Evangelical Lessons from the Marketing of the Passion

CW Passion Marketing.jpg
This AM I will present a workshop at the Northwest Christian Education Conference. It is an event that defies the “most un-churched region” stats each year. This year over 3000 people are registered. My topic is “Bridging faith and popular culture to reach the Northwest”

Given the “Passion of Christ” rage I am expected to show profuse enthusiasm for the “greatest evangelistic event in 2000 years.” Oh fellow Culturally Savvy Christian (CSC) if it was only that easy. Here in brief is what I will say.

One) The Northwest needs reaching.
Two) Popular Culture is the world’s mega influencer.
Three) The church is marginalized.
Four) We need CSC’s who are serious about faith, savvy about culture and skilled to relate the two.

The lessons we learn from the Passion of Christ efforts are mixed.

First) It proves the power of popular culture. As Moira McDonald reported in today’s Seattle Times “Mel Gibson may be preaching to the choir with “The Passion of the Christ,” but the choir turned out to be massive. The faithful and the curious have flocked to Gibson’s ultra-violent biblical drama since its Feb. 25 opening. Financed by Gibson himself for a reported twenty-five million because no studio would touch it the film has grossed two hundred sixty four million dollars in North America in its first 19 days. That’s heaven-sent success for a foreign-language film with no recognizable stars, and it’s expected to continue.”

Second) It proves popular culture is a theological location. AS Andrew Greeley put it, “My thesis is simple enough: Popular Culture is a “locus theologicus,” a theological place the locale in which one may encounter God. Popular culture provides an opportunity to experience God and to tell stories of God to, to put the matter more abstractly, to learn about God and to teach about God.”

Third) The great controversy reveals our culture’s biblical and spiritual illiteracy.

Fourth) It reminds us that ART is the route to cultural influence. As Gibson said, “You know, if I was Billy Graham, I’d have preached. If I was Jackson Pollock, I’d have painted. But I have one good trick: that’s filmmaking, and that’s how I express myself. This (movie) is my meditation.”

Fifth) It reminds us that evangelicals are clueless about art. From the hand-wringing about the R-rating, to the exploitative piggy-backing on art for propagandist purposes to the paucity of talent in the ready pool of Hollywood filmmakers and writers. As the door opens for more “religious films,” for the most part we offer evangelists not artists.

Sixth) Evangelicals are reductionists about evangelism. We favor words over image so we produce tracts to be handed out as people leave their visual encounter. We market products instead of producing the fruit Jesus said would characterize his disciples. We turn the gospel into a sales pitch presented the same way every time, despite the fact that Jesus never shared the gospel the same way twice!

So where do we go from here?
1) We need to rediscover the creation mandate that calls us to be artists and appreciators of art.
2) We need to return to the radical gospel of self-denial, cross bearing, living the gospel not just talking it.
3) We need to learn the skills of the culturally savvy Christian listening, observing, discerning and tailoring our response.

I like Brian McLaren’s perspective on this: “Emerging culture people are, no doubt, as sensitive as anyone else to dramatic, multisensory, rational-plus-emotional presentations. Special effects can impress them. But they’re also suspicious of the whole business. They’re looking for something that can’t be “produced” but which can only be created: Authenticity. Reality. Honesty. Fruit…That last word, of course, has special resonances to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Think of the difference between produce (like fruit) and products (like films, radio broadcasts, boxed programs, etc.). Think of something that must be the organic outgrowth of genuine health and vitality versus something that can be produced with money and technical savvy. Jesus didn’t say it was by our clever outlines, memorable mnemonics, snazzy programs, and special effects that we would be known as his disciples, or that he would be known as sent from God. Rather, he said, it was by our love that we and he would be known, and by our fruit: our good works that shine in darkness and inspire all to glorify God. No doubt, Mel G’s film will be powerful and will help many millions, I hope for it is a sincere labor of love about the ultimate labor of love. But it’s not the greatest outreach opportunity in 2,000 years, at least, not for the emerging culture.”

Remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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