If the pattern keeps going, we’re going to need Ethan Richardson to write volume two of This American Gospel. Ira Glass and crew at This American Life have given us some of our favorite stories and sermon illustration over the years, and episode 591’s exploration of LL Bean’s return policy joins the ranks. If you need a frank discussion about the role of antinomians in 2016, look no further.

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Check the glossary for a fuller treatment, but the short spiritual definition of an antinomian is someone who, after encountering the Gospel of love and forgiven sins, “goes rogue” with the “un-Christian behavior.” If all sins are forgiven, than sins no longer matter. Antinomians, claiming to love Jesus, are ok with continuing all sorts of sins. “God loves me, I’m free from the law, so I can do what I want.”

Let’s set aside for now that antinomians are the Lock Ness Monster of sinners (i.e., they don’t exist). The Gospel is a free thing for all people- it costs nothing, it gives everything, it is a one-way transaction paid for by God for human beings. And yet, as with all free things, there’s anxiety about giving it away without some element of control. Like a pedestrian’s hesitation to give money to a panhandler, or a politician’s anxiety over welfare handouts, the church and her people are equally anxious about the possibility of licentiousness and scandalous debauchery that might come from Gospel freedom. If the recipients of God’s free gift don’t have some skin in the game, if we aren’t held accountable for the great gift given, then we’re likely to fly off the morality train tracks.

Which brings us to the TAL story broadcast July 15. Skip over the first segment about billionaire Trump investors if you’d like, and you certainly don’t need to listen to the last segment about the personified prophylactic. But the LL Bean story is too good to miss. It’s a classic study of people taking advantage of too-good-to-be-true offers.

L.L.Bean Spring 1966 catalog coverSara Corbett: Here’s a story that my friend Derek tells for penance. Those are his words, “for penance.” A story in which he says he’s–

Derek: Being a dirtbag.

Sara Corbett: Maybe even more than a dirtbag.

Derek: Total sleazebag.

Sara Corbett: Because we’re in America, this morality tale takes place in a customer service department. At LL Bean, in Maine, where we both live. This story involves a pair of cross country ski boots.

Derek: I had these boots that were given, when we were first married. And–

Sara Corbett: Wait, when was that?

Derek: ’92. Ha. And so this was maybe, we’ll say 2007, or something. Maybe later than that. And one of the boots gave out. And it had LL Bean written right on it, so I knew where it came from.

L.L.Bean+September+2012+catalog+coverSara Corbett: What had you heard?

Derek: Yeah, the understanding is that they will accept returns, at any time, for no reason at all. For any reason. So I decided I had to test if this was true. So I went. And I remember the woman pretty clearly. And she asked a few questions. And she says, so, when did you get the boots? And I said, I don’t recall, exactly. They were a gift. And she said, roughly, how long ago? And I said, I don’t know, maybe 15 years. She said, thank you. So what is your reason for return? And I was like, they just fell apart.

Sara Corbett: After 15 years.

Derek: Thank you. So, were you satisfied with their performance? Yeah, they were great. They just wore out. Thank you. And you get the sense I could say anything, and they’d say, thank you, here you go. And with each, kind of, bit of her gratitude, my shame just expanded till it was super size. And then she gave me the check for the amount of the boots, and I went and got new boots.

It certainly sounds like we have a qualification-free thing being taken advantage of by morally dubious customers. Even in contrast, the “no questions asked” 100% acceptance of the Gospel and the incredibly lenient return policy of LL Bean have some overlap. The story continues:

9a90109b53ed98f19edb187e7b0edb4bSara Corbett: Technically speaking, this is allowed at LL Bean, under their return policy. Technically. No one at the store was going to tell Derek to his face that he’d done anything wrong, but that didn’t make it feel right….

LL Bean sells a lot of stuff, all kinds. It’s sort of like Target, but for outdoorsy New Englanders. And a lot more expensive. 

Part of the reason that it’s more expensive is because the company– which has been around since 1912– claims their products are extra high quality, built to last. And the company’s return policy is built to last, too. Other stores give you a week, a month, maybe a year. LL Bean gives you forever.

And I sort of knew that. I knew the gist of their policy, or at least the urban legend version of it. For 19 years I’ve lived down the highway from the flagship store, in Freeport, Maine. I have friends who work there. But I didn’t know that people were truly, truly returning 15-year-old boots and getting away with it.

Is anyone calling bull-[BLEEP] on this? Is anyone on either side of these transactions drawing a line? Once I started looking into it, it felt more and more like LL Bean’s return policy is this giant 100-year-old psych experiment.

The story continues: return center staff are explicitly trained to show absolutely no judgment for returns. Even their tone of voice, their posture, and their eye contact are trained to be as pleasant as possible. “The Guarantee,” as it’s reverently known, is a huge selling point of LL Bean products. It’s so offensively non-offensive, so brazenly non-judgmental, that many employees just can’t work the return desk:

spring_1933_-_original_cover_highresJonathan Woodward: We try to gauge, by personality, who we want to bring in here [to the returns desk]. Because it does take a certain kind of person. People come in here, and they do it for a week or two, and they just can’t set their personal issues aside. So they just choose to go back to the sales floor. There are some people that have been here 30 years that will not come in here and do this.

You’d think that broadcasting The Guarantee would be a huge liability, bringing more fake returns out of the woodwork. But when reporter Sara Corbett approached LL Bean with the story, they embraced it:

Sara Corbett: When I first approached LL Bean about doing this story, I thought they’d never agree to it…

But actually, they seemed to think the opposite. It’s like they doubled down. Or maybe they’re worried enough about the stretching of the guarantee that they want us all to be thinking more about our satisfaction.

The palpable unease of reporter Sara Corbett (Who’s gonna call bull**** on this?)” and the moralistic handwringing about antinomians both come from the same place: “this thing is so good, people are definitely going to take advantage of it. Can we reign this in somehow? Can’t we put a rule (ehem, law?) in place to keep the hooligans away?”

And yet, as of now, the answer is no for the higher ups at LL Bean. Call it brand loyalty, call it customer satisfaction, call it a marketing plan, whatever- but LL Bean knows that The Guarantee means something bigger than the bottom line. It’s willing to suffer the fools if it means that regular, ordinary customers feel confident and satisfied about their purchase.

447e71df7e93bfbe5580244fdac3678fThat’s where, I think, we see overlap with The Gospel. Interestingly, the only explicit reference to antinomians in the New Testament is Paul’s comment in Romans 6- “Should we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means!” There are tons of disobedient and morally lax Christians in the New Testament, but we’re not told if they’re justifying their actions as forgiven and unimportant. In fact, most of the antinomian accusations in the New Testament are leveled at Jesus, who was literally accused of being “anti-law” over issues of sabbath law, food law, and keeping unholy company.

Here’s the takeaway: The Gospel certainly sounds like antinomianism, and that concern didn’t motivate Jesus to change his message. Like the LL Bean execs, you can almost hear him saying “so what if people try to take advantage of the good news? It wasn’t for them anyways. I’m not going to leave the poor in spirit, mourning, and meek high and dry because of a few sharks in the water.” The moment qualifications are added to a guarantee, we’ve lost, whether that’s a lenient return policy or the grace of God. Nothing is more disappointing than the word “free” with a footnote.

Not that I can personally afford LL Bean right now, anyway. Though I hear you get a discount if you drive there in a Subaru. That’s not true, it’s just my jealousy masking itself in snark. That is, after all, the fundamental difference between LL Bean and Jesus. The former guarantees satisfaction for the steep purchase price. The other pays the price and guarantees the purchase for me. Flannel wears much nicer when it’s a gift.