Go and spin no more
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The Death of Spin
Date: October 2002
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John Wiley & Sons.
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.'
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.
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, its a great story. True or not, you cant ignore it.
The trouble starts when it is marketed. Ill 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. Its never the gun, its the gunner.
problem with Alpha is precisely that it emerges through the cultural reredos of
HTB, which being in Knightsbridge and an unravelled turbans length from
Harrods, 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.
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.
example demonstrates the evangelical Churchs 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 shouldnt 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 didnt 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 doesnt see that. But for Christs sake it had
better start looking.