Sunday, October 09, 2005

Modern Day Jonah

This story from Australia got me to thinking. A group of churches have gotten together to do an advertising campaign intended to reach out to people who do not regularly attend services, and the ad man they've chosen is an atheist.
After two years' research and planning, a multi-denominational group of Australian churches led by the Bible Society of NSW has begun to fight back. The new marketing strategy keeps the church, the Bible and religion well out of the picture. Instead, the spotlight falls on just one star. Jesus is played not as the son of God but a tough-talking no-nonsense philosopher who makes life easier and, incidentally, eternal.
I don't have a problem with churches doing such campaigns and in fact I think they have an obligation to keep a good and clear profile in the public eye. I also don't have a problem with using non believers in creative and corporate roles that clergy might be ill suited to. But clergy must uphold what it is they've vowed to uphold and the statement above fails. In short, in denies the incarnation. Pretty big boo boo, that. And how's a tough talking philosopher going to give you eternal life anyway? And any suggestion that being a Christian is easy is off the mark; being Christian means putting your old self to death and there's nothing easy about that. That's not to say there isn't some good that can come out of the ads and the research that went into them.
Why Jesus? "That was the only place we had to go," Kinnaird says. The research shows that the church is almost an insurmountable obstacle to the campaign. "The church was seen as the problem, not the solution," he says. But research also reveals people see value and power in what Jesus taught, such as peace, forgiveness and acknowledgment of the sin of pride. Some in the focus groups thought Jesus would be disgusted by the way the churches carried on. "The classic line is that the church is hopeless but Jesus is cool," says Martin Johnson, communications manager of the NSW Bible Society.
This is such an interesting result, even if it is unsurprising. People have a very strong tendency to deny the things churches put forward by arguing that the clergy make mistakes all the time. There is even a term for this logical fallacy - it's an ad hominem attack. The clergy's ability to teach does not derive from their own intellectual ability, and neither does it derive from their personal holiness or sanctity. All of their persuasive ability comes from teaching the faith they are sworn to uphold. They are weak to the extent that they deviate from it, and not from personal failures. We ought to know this; we tend to see it much more clearly in other kinds of affairs. If someone said to you that they would not vote for candidate X because that person dressed funny and had an accent, you would be right to ask how that is refutes the policies candidate X stands for. On the plus side, the test audience did find the figure of Jesus compelling. So how did Jesus deal with his weak and wayward apostles? It's true he was disgusted by their mistakes and failures, but did he turn his back on them?
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. Mathew 26: 31 - 35)
We know, of course, that Peter and the others fail to keep watch over Jesus as they are asked to do (Mathew 26:36 - 46), and that Peter does in fact deny Jesus three times, just as was foretold (Mathew 26: 69 - 75). We must not forget that Christ did not abandon his Apostles, even though he knew they would not be up to the task:
I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Mathew 16: 18).
I think the clergy get a lot of stones thrown their way because we see in them too much of ourselves and it's their misfortune that they, standing so close to the charismatic criterion himself, come off looking badly if they are anything less than saints. I think that if we really do hold that "Jesus is cool" and want to be like him, then we must be more forgiving. The test group is at least as hypocritical as the group they are scorning. Perhaps, given the sorts of churches involved (they appear to be mostly small and mostly pretty independent 'nondenominationalist' sorts), an anti-clerical POV was an easy message for the ad firm to sell to its clients. There is, of course, a downside to anticlericalism - even for Protestants.
The first plan was the punchy slogan: "Jesus. Nothing about Religion". "It was very powerful," Kinnaird says. "It slapped you in the face." But it just wasn't palatable to the churches involved. Yet to attract people, the campaign needed to distance itself from any association with church or practice of religion, the research said. So the slogan was changed but the message was retained. "You can take or leave religion," says a young mother in one of the TV ads, all shot well away from churches or religious symbols. "But I can't get away from the fact that a lot of what Jesus said makes sense." Surely it's a stretch to separate the son of God from religion? "Jesus wasn't about religion, when you read him," Kinnaird insists. "I'm a self-confessed atheist brought up in a religious school. Rereading the Bible, Jesus is quoted as making the explicit point that people who consider themselves pious but don't behave in a way that's consistent with piety are the least worthy." And often the ritual and trappings of the church just get in the way of the message, he says.
I got a good Catholic giggle out of fact these churches, if they had followed their ad firm's research, would have been left with a message that excluded themselves from those they wanted to reach. The problem with researching palatable messages is that in this area - unlike selling pop or blue jeans - you cannot simply try and give people messages they will like. The message is that there is in fact a problem with what people normally want. Nobody wants to hear that, of course. Then again who wants to be told your car or your jeans are out of style? Ad firms get messages like that out all the time, and they could do it here as well. People have issues and questions they need help with from time to time and they don't want or need to be sold rose coloured glasses.
"The problem we detected from our research was that a lot of Australians see Christianity as being for losers," Kinnaird says. "Focusing on personal crisis as the reason for talking to the church would simply reinforce the existing perception that the Christian church is a place for people who have failed."
"Church is for failures" is more than a little self serving. It was among the many dim things I've said and done in my time. It's easy, especially when you're young and strong, to think you'll never be injured, or age, or find that more! more! more! is the last thing you want. None of those things mark anyone as a failure. Another misunderstanding here is that faith is a both a comfort for pains and strong rebuke for certain weaknesses. In other words, it ain't easy. The whole article brought to mind the story of Jonah (which I posted about earlier this week) and how in it, God's will is done no matter what Jonah says or does. So it is here. I think the atheistic adman can do this job despite not believing in it and despite some questionable tactics, such as arguing that in his job he must "give the people what they want", even when his job is selling a message like this: "Jesus was a square peg in a society of round holes. He did not compromise his message for the sake of making people feel comfortable. Jesus wants people not just to go with the flow." He succeeds just like any other churchman, and that is when he stays on message. Hat tip for this story goes to The Raving Atheist, who brings a different perspective to it.

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