Entry from June 30, 2008

The “historic” Episcopal church in the town where I live — it’s historic, by the way, because George Washington worshiped there — recently hung a banner on the elegant wrought-iron railings that top the brick wall around the 18th century churchyard. Suspended just above the spot where a marble slab commemorates thirty-eight Confederate soldiers, former prisoners of war, who lie there in a mass grave, the banner read: “The people of Christ Church lead lives of compassionate significance and prophetic impact. Come share the journey.” Thereupon it guided bemused by-passers to the church’s website — where the lives of its devout parishioners are accounted for in somewhat more sober and conventional language.

The inflated rhetoric of advertising and public relations comes particularly oddly from a church, I think What do these sonorous phrases mean anyway? How do ordinary church-goers “lead lives of compassionate significance”? How is that different from just being compassionate, which seems quite hard enough for most of us? And then, on top of that, they are supposed to have a “prophetic impact”? Like the prophets? Which prophets? Are we to expect the Bible to be revised and expanded in order to accommodate the prophetic impact of so many of the good burghers of Alexandria, Virginia? The idea is ludicrous, and it discredits the church itself that it should allow such piffle to be promulgated in its name.

But this is po mo religion, I suppose, and it takes advantage of the assumption that those engaged in advertising and P.R. have a license to hype. The language is meant as an indication of enthusiasm and excitement on the part of the speaker or writer, which he is attempting to convey to the reader. No one expects it to be taken literally. Or even seriously. It’s just one of the ways, in the particular rhetorical universe we nowadays inhabit, to say: “Rah-rah Christ Church!” Another was tried back in 1999 by a group of churches in Britain which produced a poster modeled on the iconic one of Che Guevara but with a stylized, long-haired Jesus in Che’s place and a stylized crown of thorns in place of the familiar beret. “Meek. Mild. As If” read the legend. “Discover the Real Jesus. Church. April 4.”

By “real,” of course, they meant unreal. The Jesus of pop cultural iconography was about as remote from anything that had ever really existed or could have existed in first century Palestine as it was possible to be. This was obvious, and the ad was widely ridiculed at the time. Some complained that it was blasphemous as well. “Jesus was not crucified for being meek and mild,” replied the Churches Advertising Network. “He challenged authority.” Actually, it could be argued that He was crucified for not challenging (Roman) authority, but the point was to shed a little reflected glory on the Son of God by such an allusion to one of the sacred precepts of the youth culture — never mind that, if Jesus was anything more than a failed revolutionary, he was Himself the ultimate in authority. But the challenge to authority that the ad men had in mind was celebrity, and celebrity’s ability to degrade anything worthy of respect or honor to a mere “icon.” Jesus Christ had already been a Superstar for almost 30 years at that point, so it was a natural transition for Him to make into the revolutionary chic of celebrity politics.

As with compassionate significance and prophetic impact, any effectiveness the ad could have had depended on its not being taken seriously, since it wouldn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. This should be seen as a reminder of the extent to which the celebrity culture amounts to an unspoken media conspiracy never to treat celebrity hype with anything less than complete respect. Thus, when Rolling Stone puts another Superstar (and, perhaps, another Jesus Christ?), Barack Obama, on its cover for the second time and promises a “conversation” in which “the Candidate Talks About The Youth Vote, What”s On His iPod and His Top Three Priorities As President,” we instinctively know that it would be extremely bad form for anyone to point out the incongruity of putting those three conversational topics on a level. “I’ve got to say, having both Dylan and Bruce Springsteen say kind words about you is pretty remarkable,” the candidate told Jann Wenner, the magazine’s publisher. “Those guys are icons.” Well, now they’re all icons together. You can see why Mr Wenner’s editorial endorsement of Mr Obama begins: “The tides of history are rising higher and faster these days. Read them right and ride them, or be crushed.” Come to think of it, the Marxist overtones there may be meant to suggest that Che would have endorsed the junior senator from Illinois as well.

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