Go and spin no more
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Date: October 2002

Death of Spin

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'The weakness of the Alpha Course is in selling Christianity as a package-tour or as a club - take one Christ and everything will be alright.'

In a controversial new book The Death of Spin, journalist turned PR guru George Pitcher argues that even the Church has fallen victim to the persuasive but illusory claims of spin culture. In this exclusive extract for surefish.co.uk, Pitcher claims that the Alpha Course and the recent Church advertising campaigns have subsumed ‘Truth’ to ‘image, style and effect.’

Christian churches have made a considerable contribution to spin-culture – allowing the triumph of style over substance. This is remarkable when you think of what the Christian Church is offering: a God, who loves humanity unconditionally and to prove it became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who expiated human sin through his death and offers eternal life through his resurrection. That sure beats the latest mobile-phone special offer or equity-linked savings plan. As Blaise Pascal had it, this is either the most important thing that ever has been and ever will be, or the greatest con-trick perpetrated on a gullible humanity. Either way, in media terms, it’s a great story. True or not, you can’t ignore it.

The trouble starts when it is marketed. I’ll offer two examples. The first relates to the Alpha course that emanated from Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB for short) in the late Eighties, under the driving force of a charismatic preacher called Nicky Gumbel. The Alpha programme is an introductory, beginners’ course in Christianity and has done incredible – some might say miraculous – work in stemming the decline in church numbers by providing an accessible, user-friendly guide to Christian faith and the salvation it offers. In itself, Alpha is a sound and simple guide to Christianity and in gentle, exploratory hands it is of enormous benefit and interest to church-newcomers. An accurate guide-book to the Christian faith could hardly be dangerous in itself. The same cannot always be said of the hands that hold it. It’s never the gun, it’s the gunner.

The problem with Alpha is precisely that it emerges through the cultural reredos of HTB, which being in Knightsbridge and an unravelled turban’s length from Harrod’s, attracted the post-Eighties, post-conspicuous-consumption Sloanes, celebrities and City professionals disillusioned with shallow materialism. Nothing wrong with that – God must have a plan for them too. Where it forms less of a tenet of faith than a pillar of the spin-culture is when its apostles disperse from Knightsbridge to spread the word with evangelical fervour.

Bright-eyed and shiny, they will appear in a church near you offering Christianity as a mountebank cure-all. Just take one Christ and everything will be alright. At one level, this is in the apostolic tradition. It is certainly evangelical. But its weakness is in selling Christianity as a package-tour, or as a club. In joining the club, you join Christ and in joining Christ you join God. But, if it is all to mean anything, in joining God you give up clubs. In the context of eternity, the only club is a humanity from all time united in the divine. As one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury, William Temple, put it, the Church is the only organisation that exists exclusively for the benefit of its non-members. What HTB and Alpha sell, in common with much of the evangelical Church, is not so much access to faith as a lifestyle choice. Never has a point so comprehensively been missed. And never, outside politics, has spin-culture enjoyed such a success. Nearly four million people around the world had done an Alpha course between its inception in 1993 and 2001. Yet overall church attendance continues to fall. The question that is seldom raised is whether these two factors are in any way related. Is it just possible that HTB-style Alpha, with its away-weekend in the Midlands where course-members are invited to greet the Holy Spirit in circumstances that border on mass hysteria, repels those for whom the most evident and visible acts of evangelism in the Christian church appear to embrace cultism and psychological abandonment? You can recruit huge numbers to a sect, but it remains a sect.

My second example demonstrates the evangelical Church’s confusion between advertising and PR, which further feeds the vacuity of spin-culture. The Churches Advertising Network (CAN) in the late-Nineties represented the mainstream Christian Churches in the UK with poster campaigns aimed at delivering the gospel message as though it was a brand of lager. Thus the Virgin Mary ahead of Christmas was zanily cast as having a ‘bad hair day’ because she was giving birth to the messiah in a stable with oriental kings in attendance. For the Easter of 1999, CAN launched posters that featured Christ in a pastiche of the iconic Che Guevara student posters of the late-Sixties. The crown of thorns replaced the beret and the catchline read: ‘Meek. Mild. As if. Discover the real Jesus. Church. April 4.’

Predictably enough, the treatment led to howls of protest. Christians claimed it was unfair to Christ who, as God incarnate, is somewhat above politics. As for politics, the CAN offended the entire spectrum. The Tories’ Christian voice, Ann Widdecombe – no stranger to the media; witness her invitation to the media to attend her conversion to Rome – remarked thoughtfully that we shouldn’t be modelling Christ on ourselves, so much as ourselves on Christ, while unreconstructed Marxists remarked that it was all a bit unfair on Che. Widdecombe is considerably more serious a politician than spin-culture allows, but in intuitively pursuing a theological point, she missed the more prosaic commercial one. Was this an advertising or a public relations campaign? If it was the former, then it was about a sales effort (bums on pews) and experience shows that it was a failure. If it was a PR issue, then it was (or should have been) about managing the Christian issue, which is a theological aim. On this count it would have failed too, because it focused attention on the outrage of the image, rather than the revolutionary content of its message.

If marketing is about identifying and satisfying a demand in the market, then its communications can be identified as being about creating the demand. The CAN didn’t appear to know what it was doing beyond making a noise, which is a characteristic failure of spin-culture. The CAN efforts on behalf of the Christian Churches was about opportunities to see (as marketers rate poster-campaign effectiveness) rather than having anything to say. Which in terms of the potential import of the Christian message must count as one of the greatest communications missed opportunities of all time. In any event, the CAN proved all too mortal and faded away. It was not ever thus. The apostles, albeit closer to the event of the resurrection but without recourse to modern communication beyond the spoken and written word and with little concept of image, spread the gospel throughout the Hellenic and Roman world and converted the emperor Constantine early in the fourth century. In those days you could get thrown to lions for your evangelism.

In a spin-culture two millennia later, the potency of Truth is subsumed beneath image, style and effect. The result, for far too many who explore the nature of their faith, is that those who appear to be in charge of its propagation are, as one 13-year-old put in research for this book, ‘cheesy’. In seeking to make Christianity more exciting, perversely its new evangelists make it more boring. The result is that the Church is failing to communicate with the most potent of messages. In spin-culture it falls victim, as has politics, to the desire to be admired and seen rather than heard. And the Church doesn’t see that. But for Christ’s sake it had better start looking.