I have always been struck by the insistence of Jesus to ensure that those whom he encountered remain tight-lipped about his identity, whether performing a miraculous feat, or when his disciples caught a glimpse of whom he truly was.
Several theories abound as to why this was the case, although this is not my concern in this post – other than using Jesus’ ministry as an analogy for Christian writing in a digital age: Surely Jesus refused to be pigeon-holed according to the symbolic hopes of his Jewish audience. To put a modern spin on his intentions, he did not want his mission reduced to being the latest poster boy of the “Messiah” brand.
In an age where “Christian writer” signifies a “Christian market”, a writer faces the arduous task of earning the right to be heard by a wide audience through the chattering dissonance of the technological market place. For the Christian writing in a digitally saturated culture, the pre-requisite to building the Kingdom is building a brand. Yet this is not without cost.
Consider the case of popular American writer Rachel Held Evans. After publishing an article for CNN concerning Millennials and the church (generating an overwhelming response of pushback, vitriol and critique), Held Evans wrote a subsequent post titled “You Don’t Hate Me, You Hate my Brand”:
“In the publishing industry, we talk a lot about a writer’s brand – these days…to cultivate a “brand”…You just need a little online real estate on Facebook, Twitter…or some sort of blogging platform. Over time…it’s easy for…friends, acquaintances or perfect strangers – to assume they represent you in your totality. Even more frightening…you can start to believe it too.”
This is the conundrum Christian writers face amidst the landscape of online engagement. As Jesus discovered, once one’s ministry goes public and popular – whether that be teaching or modern engagement with issues of faith writing to a digital audience – there is an inevitable collision of constantly reconciling public relations (brand) versus sticking to the true essence of why one started writing in the first place (belief).
To be clear, I am not against branding. I once worked for The Salvation Army and realise how powerful the Red Shield was as a conversation starter, creating opportunities to connect with people I would never be able to engage with had I not been wearing it.
Yet the conflict for the Christian writer remains, as it did for Jesus. Do I appease my online audience of “followers”? Or do I ruffle a few feathers because I cannot help but express what reflects my convictions? Through his own stubborn refusal to be branded, it is clear to see which direction Jesus thought the more important of the two.