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How Crassly Is The Church Being Used?

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The Passion of the Christ was a major marketing success. But it was more than that. It was an astounding, shocking success that few people felt was possible. It was, after all, a movie filmed in a dead language focusing on a dead man whom most people in the world hate. It was overtly Christian in both theme and content and pulled no punches in expressing the deeply-held, politically incorrect religious views of one man. Yet it made an enormous amount of money and will go down in history as one of the greatest marketing and financial success stories in Hollywood history.

So how was it that this movie came to be such a success? While there are certainly many factors involved, the primary factor was, quite simply, marketing. Astute marketers came to the realization that the Evangelical world was dry tinder just waiting for a spark.

And now the secret is out. Evangelicals are dry tinder just waiting for the strike of a match. Evangelicals are primed and ready to play a role in marketing efforts. Following on the heels of The Passion of the Christ comes The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In my mind, and in the minds of many conservative Christians, there is a considerable difference between these two movies. The Passion of the Christ was offensive to me for several reasons but two stand above the rest. The first was in the physical depiction of Jesus. I, and many other Christians, struggle with the depiction of Jesus in film. The second reason the movie was offensive was in the profoundly Roman Catholic beliefs expressed through the film. In fact, one can make a good argument that the movie was a visual representation of the Catholic mass. There were constant references to theology that would be affirmed by Roman Catholics but that is antithetical to Protestantism. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is different in these two respects as it presents only an allegorical representation of Jesus and the theology is generally consistent with biblical Protestantism.

It seems to me that a greater number of Protestants will be eager and willing to see this movie. This is something the marketers know only too well. Quoted in an article in The Christian Post is Abram Brook, editorial writer for Leadership Magazine. “[T]hey’re using all the tactics that made ‘The Passion of the Christ’ a blockbuster,” he says. “But…we have to wonder: ‘Is the church being used?’ or more precisely, ‘How crassly is the church being used?’” Just a few days ago I was speaking to a pastor who was marvelling that a company was willing to hand him all sorts of door-hangers and posters for the movie. But of course they were willing to do this! If the pastor distributes these, he is doing valuable, target marketing for the movie! It would seem the church is being used quite crassly.

The marketing that made The Passion of the Christ such a success is being used to promote The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In fact, the producers of the film hired the very same marketing firm that promoted The Passion of the Christ. Only a brief look at the shelves of a Christian bookstore will show many ways this marketing is being manifested. The article in The Christian Post says, “It’s in magazines, radio airwaves, television specials, churches, music concerts, Christian Web sites, and on scores of family-friendly books. The promotions do not scream for attention like the iPod campaign, but Disney has integrated Narnia into the cultural fabric of Evangelicals.” Narnia figures will be given away with McDonalds’ Happy Meals and there is even an action video game based on the books set to be released.

Other marketing efforts include “‘Narnia Sneak Peek’ events in churches across America integrated the movie into the local church. At the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., members of the 20,000-plus congregation viewed exclusive clips, received free gift bags full of outreach material, and were treated to a special live performance by Steven Curtis Chapman. In addition, C.S. Lewis’ stepson and co-producer of the film, Doug Gresham; Walden Media President and film’s visionary Michael Flaherty; and other Narnia filmmakers discussed the making of the movie.”

Brooks provides a valuable warning. “Whether the film is overtly Christian, as in The Passion, has Christian themes, or merely upholds values that Christians support, church leaders must be careful about endorsing Hollywood productions and the degree to which their support is expressed in their local congregations… There is, after all, considerable difference between referencing a current movie in a sermon and supplying the congregation with mass-produced study guides and small group materials.” Are there pastors who would hand the people in their churches mass-produced study guides originating from within a marketing machine? I’m sure there are. If The Passion taught us anything it is that pastors and church leaders are willing to be in the forefront of this type of marketing effort.

It is more than a little bit ironic that the film is being released by Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney has certainly been no great friend of Christians and Christianity in general over the past decades. Their recent films are filled with themes that contradict the Bible. Yet it is clear that in this case they have taken an interest in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, simply because of the revenue it represents. This irony is not lost on the London Telegraph:

The move is particularly remarkable because for the past decade Disney has been the subject of a religious boycott imposed by Christian organisations, who accused the company of betraying its family-values legacy by providing employee health benefits to same-sex partners, allowing gay days at its theme parks and producing what they considered to be controversial films, books and television programmes through Disney subsidiaries.

Now the wooing of evangelicals, combined with the departure of Disney chief executive Michael Eisner – described by some religious leaders as “anti-Christian” – signals the implicit end of the boycott and the beginning of a possible money-spinning franchise for the studio, which is desperately seeking a blockbuster hit that can deliver sequels, along the lines of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films. (source)

The article in The Christian Post concludes by stating that “Brook appreciates that the opportunity exists for the church to influence the types of films that the culture’s dominant media produces, but warns that ‘such influence comes at a price.’ He is also wondering where the next Hollywood collaboration will take the Church.” These are both valid concerns. This influence does come at a price. The price for The Passion of the Christ was monetary, in the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, but also spiritual, in subjecting people to a movie that was so filled with Catholic theology and imagery as to boggle the mind of this Protestant. We can also only sit and wait and wonder where Hollywood collaboration will take the church. We can be sure that marketing companies are not standing idly by, but are seeing in Evangelical churches a vast network of marketing fodder.

“Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, suggests an even more cautionary approach. “Every social group should worry about being taken advantage of by Hollywood,” Schultze said. “Moviemakers generally are more interested in getting various groups to buy and rent films than they are in serving those groups. Christians might be more gullible in the sense that they tend to believe various religious leaders who champion or criticize the latest movies even if the leaders have not seen the films and do not have a very good ability to interpret and evaluate them. “Factor in the Christian bandwagon effect, and one can see how Christians can be taken advantage of, even as they seek to do what is right,” Schultze said.” (Leadership Journal).

I sincerely hope this movie is used by God to draw people to Himself. While I have little hope that people will turn to God within the movie theatres (the gospel is, after all, not going to be clearly presented in the movie) I do hope that the strong Christian imagery and parallelism within the film will allow Christians to spark conversation with their unsaved friends. There is much to discuss. At the same time I hope that Christians approach this movie with discernment, being aware that it is being produced largely by unbelievers who care little for the Christian themes except for their usefulness in drawing a Christian audience to the theatres. I hope Christians think twice before consuming mass-produced marketing material under the guise of study guides and Bible studies. Above all I hope that Christians remember that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while a fabulous story is just that, a story. And to many, including those who are going to try to hand you posters, door hangers are action figures, it is just another product. There are marketers out there seeking to use you to promote this product. The question is, how crassly are you being used?

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