Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Let There Be Lite

And lo, it was written in the second book of Priest Idol (Channel 4) that the marketing men (Julian and Steve) came down from the mountain and said 'Church Lite! You know it makes sense!' and 'Church Lite! It washes whiter!'
Actually, they said neither. They said 'Church Lite. It's better for you!' which I thought was rather weak.

The Archdeacon got more agitated about the spelling than the principle. '"Lite' is American" he said. "Well I'm American", replied the pale and uninteresting curate James, who has been sent by God to save a Barnsley parish from bingo, binge-drinking and buggery. (We haven't yet seen any evidence of the last in Barnsley but I ran out of Bs).

James would be perfect casting for the Dustin Hoffman role in a re-make of The Graduate. But one can't quite see any of the ladies of the Parochial Church Council in the Anne Bancroft role. Neither prosthetics nor depilation techniques have progressed quite that far. Then again, one could believe that Dustin Hoffman had reached the other side of puberty whereas with James one can't be entirely sure.
"I've kissed more women in the last two weeks than in my entire life", he said, which may explain why he often has a rather shell-shocked expression. His High Camp - sorry, High Church - predecessor had set a challenging benchmark in the kissing stakes. One noticed that he kissed some of the ladies of the parish on the lips as well as the cheek in a rather theatrical way. Only a gay man can get away with that kind of thing. Or a priest. Or a gay priest. But I'm not implying anything by that.

A voice coach has been teaching James to sing. She made him say 'fluffy, floppy, puppy'. I think 'portly, poofy prelates' would have worked equally well. But I'm still not implying anything.

Jonathan, the Archdeacon, assisted the makeover by arriving at James's house and making him try on some fab new vestments. He flung open the wardrobe to reveal a collection of garments that Elton John had probably rejected as too outrageous.
James said that a lurid pink number looked 'Moo Moo'. He explained that in America this meant something worn by fat people. I didn't believe him for one moment, not least because if that were true then half the population of America would be walking around in billowing, pink, embroidered smocks.
James was eventually persuaded to try something in magnolia, or possibly ivory, that matched his complexion. "Lift your arms up!" shouted Jonathan who was clearly enjoying himself, before reaching down some giant hat boxes and producing a black hat of such flamboyance that if James ever wore it outside his closet there'd be a traffic pile-up on the streets of Barnsley.
I'm still not implying anything.

In the circumstances, the reason that James gave for sometimes pining for Pittsburgh seemed slightly disingenuous. "I'm tired of having to say my 't's. I just want to say 'bu_er' and 'wa_er' and be an American sometimes."
Now I know that Barnsley is a long way from the Thames Estuary but I can't believe it's not bu_er in Barnsley just as it is in the rest of this consonant-lite country. The remark suggests James has some way to go before connecting with street culture.

The serious point in this gem of a documentary series is whether the church should embrace modern marketing techniques. I'm not sure this particular experiment will give a definitive answer, if only because 'Church Lite' is so sickeningly cheesy.

Surely the unique selling point of religion is that it offers depth and meaning to life. It's the very antithesis of 'lite'. And I say that as an atheist, for God's sake.

Another atheist has just put a comment on my last review of 'Priest Idol'. He says:

"I find the increasing commodification of every aspect of human life repellent. To reduce Christian thought to a brand is to cheapen not just the church but all of humanity. If the most sacred and profound beliefs can be replaced with slogans and marketing demographics then we are truly without hope. If getting people through the doors at any cost is the answer, then turn Church into a shopping mall, but this seems to miss the point somehow. If we are more godless as a nation these days it is precisely because we have devalued everything through relentless marketing. To "sell" God this way is to truly make a pact with the devil."

I think that's a valid point. Modern capitalism doesn't just 'commidify' everything. It also turns everything and everybody into a 'brand'. It's not just the church in Barnsley that is being 'rebranded'. It's also James the curate. Although James is never going to set the world on fire, there's an honesty and authenticity about him that should not be lightly sacrificed. Or should that be 'litely' sacrificed? Actually James is so lite already, both physically and in personality, that if they make him any liter he'll float away over the Barnsley rooftops like Mary Poppins.

The one element in all this that the marketing men haven't attempted to rebrand is Barnsley itself. And in the tourist industry today, every city, town and village is a brand. Local authorities and tourist boards spend millions of pounds every year attempting to rebrand places. But how do you rebrand something that has evolved over hundreds or even thousands of years?
Well, in so far as you can, it's because advertising deals in image rather than reality. And therein lies the problem of rebranding something like religion which, like a place, has evolved over time and has many layers of reality, ritual, folklore and perceptions.
Marketing places and marketing churches both present a different challenge from marketing most consumer brands. Most consumer products are taken to the consumer via the shelves of their local supermarket. With places and churches you have to persuade the consumer to come to you, which involves a much higher degree of commitment and investment of time. And in both cases a false prospectus is going to seriously backfire, whether you're selling Luton as Las Vegas or a church as a branch of Starbucks.

You can drop the dreary hymns and turn the Lady Chapel into a chill-out zone but eventually reality will break through the snappy slogans.
Religion isn't only about love and happy-clappy hokum. It's about sin and guilt and the everlasting fires of Hell. It's frequently about a denial of gender equality and the sinfulness of both homosexuality and sex outside marriage and the assertion of the primacy and unique truthfulness of your own religion over all other religions or belief systems.
They might not express it in quite those terms but deep down the secular working class of Barnsley, existing in a convivial, and mostly non-criminal, fraternity of pubs and clubs and bingo, know the true nature of religion with as much certainty as they know that Luton is not Las Vegas and Budget Cola is not Coke and margarine is not butter.


At 6:08 PM, Blogger zaphod said...

And I say that as an atheist, for God's sake.


At 8:38 PM, Blogger David Bullock said...

I am very flattered to be directly quoted. I also agree with your observations.

At 8:46 PM, Anonymous bigalwhittle said...

I thought it was a fascinating programme.

and equally I thought your comments are very perceptive and acute.

I suppose in a way its about England. The Victorians were so bloody successful. and we are stuck with their buildings, their values, and much else - long after their occasionally admirable aspects were adequate for the modern age.

The education system they left us held together with floggings and pointless respect for dead languages and dead icons, is in pretty much the same shape as the religion.

we do need a spiritual aspect to our lives. The timid well meaning attempts of this American priest have been inspiring to watch


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