Materialist Malaise

I will never be a good salesman. I remember when I was young, maybe toward the end of middle school or the beginning of high school, I used to go out a few times to sell newspaper subscriptions for the paper I delivered. There is very little that seems more awkward to me than trying to sell something, being declined, and continuing to meet objections with answers. Needless to say, I suspect that the only subscriptions I sold were to those who were already inclined to buy them.

One of my favorite Flannery O’Connor stories is “Good Country People,” where everyone looks down on everyone else for their own reasons. Mrs. Hopewell looks down on her daughter because she’s wasting her life, and nothing to show for it but a Ph.D. Mrs. Freeman looks down on everyone because she’s come to their conclusions before they have. And Joy/Hulga looks down on everyone because she has surpassed them in her atheism and world-weariness.

Into a situation of trust between “good country people” and the cynicism of acquired atheism, a Bible salesman shows up one day. Mrs. Hopewell doesn’t want to buy a Bible, but she humors the man. Hulga has decided she’s going to steal his religious innocence. But it’s he who steals Hulga’s false leg and puts it in his false Bible case, and walks off with it. To those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken from them.

I thought of the story while watching Salesman (1969; streaming on the Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon; also available here, although it seems slightly off). None of these salesmen steal any prosthetics, but they often do hide their true beliefs in order to take advantage of the situation. Salesman is a look into a unique time in American history, filled with both the hope of a better life and the malaise brought on by the struggle for the American dream.

Although door-to-door salesmen (salespeople, I suppose) are still around, selling various products and services, I wonder if the height of such jobs’ popularity could have come at any other time than during the 1950s and ’60s. It is post-World War II, and the suburbs are expanding. Overall wealth appears to be on the rise. Transportation is readily available, along with motels and diners. The cultural upheaval of the late ’60s hasn’t quite reached these midwest and Florida suburbs. Here are the real-life Willy Lomans, most especially Paul Brennan.

But while this is a picture of the salesmen, it is also a picture of the objects of their pitches. Some seem to have enough money to spare, though most seem barely on the edge of making it themselves. And that’s where the leather hits the binding, because there’s an extra layer of manipulation and guilt possible when selling Bibles to those who know they ought to be reading them. The customers are Roman Catholics, whose names have been acquired in one way or another from their local parish churches. (It’s unclear to me if all of them put down their names at a display, or if some of their names came from other places.)

As the film goes on, Paul gets increasingly more desperate, and therefore more impatient and pushy. He sees his life slipping away in a job that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, in which he can’t seem to succeed, and which despair he tries to cover with sarcasm and thin humor. But it becomes more and more awkward for his fellow salesmen, and they get quieter and quieter.

While not as exploitative as stealing a prosthetic leg, at numerous points, the salesmen tell people that they’re “from the church.” They act as if they are as fully invested in the faith as the people are. They point out the imprimatur in the front of the Bible. One of the salesmen tells a customer to make sure she gets the Bible blessed, in order to get the full “benefit” out of it.

And there is a more subtle exploitation, trying to convince people to spend money on the expensive Bible as something more lasting than other material goods. I don’t know how many of the prospective customers already have Bibles (in “Good Country People,” Mrs. Hopewell tells the salesman she has a Bible at her bed-side, when in fact it’s somewhere in the attic), but surely there are Bibles for sale more cheaply, if people want the Word of God in their homes. It is at that point—between the good of the Scriptures and the good of the salesman making a living—that skepticism and doubt sliver in. And the gap begins to widen until one can fit hucksters of all sorts, false prophets peddling the Word of God for profit.

I don’t mean that the salesmen are necessarily insincere—at least, not all of them. But it raises the question of the spiritual benefit of selling expensive Bibles, especially as a spiritual necessity. How close is that to selling blessed prayer shawls, or blessed water from the Holy Land, or anything else that is “blessed” by some spiritual opportunist?

Salesman as a documentary points to interesting questions about the line between life and life recorded on film. The Maysles brothers (in an interview here) say that they do not like to call it “documentary,” but rather “direct cinema,” because they say they don’t give any direction. They don’t work from a script. They don’t tell people even to change seats “because the light is better.” They simply observe. And yet, people observed are almost certainly not going to act as they would if they were unobserved.

In that same interview, the Maysles also recognize that there are two subjective points: the filmmakers’ perspective, what they choose to film, how they edit, how they see things; and the audience’s subjective perspective, how they observe and understand what has been filmed.

Whether it is called a documentary or not, Salesman might well function as a metaphor for the American experiment altogether. In What I Saw in America, Chesterton calls America a “nation with the soul of a church.” The “creed” on which America is founded is, however, not the Christian one, but the Declaration of Independence. And so there are always these two (to my mind) contrary waves roiling against one another: a religious wave, whether Christian or deist or some form of American civil religion; and a philosophical wave, that says the goal of life is liberty and happiness.

As often as they have seemed to coexist in the United States, we see them more and more in conflict, as liberty and happiness are elevated above all gods, and to them all gods will be forced to kneel. In Salesman, the salesmen are forced by the nature of selling to subject the Scriptures to their happiness, if not their liberty.

In the end, is it good for either making a living or for Christianity? How close to selling Christianity is selling Bibles door to door? How close to making a product out of the Gospel? How close are the principles of salesmanship to those who put down principles for growing churches (i.e., making repeat customers)? I suppose to ask the questions is to answer them.

A better question—one with which I think all American churches are going to have to reckon in the coming years—is: which of the aspects of what I call “going to church” are things that I can do without a building, without “facilities,” without programs, without staff for all of those programs? If all of the things we do now, and all of the things we have, disappear, will the church still remain for us? If we can’t imagine such a church, then the golden age of the door-to-door salesman has penetrated more deeply into our ecclesiastical consciousness than we might want to realize.