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Reflections: Spending

By John Tiemstra

You can read the title of this reflection as the Greek for “word,” a name given to Jesus Christ at the beginning of John’s gospel. Or it can be the plural of “logo,” short for “logotype,” the heavily advertised corporate words or symbols attached to products to “brand” them with identities chosen by marketing experts. There are values, lifestyles, symbolized by those logos, whether it’s the Chevrolet bowtie, the Nike swoosh, the Coke ribbon, the shelf of Eerdmans books or the beloved maroon Cand gold lance.

Much of this advertising is aimed at people who are insecure about their own identities. By buying these products, they can express the values they hold and the kind of life they wish to lead. They can belong to a community of like-minded folks who can be recognized by the badges on the cars they drive, the clothes they wear or the gear they carry. You can tell a lot about someone by noting whether his or her totebag says “Louis Vuitton” or “L. L. Bean” (or maybe “Blue Lake Public Radio”).

Of course, one of the things you can tell is the general range of income or wealth of the person in question (or how much income they want you to think they have). This is a very important datum in a society as economically unequal and status conscious as ours is, where income is assumed to be a good measure of power and success. Who of us wishes to be represented by a lawyer with a cheap briefcase or a realtor who drives a Chevy?

Corporations exploit all of this—our need to flaunt our success, our desire to belong, our yearning for self-expression. You need a symbol for your values and your success? You can have it, for a price. How much more satisfying than a mere briefcase or shirt or car! So the logo, which should be, at most, a promise of utility and reliability, becomes the reason to buy the thing in the first place. It isn’t the thing that matters, but the lifestyle community for which it stands.

Which brings us back to Logos himself, the Christ. If we think of our neighbors as the people who share our passion for the lifestyle symbolized by the Nike swoosh or the Mercedes three-pointed star, we have another thing coming. When our Lord was asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, his answer was the story of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbors include needy people whom we are able to help, however near or far they may be. The logo that identifies our lifestyle and our passion is the cross of Christ. (But don’t forget the maroon C.)

Questions for reflection:

  • What are some of your favorite brands? Why do you prefer them?
  • Do you ever choose products based on the “green” reputation of the brand? Or a reputation for treating its workers well?
  • How do clothing and accessories and cars influence our perceptions of other people? Should they?

—John Tiemstra, Professor of Economics, Calvin College

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