sunday simulacra, or, on the folly of selling crystal pepsi

Several posts ago, in the comments thread, I mentioned a term that I had not fully considered prior to that moment, and it has been rattling around in my head ever since. Sunday simulacrum.

Simulacrum is a nice, hoity-toity word for an image or likeness, typically a cheap replica or knock-off of an original. And, while the idea of a replica tends to stretch laterally across the spectrum of the present, it can also have a north-south temporal quality: what was once authentic can be hollowed out into a replica of itself over time.

We Christians like to talk a lot about being authentic and relevant, our leaders pine for orthodoxy and doctrinal purity and we like to think of ourselves as the heirs and stewards of a grand, singular tradition through the ages, passed down from the apostles through to us and we to the next generations (that is, if the rapture doesn’t happen. ahem…ummm, where were we again?) In fact, we’re more than mildly obsessed with generations, particularly with the sense of self-satisfaction and self-import that only comes with being [self-]designated as an eschatologically-catalytic generation. This is an entirely separate conversation for an entirely different day. The truth, though, is that unless we are more like the Essenes than like the apostolic era saints, we will inexorably take the heritage and inheritance for granted; idols, once sacred, handed down and evermore profaned from age to subsequent age.

Take the Sunday morning service, for example. First, the concept of a Sunday service is relatively new–the church ‘service’ being a service in the same vein as economic material within the capitalist idiom, goods and services. Already, it can be clearly inferred that the contemporary Christian experience has been commoditized, and the precursors for that precede Smith’s articulation of capitalism, rooted in everything from indulgences to medieval bribery and power playing (the Lutheran break was as much, if not entirely, political than theological.)

What happens when a commodity grows passe with the market? It either cedes market share to a competitor or tries to reinvent itself via gimmickry.

In short, things like this happen:

Crystal Pepsi was the brainchild of Yum! Brands chairman David Novak. It lasted in the United States for just over a year beginning in 1992 and, even then, the product itself was pulled, reformulated and attempted to be reintroduced into the market. Not unlike the New Coke disaster in the 80s, Crystal Pepsi is a beverage-based cautionary tale. Trying to be cute with whatever it is you’re trying to sell–or, perhaps more to the point, who you’re trying to convince to buy–doesn’t really work. Once the commodity has gone stale, it’s not suddenly going to be fresh again. Even retro-chic is chic until the next thing is chic.

Crystal Pepsi was simulacrum, a cheap knock-off that is now little more than a punch line for arcane pop culture vultures (like me!) It got people to be interested for a moment, earned the corporation a few bucks, ran aground and was summarily scuttled. Is this really the model we want to emulate? Simulacrum of simulacrum?

Religion isn’t something to be bought or sold, the presence of the Spirit doing reconciling, redemptive work, is not something to be hawked by opportunistic devotees to the zeitgeist. That work has been going on, with or without us, for the better part of two millennia–and, if we’re being particularly honest, long before that. After Christendom has crashed and burned, it will continue on, with or without us. It behooves us, then, to get over our perceived need to be relevant and return to the prime directive–to be examples of Christ to the world, inviting everyone into the community of faith, encouraging trust in the resurrection and pursuing Christ-likeness.

It is not an invitation to a church service, where the visitor is gladhanded, treated to a few fast songs, a few slow songs, some announcements and a guy talking at length. It is not getting someone to come to a concert, see some beefcake rip a phone book with his bare hands, seeing a second-rate dramatic performance, ‘clean’ comedian doing a bunch of fart jokes and making fun of his wife. What we are called to is transcultural, transcendent. Why do we insist on settling for a replica when we have instant access to the real thing? Why are we looking for Crystal Pepsi on eBay when we can go down to the corner store and grab an actual Pepsi? (Bonus points if you get the ironic point in this paragraph.)

Worse yet, why are we trying to resell tired knock-offs of Christianity? Even Novak knew better, in a 2007 interview quoted in the Crystal Pepsi Wikipedia entry: “Once you have a great idea and you blow it, you don’t get a chance to resurrect it.” At this point, we’ve blown it so many times that we’ve risked the credibility of the very real Christ.

We are called to imitate Christ, but we’ve taken imitation literally. We’re selling replica jerseys to an authentic world, Crystal Pepsi in 1994, having the form of godliness but denying its power. We embrace the symbols of religion more than religion itself; which is to say we embrace ourselves and whatever we think satisfies our sense of self-satisfaction. Why are we persistently irrelevant? Because the simulacra dictates that we are to be no different from anyone else.

And so we are.


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