Friday, February 10, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: This Little Christian Went to Market

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: Some years ago I had the movie The Big Kahuna recommended to me.

While for the most part it’s a movie with an unexpectedly charitable take on the motives of conservative Christians, there are a few moments in which the writer cannot resist taking a shot. One is in a conversation between Phil, the main character (a weary agnostic salesman played by Danny DeVito) and Bob (an evangelical junior salesman played by Peter Facinelli). Apparently, the younger man has committed the gross offence of having spoken to a valued customer about his faith without making any sales pitch for the industrial lubricant company both men are paid to represent.

DeVito’s character, Phil, is irate at the missed sales opportunity.

Selling Jesus

He exclaims:

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or how to make money in real estate with no money down. That doesn’t make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are — just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.”

Comments, Tom?

Tom: There’s a certain conventional wisdom in DeVito’s lecture of the young Christian here, I can’t argue that. Nobody’s thrilled to find that your interest in them is motivated by mere duty to a job or by the fact they fall into some kind of target category. They want you to care about them personally. But if we all waited until we’ve got our unblemished motivation together with our immaculate personal testimony, Christ would never get preached.

That conceded, I have heard a few witnessing attempts that sounded like they were being read off a memo from some religious PR department.

What did you pull out of that speech, IC?

Not Getting It

IC: Two things. One I actually believe, the other I don’t.

The first is a good caution for Christians, but the second is, to me, a sure indicator that the writer just didn’t “get” where Christians are actually coming from.

Tom: I’m pretty sure that’s the case. Where did he miss the boat, do you think?

IC: The writer makes the mistake of stereotyping the evangelical as naive. He portrays the young salesman as well-meaning, but also unable to think of any rational defense for his behavior. In truth, a thoughtful evangelical has excellent reasons for preferring saving a man’s soul to selling him an industrial lubricant; but the writer misses that.

What the young man has done, essentially, is the opposite of what Phil has alleged: he has valued “Mr. Fuller”, the customer, as a soul, not just as a sales opportunity. It’s really DeVito’s character (and even more, “Larry”, the third member of the sales triad, played by Kevin Spacey) who is in favor of dehumanizing the customer. But the writer really misses that point. He thinks the only motive for evangelization must be some strange and perverse kind of personal desire-to-market; so naturally, he dismisses it. Big mistake.

To Market or Not to Market

Tom: Well, and one has to wonder if the real concern is not that the young evangelist is going about the job of marketing ineffectually, it’s that he’s marketing the wrong product. And, don’t get me wrong, the gospel has been preached from some less-than-stellar motives. Paul says, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.” It can be love, or it can be selfish ambition, but the possibility always exists that the message will get across despite passing through an inferior conduit. And I think I would argue, like you, that the person who is preaching it, however poorly, is doing better than the guy who isn’t.

IC: Definitely.

And then there’s one of the saner things that atheist Penn Jillette ever said:

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is way more important than that.”

Good point. What should the young salesman be doing if he genuinely believes a man’s eternal destiny is at stake? At the Judgment Seat, I wonder what level of judgment “failure to sell lubricants” will receive, as opposed to “failure to tell the truth to a perishing soul”.

Representatives, Witnesses and Ambassadors

Tom: Indeed. I want to come back to DeVito’s assertion that “as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.” The problem with it is this: Christians are tasked with proclaiming a message, not finding out how the world’s kids are and what it’s dreaming about lately. We are literally representatives. Paul says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” Luke records the Lord Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses.”

“Marketing rep” is a coarse way of putting it, but the Christian who thinks of himself as a marketing rep is closer to the truth than the one who kids himself that he’s just trying to “get to know” the other guy, wandering into each new encounter in an agenda-free, third-party kind of way. We are NOT just fellow human beings passing by.

IC: Yes, that’s the problem. “Marketing” is an inauthentic process: it’s campaigning for a product purely because it stands to give you some advantage (financial, usually) to do so; and often, it’s pitching for that product by suppressing any reservations you may have about its value or necessity. That’s what makes us use the word “fake” so routinely about when car salesmen: you know they have selfish motives, even though they call you “pal”, and just cannot convince yourself that they actually believe in what they are saying.

Authentic and Inauthentic

But what’s “inauthentic” about someone who has given himself to Christ and discovered the joys of fellowship with God choosing to speak enthusiastically about that, and even making that his priority in conversation? As Jillette says, how could one who genuinely believes that a soul is in danger of being lost not speak of that? Indeed, would it be authentic for him to do anything else?

Tom: And if we’re honest, people steer conversations all the time, and not just when they’re hawking a product. If you got your shirt in a knot every time someone went into a conversation with an obvious agenda rather than a listening ear, you’d have to boycott half the population. People will tell you about their new diet, their favorite sports team, their kid’s new job, that terrific daughter of their best friend that you really, REALLY should have dinner with …

IC: Absolutely. You might say we “sell” people all kinds of stuff. But here’s the key thing for me: Is what you’re focusing your conversation on something that is really important to you, really a piece of who you are, or is it merely a cause or item with which you actually have only a shallow kind of association, and maybe not really something that’s part of who you are?

If it’s the latter, then yes, you’ve become one of Phil’s bad “salesmen”.

Foolishness to the Perishing

Tom: And as awkward as some people may sometimes be when they witness (and I’m thinking of myself here), you never know how the Lord can use our clumsy efforts. I remember overhearing a conversation in a donut store between two obviously unsaved men about Christianity. I’m thinking, I should go over there and butt in, and then, No, that would be terribly rude, and anyway I have to get to work. So I go out to the parking lot, get into my car, put the key in the ignition, turn on the engine, turn it off again, get out, go back into the donut shop and butt into the conversation. It was about the third most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done in my life. I have no idea what they thought I was up to. But it was reasonably well received, I got to share a short testimony and I wasn’t even that late to work. Maybe nothing came of it, who knows. But I didn’t go back to sell anything. I went back because I felt a powerful sense of responsibility to confirm the importance of what they were discussing, because I knew it mattered eternally.

IC: That’s a good example. Now, I’m all in favor of authenticity, and of prioritizing care for the person over a mere opportunity to “sell” some point of view; but isn’t it just the willingness to overcome one’s natural fear of being seen merely to be “selling” and to speak up while risking not being appreciated that is the key indicator that one is actually caring more for other people than for oneself, Tom?

Tom: I would say it is.

IC: And the reason the “Phil” character doesn’t understand that is simply that he has no idea that what the “Bob” character is doing is putting “Mr. Fuller’s” ultimate and eternal well-being first, and risking being misunderstood himself — which is precisely what “Phil” does to him.

Witnessing is “foolishness to those who are perishing”.

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