Pseudo-Gifts and Peloton

This one comes to us Ryan P. Tinetti: I try not to wade into the […]

Guest Contributor / 12.12.19

This one comes to us Ryan P. Tinetti:

I try not to wade into the ever-rising sea of outrage. The tides turn too quickly, and it’s easy to get washed out. Alas, an issue will occasionally emerge that I just can’t keep from diving in after. One such has been in the news and abuzz on social media recently.

I’m talking, of course, about Peloton.

The recent controversy over Peloton (or, more specifically, about a Peloton ad) has engendered all sorts of responses, most negative and many strenuously so. But amid all the hubbub, something essential has been overlooked, which is this: Peloton is effectively peddling a false gospel—but one that is all too common even among Christians.

For those who may not be familiar with Peloton, it’s a fitness-cum-lifestyle company that sells upscale exercise equipment outfitted with on-demand classes. A recent article from The Cut highlighted how the brand is squarely in the mode of the Seculosity of fitness:

A lot of the talk in the Peloton moms’ group concerns home renovations, outfit consults, and luxury-handbag selection. “I realized that people are actually lonely,” Livingston says, “and if you are a lonely person, because of your job, or your relationships, or your body, and you get on your bike and you sweat it out, and then you get a group of people saying, ‘You go, girl’ — oh my God, you got a shout-out — and all of a sudden you get 100 likes or 200 comments, you feel, I’m not that alone.” In this way, the cult of Peloton is simply a very contemporary mash-up of the very on-trend religion of high-end fitness (and self-improvement) and the social-media culture of competitive self-love.

This religious zeal was not, however, the source of the outrage. That honor would belong to this little commercial:

The ad, which first aired around Thanksgiving, immediately elicited a firestorm of feedback on social media as well as all manner of critiques from blogs and conventional media outlets. It has been derided and dismissed as sexist, elitist, classist, and various and sundry other ists.

What these takes all miss, though, is that the fundamental faux pas is not sociological but soteriological, so to speak. Peleton’s problem isn’t that they transgressed this or that ideology, but that they undermined the very logic of gift—a logic that is held together by the Gift par excellence of Christ Jesus.

St. Paul unpacks this logic in his letter to the Romans. There he makes clear that gratuitousness is at the heart of the gospel. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he writes, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3.23-24).

The Gift of the gospel is contrasted with the wages of works: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (4.4-5).

The Gift doesn’t come with strings attached. It’s not a bait-and-switch or a good-news-gotcha. The gospel is an unsolicited, unmerited boon bestowed on God’s utterly unworthy creatures. He isn’t dropping a hint about cleaning up our act or getting our souls into shape. Heaven doesn’t deal in passive aggression.

So what does this have to do with Peloton, and the blowback that their ill-advised ad provoked?

Beyond the garden-variety virtue-signaling that typically accompanies such responses nowadays, people are bristling at this ad because it inverts the logic of the gift. In other words, it’s soiled Gospel with Law, turning Gift into Pseudo-Gift.

The underlying message of the Peloton commercial is that you are not enough. You should work harder, do more, look better. In short, it’s a message of Law—made all the worse, of course, by being touted as a delightful addition under the tree.

To be sure, some folks will welcome receiving an exercise bike for Christmas; perhaps, God help them, they asked for it. But for the rest of us, who have a visceral reaction to the idea of getting such a thing unbidden at Christmas, we see it in a decidedly different light: it’s a Pseudo-Gift.

And here’s the irony of it all. This same inversion is all too often on offer among Christians, including (sadly) at Christmas. The underlying message from many a pulpit is that you are not enough. Yes, God came down to earth—so you can at least meet Him halfway, right? I mean, He’s putting in the Lion’s (of Judah) share to this whole salvation project—you could clean yourself up, do some laps (spiritually speaking), and show Him you mean business, couldn’t you? At least show up again for worship before Easter, you heathens.

It’s Pseudo-Gift. It’s the Peloton-ization of the Gospel. And it’s no wonder that countless people, including many who grew up in the pew, will be throwing back another glass of eggnog punch this Christmas rather than submitting themselves to a Pseudo-Gift punch in the gut at church.

But Christmas is not about the giving of a Pseudo-Gift. God did not become man in order to give you a new to-do list. Christ Jesus did not come into the flesh to remind you of what an out of shape failure you are. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.17). The Baby whose manger is fashioned from the sticks of Calvary is enough. He And because He is enough, you are enough in Him.

So stick with giving cozy socks, candy, and grampey sweaters this Christmas. Nothing says to someone “you’re enough” quite like the livery of lounging.