Screensaver

A much younger guy who is also a techie asked my opinion regarding the Mac (Apple Macintosh). He just got hired in this outfit that uses Macs and wanted to know my two cents regarding the good and bad about them. I generally have good comments about Macs having occasionally used them. So we looked at the pros and the cons and compared them with PCs and so on. Then the penultimate question: “If a Mac is that good, why don’t I have one?”

I replied that it was 1) expensive, 2) more expensive and 3) very expensive (the biggest con). Besides being a cheapskate, I was also a techie who changes motherboards as often as I would change socks, and the PC’s open architecture makes that easy. His final question was; “If that was not an issue—whether I can afford it or have access to it—would I use one?”

“Definitely!” was my quick enthusiastic reply. Then I paused. There was this nanosecond of silence, as my mind drifted into space groping for words. My young friend somehow intuited that there was some sage advice coming and paused as well. For two fast talking techies high on caffeine, it was a definitive moment of silence. I finally added, “Yeah, I’ll use it all right…but I won’t worship it.”

The kid's face lit up, "Yeah—that’s it! That's the word! You see, at the office where I work at? It feels like I joined a cult!"

The Mac as a cultural phenomenon does have “cultic” characteristics. There are users groups and Mac clubs which exhibit those characteristics. In contrast, there are no PC clubs—if ever, what you have for the PC/Windows world is the opposite (www.annoyances.org). Quite of a number of reflections are online in the internet discussing precisely that (Wired News). The dynamics are so similar to religion that they are both occasionally used as crossover metaphors for each other. Umberto Eco, Italian columnist, compares the Mac to Roman Catholicism and PCs to Protestantism (La bustina di Minerva. Espresso, September 30, 1994).

Now while religion may help understand the cultural phenomena of computers, the reverse is also true. In the late 1980s, Apple spokesperson Guy Kawasaki studied in Billy Graham’s school of evangelism to learn techniques on how to convert people. He was the definitive “Mac Evangelist.” The title, “Mac Evangelist” already existed before Kawasaki came on board Apple, but his zeal for the Mac brought out its full meaning. A professing Christian, Guy Kawasaki combined his knowledge of evangelism and marketing (Creating Customer Evangelist 2002).

Perhaps that combination facilitated in developing that cultic culture giving the Mac community a sense of being a religion. Of course, the marketplace is full of other communities where in varying degrees brand worship takes place (visit any users group on the web and you would know what I mean). It is only the level of organization that the Mac community has made it a little more obvious.

So is this phenomenon simply a copycat of religion? Or is it a mirror of what is going on in religion, Christianity in particular?

About 30 years earlier, Bill Bright—founder of Campus Crusades for Christ—would use marketing techniques to share the Gospel by packaging it into what we now know as The Four Spiritual Laws. Since then, a trend in evangelism has evolved packaging the Gospel in presentations like the Navigators’ Bridge and Evangelism Explosion. The way the materials are designed and managed (there is a system of training where “franchising” screams out) reminds me of the sales kits we were being trained to use to sell encyclopedias. Before I finally landed a guidance counselor job in my own alma mater (Philippine Christian University), I did the rounds scouring the want-ads for any job around and one option was to be an encyclopedia salesman. I passed the initial interview and did some preliminary training before I decided it was not for me. But I did get an earful in those days when they were trying to sell me the idea of being a salesman. It gave a sense of dejá vù.

The bigger picture as one looks beyond evangelism shows that there is this marketing of Christianity that has continued to evolve into an enterprise. Thus the use of evangelism to sell Macs is nothing more than a full circle made complete. It is the consummation of the courtship and marriage of religion and free enterprise, incarnating what Richard Halverson, former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, said:

“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.”

That marriage now seems to be the norm and the rise of direct selling companies like Amway which is interestingly enough populated by Christians, blurring further the lines between marketing and sharing the Gospel. Is there anything wrong with that? I am not sure. For one thing, the Christian witness in the marketplace is a cause to cheer and rejoice but at the same time, the witness of the marketplace in Christianity that bothers me. As I try to read between the lines of what Richard Halverson said, he is definitely saying something beyond stating a fact. The thoughts of another Christian comes into mind—Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” (1964). This particular thought simply states that the medium is not neutral—it alters the message. As the Gospel is “packaged” into a medium or is “marketed” something is altered.

The marketplace is defined by the bottom line—the Return of Investment (R.O.I.)—which in the case of enterprise equates to the profit. For the Church, which is technically a non-profit organization, the R.O. I. is an entirely different thing. But like businesses, it can be and still are numbers. The success in making disciples of all nations or preaching the Gospel to the world is quantifiable by numbers. And already, many Christians are playing this numbers game. As sales or marketing representatives have their quotas, many Christians are defined by some blurb that includes a “vision” and a number (“Vision1234”); take a Biblical concept and add a numeric goal for—say—20,000 new converts, or 200 new churches, or take over the nation by the year 2000…whatever.

Because the Gospel is now riding on that marketing medium, it has to be efficient or cost-effective giving rise to evangelism and marketing techniques. Gospel presentations have now become a sales pitch complete with “satisfied customers” testimony. In so doing, it leaves out the part of the Gospel that is “counterproductive,” which is the call to count the cost and the call to sacrifice.

Jesus would have flunked in a modern evangelism technique course. He had this habit of scaring away prospects with statements like “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nest, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) or being preoccupied following up an unlikely prospect like the single lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). And inversely, if the Rich Young Man (Mark 10:17) walked into a modern church posing the exact same question he asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He would have heard something like, “Accept Jesus into your heart” without his materialistic issues being dealt with.

The Rich Young Man could very well end up like what would happen in this Bill Gates’ joke: “Bill Gates died and upon entering the pearly gates, was offered the option of choosing heaven or hell. Heaven was presented as a country pasture (boring!) and hell was presented as this beach party complete with bikini clad girls and a rock band (cool!). Bill Gates chose hell and found himself in fire and brimstone! He complained ‘Hey! What happened to the chicks and the party?’ To which the reply was, ‘Oh that? It was just a screen saver.’”

We have gone a long way from the approach of medieval Roman Catholicism where they scared the daylights out of people with threats of purgatory or hell just to get them to turn to God (or buy indulgences). Modern Christianity today in its desire to spread the Gospel has become captive to that goal and has gone the other extreme reducing its message to a screen saver. It is nothing more than a pretty picture.

The truth of the Gospel can stand for itself, we do not need to scare or impress people into salvation. Ultimately, just as medieval Christianity devolved into a big extortion scam, modern Christianity need to pay attention that it is not becoming—if it is not already—the big enterprise spoken about by Richard Halverson. Just as I would not want to have anything to do with the Christianity that came from the Dark Ages, neither would I want to have anything to do with one lit up in klieg lights.

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