warfare metaphors? Yes. Is the sentiments on this shirt what the gospel writers were aiming for? Well . . .
The intention: There are definitely people who resonate with the Christian battlefield mentality. I can’t really tell what the intention of this shirt is. Maybe it’s simply to stand up and make a strong, definitive statement. Maybe it’s to upset liberals? I’m seriously not sure.
The reality: I agree that the world is a battlefield. In fact, I am so convinced that this is true that I eschew the substitutionary atonement model for the Christus Victor theory. We are most definitely in a battlefield.
The problem is that it’s not against people; it’s against systems of otherworldly oppression. But when most Christians use combat metaphors, they’re at war with political opponents, other religions, and atheists. This couldn’t be more antithetical to the gospel.
God is my weapon!? The Bible is my ammo!? Weapons are used to kill and destroy, and ammo is the delivery method for this destruction. Is that what the God is? Is that how we the Bible is to be used? Sadly, many on the receiving end of interactions with church folk would say yes, that’s exactly how they view God and the Bible.
Between you and me, I think that my faith is too powerful, beautiful, and complex to be summed up on a Christian t-shirt.