Selling the Gospel

After this past General Conference, one of the talks that was causing a fair bit of buzz was the one about “ponderizing” scriptures: picking a scripture a week and working on pondering it and memorizing it. In fact, right after the sessions were over, I noticed some people had spotted Ponderize merchandise already for sale. That earned an eye roll from me, but I shook my head and forgot about it.

Until later that evening, when the news broke that the website selling that merchandise had been founded by the son of the man who gave the talk. (Read more about that here.) Now, before I talk about this, I want to throw in a disclaimer: I don’t want to talk about the specifics of this case. I don’t know any of the people involved, and I have no way of knowing what actually happened. Defending the general authority or attacking him make no sense to me in such a vacuum of information. However, I feel qualified to talk about my thoughts in this area. Make sense?

Why did I give Ponderize merchandise an eye roll when I first saw it, and why did the possibility of it being connected to the actual speaker make things so much worse in my head?

People profit off the Gospel all the time. Whether it’s televangelists calling for donations or stores selling church-themed merchandise, it’s a regular occurrence. You see this plenty in Utah, where you can buy Mormon-themed t-shirts, jewelry, doo dads, and more. And I’m apparently fine with some of that. I mean, even as I type this, I’m wearing a German CTR ring that I got before my mission. Most people don’t seem to think twice about CTR rings, but how are they any different than Ponderize t-shirts?

The answer is pretty clear: the possibility that one might use General Conference as a platform from which to launch a merchandizing campaign makes things look pretty sketchy, pretty quick. (Again, not saying this is what happened. But the idea behind the possibility is open to analysis.) To me (and to many, judging from comments online), that steps way over the line.

But to even have that thought is to recognize that there’s a continuum there. A range between making no money off the Gospel and simply preaching the Gospel to make money. And as soon as you have such a continuum, you’re going to have people who debate about where “the line” needs to be put. I saw some objecting not to the Ponderize merchandise, but to the fact that it seemed to go live on Sunday, the Sabbath. I saw others who didn’t see the big deal in the first place.

Mormon doctrine preaches against priestcraft: “Church leaders must labor to build Zion into the hearts of the people, and not for their personal aggrandizement or reward.” And yet many members think nothing of buying Mormon-themed pictures, paintings, songs, clothes, or other items. Perhaps in this case, it was simply the thought that perhaps someone had been preaching specifically to call attention to a website that shocked enough members to giving all of this a second thought.

In the end, this possibility (in my opinion) is a natural outgrowth of how the church has been merchandized to date. After all, as soon as the Ponderize talk became popular, it was inevitable that the t-shirts would crop up. That’s the way things have been going lately. So why would it be okay for a Deseret Book or some other store to make money off this concept, and yet verboten for the man who came up with the idea? (Or in this case, potentially his son?) If that’s something that upsets you, maybe think again before you buy your next Mormon-themed whatever.

To me, it’s a thought problem without a clear solution. If the worst proved true about this specific example, that (to me) would be clearly wrong. But once the door’s been opened, when does it get shut, and by whom? Church leaders write books. Apostles and prophets write books. Those books are sold for a profit, plain and simple. I don’t know what the contract terms are, but you can bet that someone is making money in there somewhere. Why is it okay to buy a book written by a prophet, but not a t-shirt inspired by a General Authority’s talk.

Food for thought . . .

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