Bags of Bran

Selling Things to Christians
November 20, 2015, 2:30 pm
Filed under: Destined to get me in trouble, Personal Adventures

I grew up in a smokers’ home, so there was a time when the smell of smoke was transparent to me. I had no idea that my home smelled like anything, or that I smelled like anything, until one day a friend told me. Even then, I couldn’t smell it; but he could, and that was a turning point in my self-awareness at around age 9.

Today, at age 40, I can’t stand the smell. I’ve become so sensitive to it that I can be driving down the Interstate with the windows up and smell smoke coming from other vehicles. Ick.

Similarly, I’m pretty unplugged from media these days. I generally don’t watch TV or movies, and even when they’re on in front of me, I’m generally not watching them in a participatory sort of way, I’m trying to analyze them. What are these people trying to sell me? What are they arguing for? What do they value? What is the nature of their appeal? It sounds cynical because it is: I reflexively begin from a position of distrust toward a person on a screen telling me something, especially if there are multiple layers of appeal (read: marketing) assailing me simultaneously.

Many (most?) people get all of their information from people talking on screens. There is an entire symbol set that corresponds to the different way that such people think. It constitutes a grammar, and much like we don’t consider grammar when we’re engaged in casual conversation, we see right through those symbol sets to the things symbolized. Screens, as it were, speak our language; and accompanying aesthetic elements such as hairstyles and clothing on the speakers, background music, and cinematography are all employed to give credibility to the message.

Much like I have to work harder to get meaning from Elizabethan English, people who get all their information from people talking on screens would have a tougher time with propositions. You can read about media ecology if you want to understand this better.

I say all that to bring to your attention this video, where Francis Chan pitches his book, Erasing Hell. I’ve not read the book, but that’s more or less irrelevant to my point here, because I’m not analyzing the book. What I’m analyzing is how Chan and his publisher present the book. First, they chose video, rather than printed word or even static pictures. Second, you may notice that Chan and his clothing are the only things in color and in focus in the video. Third, Chan is not speaking in propositions, he’s speaking in the language of therapy; talking about his journey through this topic and what he’s learned. His motions are precisely choreographed. Fourth, there is that amorphous Muzak thrumming away generically–almost transparently–in the background.

I am not denigrating Chan’s pastoral concerns, nor am I calling his earnestness into question. I share his concerns, to some extent, even if I disagree with his conclusions. But this video is telling us more than that the doctrine of hell is actually in the Bible. It’s telling you how to feel. It’s telling you how to feel about Francis Chan. It’s telling you how to feel about Chan’s book. It’s telling you how to feel about the topic of Chan’s book. Now, considering that this is a marketing video: what are you supposed to do with those feelings?

Are Chan et al. manipulating your emotions? I will leave that to your judgment; but at the very least, let’s acknowledge that they are making a very strenuous appeal to your emotions.



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For my MBA coursework (from a Christian university), one of the first courses that I took was in marketing. I dared to ask the question on the forum about the ethics of creating a need – is it right for a Christian to manipulate people into “needing” something? I was lambasted as “anti-business” by some of the students…

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Comment by C A Watson

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