Monthly Archives: August 2010

Marketing a Noncommercial Message

The church today has a weakness for numbers. We are infatuated with measurements and quantified data: statistics, opinion polls, market research, attendance figures, bestseller lists, budgets, and so on. We want specific numbers so we can keep tabs on things like market saturation, return on investment, and consumer satisfaction. We want to monitor what the masses are buying, where the people are flocking, and what is hot right now, so that perhaps our warehouse churches will overflow with seeker-consumers. In other words, the church today operates like a corporation, with a product to sell and a market to conquer.

But what happens to our faith when we turn it into a product to sell? What does it mean to package Christianity in a methodical manner so as to make it salient to as wide an audience as possible? What does Christianity lose when it becomes just one piece of a consumer transaction? These are questions that the brand managers of “cool Christianity” would do well to consider. …

Let’s think for a minute about what Christianity is and why it doesn’t make a good “product.” For one thing, products must be subject to markets, yet God is not subject to the consumer needs or wants of any market. God only and ever deals on his own terms. … Another reason why Christianity doesn’t make a good product is that it doesn’t lend itself to an easy commercial sale. Sure, there are appealing things about it, but there are also not-so-appealing things about it (um… taking up one’s cross, avoiding sin and worldliness, etc.). And although the Gospel is wonderfully simple in the sense that even a child can recognize its truth, it is also mind-blowingly complex in a way that doesn’t lend itself to thirty-second jingles. Marketing requires simplifying, cutting out all friction and obstacles to a sale, and focusing solely on the beneficial, feel-good aspects of a product. To market something is to empty it of all potentially controversial or difficult elements, which is maybe not the best method of communicating the gospel…

Read the rest of this excerpt (from Chap. 13, “Reversing the Ripple Effect,” of Hipster Christianity) over at Q Ideas Blog.

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“Now … This”

In my brain this week, things that have been mediated to me and/or processed through technology include: the oil well sealed, Snooki’s astonishing orange glo, creepy Glen on Mad Men, Prop 8 struck down, Arcade Fire live from Madison Square Garden, Chelsea Clinton getting married, Facebook photos of my baby niece and nephew, Anne Rice quitting Christianity, Netflix film that I can’t even remember, and Pat Robertson’s son asking me about “hepcats” on the 700 Club. Not to mention the many ichats, skype chats, text conversations and phone calls that are too numerous to even recall.

Are all these things created equal? I don’t think so. But the way everything is collapsed into a flattened plane of multi-tasking and live-feed updates these days, it’s getting harder and harder to separate the important from the merely diversionary. This week I had profound conversations on AIM with friends, even while I was opening windows and watching news clips about zebra-donkey hybrids. I was writing an email while getting distracted by a Tweet I saw about a bus in China that drives over cars (it’s awesome) and trying to read a NYTimes article about a Korean filmmaker I recently discovered. A few days later, I can’t remember much of any of it, or why it was worth my time.

I recently wrote an article for Q Ideas on the topic of infotainment, in which I described the blurry lines we now see between what is newsworthy and “important” and what is merely trivial and something to be consumed with no strings attached. You can check that article out here.

The whole thing sort of reminds me of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he describes (among other things) the way that television has contributed to the fragmentary nature of media consumption in which we get this bit AND then this bit, but with little WHY to go along with any of it. He writes:

“Now, this. . .” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . . . this.” The newscaster means that you have thought long enough on the previous matter (approximately 45 seconds), that you must not be morbidly occupied with it (let us say, for ninety seconds), and that you must now give your attention to another fragment of news or a commercial.

In America particularly, we are obsessed with the “next.” We want to get something done and move on to the next thing. Perhaps this is why we consume media at such a breakneck speed and with such dizzying efficiency. But what does this do to our ability to 1) dwell on something for a long period of time, 2) discern what is worth thinking about and what isn’t, and 3) value depth rather than breadth?

In my own life, I am tempted to want to think about an idea, maybe writing something about it, and then move on to the next thing. I’m tempted to approach reading books this way–reading them, writing in them and enjoying them, but then checking them off a list and moving on. But is this a good thing? Last week I read The Divine Milieu by Teilhard de Chardin, Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver and “No Exit” by Sarte. They were all immensely provocative and interesting, and I’d love to think about them more. But I’ve already moved on to the next thing (To Change the World by James Davison Hunter). There is just so much in the world I need to read. So much to experience.

But I worry that our desire for “more” (and our ability to get more) has decreased our appetite for understanding and making connections. Oh to make connections! Oh to understand “why” rather than just “and!” Perhaps what we really need (what I really need) is to stop adding to the pile and start making sense of what’s already been consumed.

But you’ve read enough of this one simple blog post for now. Time to move on to the next thing.

Thoughts on the Release of Hipster Christianity

Five summers ago, I was a just-out-of-college intern for the C.S. Lewis Foundation, working on the Oxbridge ’05 conference in Oxford and Cambridge. It was one of the most enchanting, life-changing summers of my life. On top of the many brilliant lectures I heard in Oxford and Cambridge, I had dozens of conversations over pints and pipes—at pubs at 2 in the morning, after an evensong service in some magical cathedral, or in the garden of The Kilns (C.S. Lewis’ home in Oxford).  These were the conversations that sparked the first true ideas that would eventually become Hipster Christianity. When I got back home later that summer, I wrote “A New Kind of Hipster” for Relevant. Five years later, Hipster Christianity is out in stores (as of today, Aug. 1—the official release date).

It’s a strange and wonderful feeling–to see one’s idea come to fruition. I never really thought during the summer of 2005 that I’d write a book about hipster Christianity, but I’m glad I did. Looking back I marvel at how it all came together, how so many of my experiences and interactions and relationships all fed into this idea, and how the people in my life during this season were so absolutely instrumental in the whole endeavor.

Thank you to all of them. Thank you to everyone who has read this blog, participated in the conversation, and accompanied me on this intellectual journey. Thank you for bearing with the endless barrage of “hipster this” and “hipster that.” When a subject consumes your mind and vocation for the better part of 2 years, it tends to consume your discourse. I promise that in coming months–and especially as I begin work/research on the next book project–new topics and discussions will start to take place on this blog.

That said, the issues at play in Hipster Christianity will still continue to be a passion of mine, because they will still continue to be issues for the church. Christianity (particularly western, evangelical Christianity) is at something of a crossroads, and our identity–the question of who we are to be for the world–is open to many interpretations. Everyone’s got an idea of what Christianity should be (Missional! Emergent! Conservative! Progressive! Post-colonial!…), but part of what I argue in Hipster Christianity is that we need to cool it a bit on the whole “how can we change Christianity to be more current/relevant” thing. We need to instead focus our attention on being a biblical, gospel-centered people whose attractiveness to the world is the result of the Spirit’s edifying work within us, not a result of our Tru Religion jeans, $600,000 sound system, or tasty shade-grown coffee served in the vestibule.

Any author hopes that his words will in some way make a difference–and in my case I hope and pray that the book will reach the right readers and stir in their hearts and minds some questions and convictions about what drives us to be “cool” and whether or not that’s a good thing for us, both as individual Christians and collectively as the church.

I hope you all read the book and find it encouraging, informative, provocative, and fair.  If you do, please share it with others, or write a review on Amazon or something like that (sorry- couldn’t resist!). Or just enjoy the book and think about its ideas, and maybe discuss it in some sort of productive way in whatever community you find yourself.

On this day, I think it’s only fitting to give C.S. Lewis the last word, since my book really started (literally) in his backyard. He gave an address at King’s College in London in 1944 called “The Inner Ring,” in which he talked about the dangers of the universal desire to be an insider rather than outsider (to be hip rather than not). I wrote an essay about Lewis’ thoughts about the desire to be an “Inner Ringer” for the Image blog recently, which you can read here. But here is a fairly lengthy (but meaty) excerpt from Lewis’ own words in the lecture:

If you want to be made free of a certain circle for some wholesome reason—if, say, you want to join a musical society because you really like music—then there is a possibility of satisfaction. You may find yourself playing in a quartet and you may enjoy it. But if all you want is to be in the know, your pleasure will be short lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

And you will always find them hard to enter, for a reason you very well know. You yourself, once you are in, want to make it hard for the next entrant, just as those who are already in made it hard for you. Naturally. In any wholesome group of people which holds together for a good purpose, the exclusions are in a sense accidental. Three or four people who are together for the sake of some piece of work exclude others because there is work only for so many or because the others can’t in fact do it. Your little musical group limits its numbers because the rooms they meet in are only so big. But your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. There’d be no fun if there were no outsiders. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.

The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.

And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.