This weekend, we saw yet again the depressingly common sight of Christians a-flutter in the British media over mis-treatment. In this instance, it wasn’t red cups, gay cakes, or cross necklaces that were drawing attention but an advert. For prayer.
Admittedly, it’s a fairly brilliant ad.
The Church of England intended to air it in cinemas across the land before Star Wars. But the advertising agency that distributes advertisements has a policy that says they turn down political and religious ads in all instances.
Since this is a prayer in which those who say it pledge allegiance to the world’s true King, it is both religious and political and Digital Cinema Media said no thanks.
They may regret that decision now as David Cameron, the humanoid in charge of England said that the move was ridiculous. I doubt he’d think it ridiculous if UKIP had an ad blocked under the same policy. A body called the Equality and Human Rights Commission weighed in and said freedom to hold a religion and express ideas were “essential British values.” When Britons find that Jesus despises self righteous pomposity, those who advocate for “British values” will be much slower to speak. Even the moderator of my own church, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, has decided to weigh in on the dreadful ban. He said “undoubtedly many Christians will be dismayed by this decision.”
I am dismayed by many things, petty, tiny silly things. About 5 months ago I got an email from a university administrator informing me that air heaters were not permitted in our offices. I never owned an air heater and never wanted to but I was dismayed by this silly little email. I still regularly bring it up with my wife, to remind her of the suffering I bear.
I am not making this up.
But still, I am not dismayed that a company has policies that occasionally get revealed as a touch narrow and impolitic. That’s the problem with policies and principles and guidelines. They keep being confronted with complex reality and they fall to pieces. Like that ban on air heaters after I spent £1500 buying a truckload of them and distributing them willy nilly around the campus. I am not dismayed that a corporation run for profit in the entertainment industry wants to avoid getting into conversations about politics and religion. They have sexy ice-cream and efficiency wristwatches to sell. No one wants to be troubled by thoughts of forgiveness right before they go to see the latest revenge-fascism hit starring Denzel Washington. In England today, people go hungry because of austerity politics. Britain is currently engaged in at least four wars, none of which can be justified by any stretching of the Christian tradition. The Church of England is an established church, operating under the auspices of the theocrat Elizabeth II. There are many things for British Christians to be doing. Threatening to sue because us nerds dressed up as Ewoks don’t get to see an ad for prayer before being utterly devastated by the crapness of the new Star Wars is not one of them. If the Christian God is so loving, how could he have allowed Jar Jar Binks into the world? That’s a question the Church of England might as well be debating.
On the Twitter machine I commented that this little distraction would be an opportunity for British Christians to “finally see how talk of ‘secular agendas’ & ‘rights’ is an avoidance of engaging capitalism.” My friend Richie asked me to unpack that a little bit, so that’s why I am writing now, as Wife-unit plays old Oasis tunes and I dream of my leaba.
Whenever you see Christians crying about the difficulty of being Christian – whether it is bakers in Belfast or bishops in Canterbury – notice that the common thread that links these public outrages is the market. Asher’s were selling cakes. The British Airways woman was at work. The red Starbucks cup is nothing but a spasm of market worship crudely camouflaged as a Christian conversation. Here too, we do not have a pure question of free speech but a pure example of purchased speech. That’s what advertising is. Google might let you have an AdWord campaign gratis when you sign up, but that’s true of all drug pushers. The first one is always free.
The Church of England was attempting to purchase space in a cinema broadcast, alongside Hagen Dazs and the iWatch, to peddle its wares. Since you are watching your waistline, try Coke Zero and since you are the kind of person who feels a spiritual lack, try praying. That was the previous slogan of this ongoing advertising campaign. Try praying.
What we see in each of these little media-framed controversies is the capitalist captivity of the church. We cannot understand a way of being without consumption. We cannot conceive of practices that aren’t utterly overwhelmed by marketing. We position our cakes as Biblical and our air hostesses as pious and our coffee cups as festive and now in the worst mistake of all, we present prayer as product. It is the worst mistake because the other controversies were half-baked (so to speak) by fringe groups – parachurches and solitary, devoted evangelicals. This one is the freaking Church of England.
Even more critical, no one thinks opposition to gay marriage or the ability to wear crosses on the job or the design of our coffee cups to be central to the Christian faith. But that’s exactly what the Lord’s Prayer is. It is absolutely central. It is the crux of the faith, so to speak. We can define Christians as people who pray the Our Father. We can define Christians as people who call out to the Lord. If we think it is missional to suggest Try praying we are fooling ourselves about how hard it is to make disciples. It is literally so hard, only God can do it.
Prayer is not a product. It should not be advertised. Christianity is not a brand. It should not be commodified. Our practices shape what we believe. If we continue to confuse being effective salespeople and ethical consumers with faithfulness we will soon no longer remember what it is we believe.
Your Correspondent, Hopes Spock kills Frodo in this new Star Wars