Sunday, August 05, 2007

Marketing! Marketing! Marketing!

I was walking with my friend Gabe the other day near Dolores Park in San Francisco and we saw at the entrance two or three meager banners proclaiming "Jesus Christ Is Lord." A little further in, we saw a group of no more than seven people of varying ages, colors, and sexes. There were three boom mikes set up on a stand and behind one of them, a woman in her twenties was singing a song about God or Jesus or salvation or some other such thing. There was no crowd. Only that group of friends gathered ten feet away, standing on the grass and smiling.

Intrigued, I said to Gabe that we should move a little closer. I'm always interested when somebody sings passionately behind a microphone in a public setting and there isn't anybody there to hear them. Sometimes I do shows for smaller audiences and I know it's often easier to perform in front of a full house. You kind of feel like a narcissistic jack-off giving a full on theatrical presentation to eleven people.

Also, I wanted to find out what these guys had done in regards to marketing. Because, admittedly, if you're sporting a banner saying "George Bush Equals Hitler" or "9-11 Was An Inside Job" or "Zionists Go Home", there isn't usually a problem with getting folks around here to come out and "hear the word". A la:

So I went over and asked a guy wearing a "Jesus Christ Is Lord" T-shirt, "How'd you guys go about marketing this event?"

I soon discovered that the word "marketing" was a little inappropriate, not because it was potentially offensive to them, but because the importance of marketing (or converting, or proselytizing) apparently wasn't really of any interest to them. The guy responded, "We don't tell anybody. We just come out here and share the Word. And God guides us."

"So you don't send out an e-mail to other Christian churches or activist groups in the area, you don't hang up fliers around town, you don't try to get listed in the weeklies?" Writing this now, I see how weird all this must have seemed at the time; suggesting that Christianity is suffering from a marketing problem. Or suggesting that the weeklies would promote a gathering of eleven Christians in Dolores Park.

The guy continued, "Everything we need to know can be found right here in the Bible."

Boy, I tell you, that statement really took me back home to my Missouri adolescence. I've always enjoyed getting into it with fundamentalists. And since all the fundamentalists in Missouri are Christian, (this is not to say that all Christians in Missouri are fundamentalists--a common misconception out in the relativistic Wild West of the Bay Area), I felt like a teenager. I haven't gotten into an argument with a Christian in quite a long time. I was young again.

Normally out here I feel old, very detached from the youth (even though I'm only 34) because lately I've been going after Islamic--and not Christian--fundamentalists. Why? Because out here the anti-Christian rhetoric is so rabidly strong and the global effects of fundamentalist Islam are so conveniently glossed over. That's why when I walk by a situation like I did the other day and I see a geographical underdog (white fundamentalist Christians in SF), I feel compelled to root for them. That's why I'm a Mets fan and not a Yankees fan. I love underdogs.

That, and because I'm also able to draw a distinction between the polemical outcomes of fundamentalist Christianity as opposed to fundamentalist Islam.

Fundamentalist Islam will likely get you killed. Fundamentalist Christianity is--well, just kind of stupid. And here's why:

You see, you may not know this, but a long time ago, Christianity had a Reformation. There was a man named Martin Luther who split from the Catholic church because he wanted the Bible and the religious services translated from Latin into the vernacular so that the uneducated masses would be able to individually interpret the scriptures for themselves. Furthermore, he rebelled against the doctrine of papal infallibility which really burned some bridges between himself and the Vatican. After all, here was a man who dared to challenge what at that time was the immutable unquestionability of Catholic expertise in all matters clerical.

From this emerged an alternate--and comparitively liberal--school of Christianity called Protestantism.

Notice the root word: "Protest".

From this initial split, over the course of centuries, Protestantism continued to subdivide into various denominations. There were the Lutherans, of course. A few years later, when King Henry VIII of England wasn't permitted by the pope to get a divorce, the Anglicans (Episcopalians, if you're American) eventually came into being. There were Calvinists. There were Puritans. There were Methodists.

Methodists were especially cool. They were all about radical social reform. In fact, were it not for Methodism, there wouldn't have been the Abolitionist movement of the 1800s which fostered enough Biblical debate on the topic of slavery to ultimately lead Western Civilization to put an end to it.

Then came the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Pentecostals. . .

Things eventually started to get a little nuttier, but in smaller and smaller doses.

The endless subdivision of Protestantism ultimately led to the "crazier" fundamentalist sects. Crazier in methodology and doctrine, but smaller in terms of numbers and less significant in terms of social and political import. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example. Or Mormons. Or Jews For Jesus. Or the Jesus Freaks of the 60s/70s. Or David Koresh.

Historically, the Reformation led to many good things. A cultural Renaissance, for example, which gave birth to great men of genius like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Dante. Once again, Christian abolitionists--an natural outgrowth of the European Christian Enlightenment--helped end slavery. And, of course, Luther's namesake, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a southern Baptist minister, ushered in the postmodern Civil Rights Movement.

And, admittedly, the Reformation also led to some bad things. The Catholics went overboard in retaliation with the Spanish Inquisition. Nut jobs on the East Coast burned a few "witches". Koresh and clan burned themselves to the ground.

But worst of all: It made anybody and everybody (and, by definition, nobody) an expert in Christian doctrine. If one just "felt the call of the lord" and started a church "in His name", one could get an audience (congregation). This is why postmodern Christianity is a lot like the internet. There's a lot of good and a lot of bad. And it takes a good set of eyes to be able to distinguish the two.

So getting back to this conversation. I say to the man with the Bible, "Look. You have to understand where you are. You're in a city with an intellectual and literary tradition in its recent history. There are universities here. This is a very politically left-leaning town. Christianity is not heavily favored here. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but if you just point at that book and say that all truth is to be found in there, nobody in this area is going to listen to you. You're justifying all of their preconceived notions about Christianity being excessively literal and dogmatic."

I knew this was an exercise in futility. But I like a good challenge.

I said, "Look, you really want to get the message of Christ out here in San Francisco? Then start talking about William Blake. Read some Blake poems up there. Quote from John Milton. Assault them with knowledge. Assault them with the creative output of the Christian West. Right now, you're doing what the fundamentalist Islamists do--they point at that Koran over and over and say, 'everything was revealed by Allah in the Holy Qu'ran'. But you guys aren't just Christians. You're white American Christians--you've already got three strikes against you--and because of that you're going to have to work a little harder to get your message across. Pointing to the Bible and declaring it the only fount of wisdom is same thing the radical Islamic clerics perpetuate in regards to Koranic scripture. But out here, they're a 'different culture' that we must try and understand according to the abritrary, contradictory, and hypocritical doctrine of multiculturalism. We can 'think globally and act locally' about everything but that, you see. God is all right if his name is Allah. Just consider the hyperbolic postmodern sentiment that flies in the face of statistics, historical progress, and current events: 'there is no difference between radical Islam and radical Christianity'."

Here's the anti-relativistic caveat: the difference between the two is the cry for jihad against the West.

That, and they teach their children that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs.

In New York, putting a Koran in a toilet is now a felony. Cartoons have to be pulled from circulation whenever demanded, popes have to apologize for speeches given in Germany, and Salman Rushdie shouldn't be knighted. Furthermore, homosexuals are hung on sodomy charges in Iran--

--and women should dress "modestly" according to the precepts of Islamic sharia law--

Elections in Spain swing with exploding trains and buses are set on fire in Paris. And if the fundamentalist Islamists aren't commiting suicide bombings, they're either sanctioning them from the mosques or praising their perpetrators as "glorious martyrs"

Also, in the Bay Area, you're more likely to see a Jew wearing a keffiyah instead of a yarmulke. Yes, Islam is about 700 years behind Christianity historically. But in an age of sophisticated weaponry, it's important to ask, "Would it have been a good thing if Christians from 1200 A.D. had had access to nuclear missiles?"

And the fundamentalist Christians of today? Comical buffoons that nobody takes seriously.

Nobody outside of these isolated circle jerks of "praise" and "worship", that is. Nobody of any serious consquence. Watch Christian TV for a few hours and then ask yourself, is this sort of fundamentalism really a legitimate threat to the movers and shakers in Hollywood, the global news agencies, the academic realm, the bloggers, and among today's youth? No. It's just boring. And old. And phasing itself out of existence by cutting itself off fully from its rich cultural, artistic, and historical traditions.

That's why I kept harping on this guy: "Look, what about the great figures of the Christian Enlightenment? You should be out here quoting from John Locke or Immanuel Kant. Go back to the Catholics and understand the significance of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Erasmus. . .talk about the social activism of the Methodists, the civil rights thrust of the black Southern Baptists. . .or better yet, what about existentialism? Everybody loves existentialism out here. But be sure to remind them that existentialism was a Christian concept and that its founding father was Soren Kierkegaard, a man who wrote extensively about the relationship between faith and reason. And if you really want to impress the folks around here, you should be showing Ingmar Bergman films and discussing his positive portrayal of the Christian faith in works like 'The Winter Light' and 'The Virgin Spring'.

Needless to say, I soon tired after a few more rebuttals of "Everything we need to know is right here in the Bible."

At this point, the girl up front had stopped singing and a guy took her place at the microphone. He testified about being in a gang or in prison or on drugs or something. She looked about college age, so I thought I'd try and sell my intellectual public relations approach to her.

"Hey," I said, "you know, the literalism that guy is espousing over there is really going to hurt you guys. You're not going to be able to sell that to anyone around here. As soon as you point to that Bible, you're fucked."

She smiled. Another difference between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Islamists. I don't know how many patronizing and condescending smiles I've been the recipient of when arguing with fundamentalist Christians. It's kind of a smug, "we know something you don't know" look. It doesn't hurt me--as it might if I suggested the same to a radical cleric in the Middle East about pointing to the Qu'ran and being "fucked". It just annoys me. And it makes me sorry I started talking to them. It's the zombie-esque feeling. "One of us! One of us!" But I get that with every kind of "community" situation.

She said, "But God is all-powerful. God is a big God. He finds a way to get His message out there. We're just His instruments." (Yes, she even capitalized "His" when she spoke")

"But that's such a passive way to go about it," I said, "You're not fighting. You might as well go out here and set yourself on fire. The Crusades, for example, were a defensive Christian reaction against confiscation of vast areas of land and subjugation of native peoples that began shortly after the founding of Islam.

But nowadays, the Crusades are incorrectly portrayed as white Christians arbitrarily persecuting Muslims. All I'm saying is, if you're a Christian and you don't know about the historical, scientific, artistic, and cultural advances that Western Christian civilization has brought into the world--people who aren't Christians are going to rewrite your history for you."

There is some truth to the notion that it's the winners of wars who write history. I don't necessarily disagree with this. But I also believe that it's the people who don't take some sort of interest in their own history who have their histories rewritten for them.

So this girl offered to pray for me. She wanted to do it right then and there. I hate it when they do that. Everything's always public with them. I declined and her friend jumped in and offered, "Let me explain. She has to do this because she feels what God is telling her and God is telling her to pray."

I said, "Look. I don't mind you praying for me. I even pray myself from time to time. But I believe in private prayer. So why don't you wait until we get over that hill and we're out of sight and then you can start praying for me."

She agreed.

And then I said, "But I'll only let you pray for me if you go on the internet tonight and look up William Blake. And read a poem called 'The Lamb' from his 'Songs Of Innocence'. You gotta get in touch with the psychedelic side of Christianity. And Blake is the best place to start. What better definition of Christ is there than the divinity of the individual human and his (OR HER)capacity for artistic creation?"

It's all marketing. And if you're not going to convert anymore--then you have to market.