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Sunday, 11 January 2009


Jonathan Bartley in his column in Ekklesia in commenting on the Atheist advertising on the buses in the United Kingdom raises questions about the Christian response by a Bible Society affiliate, Theos, to this campaign, questions that address the issue of the commodification of religion and the need to understand what this really means.

Christians in Australia might care to think about his comments and transpose them to the Australian context. He is I think on to something.

No sooner had the atheist campaign been announced, than Theos – the Bible Society’s thinktank - made a £50 donation. It was of course a public relations stunt which attempted to take the wind out of atheist sails in the ongoing war between some religionists and secularists. But it sought to make a point. They suggested that the adverts would backfire. The campaign would, they said, inevitably point more people in the direction of their own product (faith in God).

Beyond a charge of 'cynicism', nothing much wrong with their tactics many Christians might argue. Except that churches are amongst those who in recent years have been the most vocal critics of consumerism, and the advertising that drives it. Advertising is usually destructive. More often than not advertising is built around creating and fostering a sense of inadequacy or fear, in the hope that the product on offer will be seen as a cure, and bought in large quantities.

Theos chose not to make this point. Quite the reverse in fact. They have instead bought into the advertising strategy. Indeed, it is what they are banking on. They have supported the campaign in the hope that the atheist ads will sow enough doubt and discord to get people looking at their own alternative brand. In their zeal to upstage and subvert their secular opponents, the religionists have taken on the very consumerist values that Christianity ought to stand against.

The atheists it is claimed are poor advertisers for leaving room for diversity of viewpoint, or questioning. “Where did that ‘probably’ come from? It doesn't suggest the sales staff is overly confident about its product” ...

The Christian faith on offer, by implication, seems to be one which leaves little room for doubt. Gone are the notions of spiritual journey, exploration and discovery. But this is a dangerous route to take. Where does it stop? Do we also dispense with Christianity's message of weakness, vulnerability and sacrifice? Turning the other cheek and love of enemies would perhaps have to go too. Such things will only weaken the appeal of our faith in an increasingly competitive market, after all.

... The message must not change to suit the medium. Playing the consumerist game and supporting your opponent's ad campaign because you believe it will work in your favour, isn't the best way to go about it. Better surely to show that your faith can challenge and transform the values of society rather than pander to them.

Bartley suggests that Christians should be into subvertising.

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