Monday, May 14, 2007

Re-Branding Christianity

“Image is everything.”
--Tennis pro Andre Agassi, 1992 Canon camera commercial [Cited on p. 197 of No Logo by Naomi Klein (Picador, 2002).]

This could be the new slogan for the slick marketing campaigns in neoevangelicaldom today. These campaigns aren't selling a product, per se. They are selling the image of a product.

To understand what this means, check out the latest marketing strategies used by the corporate world. The example of Nike, as described in No Logo by Naomi Klein, is quite instructive:

“A company that swallows cultural space in giant gulps, Nike is the definitive story of the transcendent nineties superbrand, and more than any other single company, its actions demonstrate how branding seeks to erase all boundaries between the sponsor and the sponsored. This is a shoe company that is determined to unseat pro sports, the Olympics and even star athletes, to become the very definition of sports itself. . . .”

“The corporate mythology has it that Nike is a sports and fitness company because it was built by a bunch of jocks who loved sports and were fanatically devoted to the worship of superior athletes. In reality, Nike’s project was a little more complicated and can be separated into three guiding principles. First, turn a select group of athletes into Hollywood-style superstars who are associated not with their teams, or even, at time, with their sport, but instead with certain pure ideas about athleticism as transcendence and perseverance – embodiments of the Graeco-Roman ideal of the perfect male form. Second, pit Nike’s ‘Pure Sports’ and its team of athletic superstars against the rule-obsessed established sporting world. Third, and most important, brand like mad.” (p. 51) [emphasis added]

In order to sell more products, the marketing world began to sell ideals and ideas. They became purveyors of the “image” of a product. The intent was to create a pervasive worldview based on this image of a product.

“Many brand-name multinationals. . . are in the process of transcending the need to identify with their earthbound products. They dream instead about their brands’ deep inner meanings – the way they capture the spirit of individuality, athleticism, wilderness or community. In this context of strut over stuff, marketing departments charged with the management of brand identities have begun to see their work as something that occurs not in conjunction with factory production but in direct competition with it. ‘Products are made in the factory,’ says Walter Landor, president of the Landor branding agency, ‘but brands are made in the mind.’ Peter Schweitzer, president of the advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, reiterates the same thought: ‘The difference between products and brands is fundamental. A product is something that is made in a factory; a brand is something that is bought by a customer. Savvy ad agencies have all moved away from the idea that they are flogging a product made by someone else, and have come to think of themselves instead as brand factories, hammering out what is of true value: the idea, the lifestyle, the attitude. Brand builders are the new primary producers in our so-called knowledge economy.” (pp. 195-6) [emphasis added]

This focus on image explains why doctrine is no longer important. Image now reigns.

For example, isn't the Emergent/Emerging church creating a new “brand” of Christianity, the very “image” of “the deep inner meanings” of mystical spirituality? By using carefully pre-fabricated metaphors, an “image” of a new doctrinal “product” is being marketed.

Emergent leader Brian McLaren, in discussing “Jesus’ secret message,” said His “secret plan” was for a “spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world” (p. 4). This is the language of the doctrine of dominionism, and his book The Secret Message of Jesus (W Publ. Group, 2006) is rife with examples. Remarks like:
  • "God's conspiracy seeks to overturn the world as it is so that a new world can emerge." (p. 143)
  • "Each person can be a secret agent of the secret kingdom." (p. 83)
  • "God was launching a new world order, a new world, a new creation." (p. 31)
  • "A new day is coming--a new earth, a new world order, a new reality, a new realm--in short, a new kingdom." (p. 23)
  • "What is Jesus' secret message reveals a secret plan? What if he didn't come to start a new religion--but rather to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world?" (p. 4)

McLaren introduced his re-branding campaign in marketing terms:

“Is it possible that the message of Jesus was less like an advertising slogan—obvious and loud—and more like a poem whose meaning only comes subtly and quietly to those who read slowly, think long and deeply, and refuse to give up?” (p. 34)

McLaren referred to this image of Jesus' secret message in terms of “God’s dream” and suggested we must “realign our dreams with God’s, to dream our little dreams within God’s big dream” (p. 142). He even invoked the name of a historical superhero, Dr. Martin Luther King, for the new application of the slogan “the dream of God.”

Naomi Klein considers this type of ‘piggy-back on a historical celebrity’ marketing to be “culture vulturing” and provided several significant examples from 1990s ad campaigns:

“The spring 1998 Prada collection, for instance, borrowed heavily from the struggle of the labor movement. As ‘supershopper’ Karen von Han reported from Milan, ‘The collection, a sort of Maoist/Societ-worker chic full of witty period references, was shown in a Prada-blue room in the Prada family palazzo to an exclusive few.” (p. 84)

“. . . Apple computer’s appropriation of Gandhi for their ‘Think Different’ campaign, and Che Guevara’s reincarnation as the logo for Revolution Soda (slogan: ‘Join the Revolution. . . ) and as the mascot of the upscale London cigar lounge, Che.” (p. 85)

An interesting look at how Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream” has been co-opted for remarkably similar marketing purposes by Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, Robert Schuller, Bruce Wilkinson and the New Ager Theosophists can be found in an Update to chapter 10 of Warren Smith’s Reinventing Jesus Christ book, now posted online, in a subheading “God’s Dream?”

In his 2006 book The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything, McLaren states that the emerging twenty-first century church needs a new user-friendly language to effectively communicate with the world about Jesus. With no mention of Schuller—or Rick Warren for that matter—the very first metaphor McLaren suggests is the concept of “God’s Dream.” Not surprisingly. . . he also tries to link this Schuller concept to Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. McLaren explains:

For all these reasons, “the dream of God” strikes me as a beautiful way to translate the message of the kingdom of God for hearers today. It is, of course, the language evoked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. His dream was God’s dream, and that accounted for its amazing power.

But this descriptive linking of “God’s Dream” with Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement is the same thing that New Age leaders were doing as they linked their PEACE PLAN—their “civil rights movement for the soul”—to Martin Luther King and King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Curiously, when I did an Internet search I could find no instance of Martin Luther King ever using the specific term “God’s Dream.” By using the Schuller concept of “God’s Dream,” while invoking Martin Luther King and his civil rights movement, church leaders were now falling—even more directly—into the New Age spiritual trap. With an ever-evolving, conveniently overlapping, new transformational language, Rick Warren’s Global P.E.A.C.E. Plan was in the process of semantically merging with the New Age PEACE PLAN.

Emergent is a marketing campaign in and of itself. It is a rebranding campaign that is repackaging Christianity into a kaleidoscope of ever-fluctuating mystical images while "we're seeking to align our wills with God's will, our dreams with God's dream"( p. 161).

The most fundamental doctrines are being re-branded. McLaren’s definition of repentance, for example, reads like the toothpaste commercial discussed in the previous post. If the old brand of repentance no longer whitens and brightens, switch over to the Emergent brand. It promises that new zing in life. The image of repentance, according to McLaren, means “rethinking everything in light of the secret message” of Jesus. “It involves a deep sense that you may be wrong, wrong about so much, along with a sincere desire to realign around what is good and true” (p. 105). What is “good and true” is no longer moored to the tenets of the faith. Rather, it is now tied to the nebulous penumbra of the image of Jesus’ “secret message.”

The Truth:

"Ye shall make no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 26:1)