When does using the Jesus name go too far?

Orlando Sentinel, Dec. 5, 2002
By Mark I. Pinsky, Sentinel Staff Writer

Don Colbert is not the first doctor to use religion to sell a healthy lifestyle to Christians.

Walt Larrimore, a physician who practiced in Kissimmee for 16 years, grappled with the issue before releasing Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook.

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“We did debate how to title this book,” says Larrimore, now with Focus on the Family, an evangelical organization in Colorado. “Our decision was that because it was coming from a decidedly Christian world view — we had an obligation to the reader, the publisher, to let them know where we were coming from.”

But for some Christians, there are larger questions raised by Colbert’s book, What Would Jesus Eat? Like, “What products or causes should Jesus’ name promote?” Or, “Where would Jesus draw the line?”

“There is a grand tradition, ‘Imitatio Christi’ the imitation of Christ, and there is something to the idea of using him as an example,” says Martin Marty former professor of religion and church history at the University of Chicago.

At the same time, he cautions, “so far as I can tell, every application of what Jesus would have done — eaten an ice cream cone, cinched his belt with Velcro, condemned or supported birth control — has been exploitation of the name of Jesus. It drags him down for our commercial or partisan purposes.”

This merchandizing approach began in 1989 with simple, motivational bracelets for teens, with the letters “WWJD,” which stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” First sold in small ads in the back of Christian magazines by a Michigan youth group, the line has mushroomed into a huge industry — and, some say, into a cynical marketing ploy.

And there have been efforts to enlist Jesus in a variety of causes.

Every four years, in cities where the major political parties hold their nominating conventions, and sometimes in cities where the Southern Baptist Convention meets, the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals buys billboards reading “Jesus was a vegetarian,” a claim for which there is scant biblical support.

The latest controversy involves an advertising campaign launched by evangelical environmentalists. Responding to the sponsorship of a Christian music tour by General Motors, the group asked in a magazine ad: “What Would Jesus Drive?” It’s answer — which has drawn sharp criticism from conservative evangelicals — was that, as a model for stewardship of the earth’s resources, Jesus would drive anything but a gas-guzzling SUV.

“I’ve never had much use, or any use, for the WWJD theme, or its variants employed by left and right alike,” says Marty. “Would Jesus have used a bayonet in World War I? The YMCA produced a pamphlet that said he would have.”

The Rev. Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, says drawing the line is important.

“If the WWJD question deepens moral reflection and contributes to justice, then the cause is just,” he says. “If the WWJD formula advances primarily personal gain, then the effort grotesquely misuses the concept.”

The underlying issue is especially troubling, he says.

“From relics and indulgences in the Middle Ages to Christian bookstores that have become ‘religious Cracker Barrels’ today, business has used religion to sell products and has taken advantage of the faithful for profits,” he says.

“Jesus certainly addressed this problem when he cleansed the temple of the moneychangers. Regrettably, we tend to ignore this story. We prefer to deny the power of greed and to wrap greed-addiction in sacred talk.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday December 8, 2002.
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