There was only one class that I can think of that I abhorred during my time in university: Media and Society. And this was not because the tests were hard, or the professor was irritating (though I did initially believe this), or even because they docked me a letter grade for apparently being absent when I actually wasn’t. Looking back now, I realize it was because the concepts he was teaching answered some of the very questions about truth I had come to college with…and I didn’t like the implications.
One day the professor introduced us to an old movie called A Face in the Crowd starring Andy Griffith. Griffith plays a bum-turned-celebrity, who at one point meets a faltering politician who requests help from Griffith to become successful.
Many of us would think that in order to make a successful political campaign, one should find the issues that are relevant to the nation and prescribe solutions for them; immigration, debt, etc (notwithstanding this year’s election). However, Griffiths’ response was basically the opposite. He advises the politician to get a dog, because people like dogs. He tells him to stop pressing his lips together because it makes him look like a sissy. He tell him to go by the nickname “Curly” because the man is balding, and could use the humor.
Why, you may ask? Griffith answers this by introducing the politician to a tweedledum former convict who has has hired to be his consultant. Griffith says, “If this stupid guy doesn’t like my show, there’s something wrong with it. How are you going to get this man, this bush monkey, to vote for you?…You need a whole new personality.” The politician follows his advice, and what do you know? Without changing a word of his beliefs, the politician suddenly becomes an overnight success.
The concept behind this something that Marshall McLuhan came up with in 1967, called “the medium is the message”. The idea is that the form in which a message is delivered is more important than the actual message itself. It’s like the saying “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”.
Why does a picture on Instagram garner more interest than a post on facebook? Because visuals are more interesting than words.
Why is the preamble to the Constitution treated like it’s straight from the mouth of God? For one thing, it’s written in iambic pentameter – a Shakespearean type of poetry, which gives it rhythmic quality and lets it go down much easier.
Why did Freud refuse to listen to (most) music? Because music manipulates us in ways that the mind can’t comprehend. This is why I think why worship music is so popular, and why it never stops playing during the entire church service in some places – music is a drug that can pacify a congregation and allow us to accept whatever is being said…regardless of a Scripture’s actual context or relevant truth.
Why was Martin Luther successful in starting the Protestant Reformation, while Jan Hus a hundred years earlier was burned at the stake when they both had the same radical message? For one thing, Luther had the advantage of the printing press, which allowed him to send his ninety-five theses to all of Europe within two months of him writing it. Thomas Paine did the same thing with Common Sense in the American Revolution; as of today, in proportion to the USA’s population it still holds the record for highest sale and circulation of any book in American history. Paine wasn’t even a Christian and published it anonymously, but because he quoted a lot of Scripture and structured it like a sermon, the Protestant colonies ate it up.
For another thing, in both the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution, there was some serious coloring-outside-the-lines, shall we say. Luther called the Roman Papacy a “rotten paunch, crude ass and a fart-ass”, a “truth werewolf”, and a “toad-eater and a fawner”. In the American Revolution, what we today call the “Boston Massacre” was really no more than a street-fight initiated by rowdy Bostonians throwing stuff at British soldiers and challenging them to fire. Need proof? John Adams himself defended the British soldiers during the trial, and got most of them exonerated. However, Paul Revere’s famous engraving of British soldiers firing at “innocent, peace-loving bystanders” fueled the Patriot cause for “justice” against the British, leading to the First Continental Congress less than a year later.
Neither personal insults nor manipulation of truth is what I would call fair play. Yet to many, Luther and the Patriots are basically divinity. History is written by the victors. It all makes sense now why Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, said “Art that’s polite is not much fun.”
The point I’m getting at is that perhaps we need to ask ourselves if our idea of truth can really survive without a marketing strategy. To me, I had always believed that truth doesn’t need gimmicks, advertising or photoshopping; that a product speaks for itself. But now, as I watch the church commit ever-increasing resources to in-building coffee shops, before-service donuts, new color schemes, fancy media displays, better singers, hip young pastors, and “Christian entertainment” – I can’t help but wonder, is this all REALLY in the name of communicating that “Jesus is the only way”? And if it needs all this outside help…can the message still really be about an omnipotent God?