True Religion At The Mall

truereligionDuring a recent trip to the mall I looked up to see a large sign over a store declaring, “True Religion.” Yikes! Of course it got my attention and, I admit, it made my dead orthodox pulse race just a little. These are not words one expects to see at the mall, and yet, on reflection, they are probably appropriate. My pulse slowed a bit when I saw that “True Religion” was really only a brand of designer jeans. What is perhaps even more strange, however, is that if one searches for the combination of words “true religion” in Wikipedia, that veritable fount of truth, once again one finds only jeans.

According to the WP entry there is a picture of Buddha sewn into every pair of jeans. The “Christian America” people can stand down. It’s probably just a cheap marketing ploy to make the product seem hip. After all, the mall at which I saw the sign was nothing if not hip. The thing that surprises is that some enterprising soul (and I used that word loosely here) hasn’t already produced a pair of “Jesus Jeans.”

There doesn’t seem to be a controversy over the brand name. This is remarkable in itself. I had never heard of the brand until I saw the sign. The fact that there is no poorly-done “stop true religion jeans” website (not that it would be helpful, mind you) probably also means something. It means that, in our culture, it’s okay to use words such as “true religion” so long as one is merely selling jeans. If the “True Religion” shop had been peddling views and claims about ultimate truth, about heaven, hell, and the like, I guess things would be different.

Or maybe not. The very existence of such a brand suggests that, in our culture, the words “true” and “religion” are no longer taken to refer to objective realities. In Christian antiquity, roughly the period from the ascension of Christ to about 1650 (the year Rene Descartes died), the words “true” and “religion” referred to objective realities. The adjective “true” was a reference to “the way things are” or “what God has said” whether through the church (Rome) or through Scripture and affirmed by the church (confessional Protestants). The word “religion,” in the narrow sense, referred acts of piety and devotion to God usually conducted in public services. It also denoted truth claims about God and a way of living in the light of those claims. In short, it meant, “theology, piety, and practice.”

The expression “true religion” also puts one in mind of another phrase, from James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visitorphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27, ESV)

In certain respects, James’ definition of religion (θρησκεία) is the antithesis of the definition offered by the mall. He was preaching the law to a Jewish-Christian congregation that professed faith (2:14, “You say you have faith”) but which had no evidence. He was attacking false profession. Contra the moralists, he was not saying that they could be justified through obedience. Rather, he was explaining that true faith will produce, as he wrote in 1:27, “true religion,” one that looks after the needs of others in the congregation out of gratitude for the unmerited favor that Christ has shown us.

Today, of course, for evangelicals and mainliners alike, the words “true” and “religion” are usually defined in a completely subjective way. What is “true” is what is “true” for me, what has personal significance to me. For evangelicals and mainliners it usually means “What affects me emotionally.” Since the early 18th century the will and the affections have been the seat of evangelical piety. “Religion” likewise denotes “my chosen outward expression of that emotional experience.” Thus defined “true” refers to “my” and “religion” refers to affect or emotional experience. In this world, a claim to universal “truth” or a divinely revealed religion that is meant to obligate all people in all times and places makes no sense. Enters the jeans store into the breach.

Or I could be wrong. Maybe, in this case, the words “true” and “religion” in this combination really do refer to “the way things are” and to “truth issuing in a way of life”? The fact that a store can lay claim to two of the most powerful words in any language and do so in that combination, behind which lies a history of conflict and even martyrdom, in order to market denim says a great deal about us and our times. In many places to use those words in a crassly commercial way would invite riot and death threats. I’m glad, at least that, in this instance, it isn’t a matter of violence. Nevertheless, the casual, commercial use of this phrase remains disturbing to one who stubbornly thinks that the words “true” and “religion” ought to refer to something beyond a pair of jeans. One wonders how many evangelicals (or Buddhists, for that matter) walk into “True Religion” and out with a pair of faux Buddhist jeans without a second thought? Much of the world sees the USA as a “Christian” nation. They couldn’t be more wrong. We are a denim nation. It’s the one thing on which most seem to agree: we all need a good pair of jeans.

A version of this post first appeared in 2008.

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5 comments

  1. Are those Jesus jeans for the hip “Christians” like Justin Bieber, allowing him to be both simultaneously and contradictorily in the world and of the world?

    The malls are crass materialism at it’s finest.

  2. It would be great if the “True Religion” people said, “For every pair of jeans you buy this month we’ll visit one widow and one orphan every month for a year.” Not sure about how to honor the “unstained by the world” part of the verse.

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