I felt a little dead on the inside. Thrice.
The first moment was when I heard Iggy & The Stooges’ song “Lust for Life” on a commercial for Carnival Cruise Lines. Not too sure if the ad agency knew that particular song’s catchy chorus is part of a song about a heroin user. The second was when “Blitzkreig Bop,” the anthem of teen angst by the Ramones that more or less started the punk movement, was used to hawk Diet Pepsi (even if it was kinda cool that Diet Pepsi soda cans were punks in the commercial).
We’ve all been there.
Like when The Beatles song “Revolution” was used to sell sneakers.
Or when Led Zeppelin sold us a Cadillac with “Rock and Roll.”
But the third time sent me over the edge: When Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the furious and anarchistic Sex Pistols licensed their song “Anarchy in the U.K.” for the video game Guitar Hero III.
Look. I’ve got no beef with a rock band making lots of cash with their art. I’m all for a merger of art & commerce and believe that artists should benefit from what the market will give them…and especially so with the Sex Pistols (who were the naive victims of unscrupulous businessmen and lost nearly all their money to swindlers). I’m glad that Johnny was likely able to make more money of licensing royalties for that video game than he ever would’ve through a standard record contract back then.
But it seemed wrong somehow. Like buying “authentic punk memorabilia” at the mall.
And the reason it seemed wrong is that, while the next generation will get to hear the music for the first time, the MEDIUM they’re getting art is the MESSAGE they’re getting.
Let me explain.
When I first heard “Mommy’s Little Monster” by Social Distortion, it was on vinyl, on a record player, in my room with headphones on. It put words to what I’d been feeling in an aggressive and angst-filled manner that, well, spurred me to some sort of action. The next thing I know, I’m running into other people who felt it, too. We went to the same shows at the same clubs and were part of a tribe. The music and the band and the scene and the people all merged into one big melting pot. And the reason it stuck with us (and still does, to an extent) is that the MEDIUM WAS THE MESSAGE.
See, rock bands of the day, like Pink Floyd, were putting together elaborate shows in arenas where they literally built an 80 foot brick wall and had lasers and lights and all sorts of special effects. You went and you became a spectator in a theater. Everybody who liked the music showed up and got treated to all the bells and whistles and got great guitar solos and all that. Big ads in the paper, big marketing agencies behind the bands, big promoters…all very corporate and entertainment-driven.
Punk was different.
We had our dingy clubs. The bands didn’t play solos and stripped everything out of songs that wasn’t necessary…sometimes even the bridge or the chorus! No lighting rigs or fancy guitars or effects pedals or hydraulic lifts. The MEDIUM used to communicate to us was the MESSAGE. We were small in number, fringe, even. Like the clubs that band played in. We were angry. Like the music. We weren’t looking to be entertained, so the music-first approach appealed to us. Again, the MEDIUM was the MESSAGE.
Say it again.
The MEDIUM is the MESSAGE.
And churches don’t realize this. A perfect example is a church in our area recently built a 100,000 square foot 10-story building for their church home. Now, it isn’t my cup o’ tea, but if that’s what they believe God’s asking them to do let’s let that stay between them and God. But after the news agencies got wind of the big opening with all sorts of big name pastors coming to speak, the pastor was quoted as saying, “We wanted people not just to see a building but to feel God.” Okay, I’ll take him at his word, even if my suggestion for people to feel God would lean more toward sitting beside a river or on a mountaintop or on a beach. But he missed the reality that his building was the message.
The people who come to his church because of the cool building will leave later on when a better building comes along. Same for people who choose a church because of the playland for the kids, or the worship pastor or the course that was offered. The method you use to attract people will be the method you keep people because the medium and the message are the same thing.
So, if people are attracted to bells & whistles, you have to keep making a bigger/better deal out of the bells & whistles.
We do this with our buildings. We build them as we might an arena. We have a stage where the worship band and pastor are up front with an amphitheater seating arrangement, complete with big sound systems and video screens and lighting. Architecture matters and says something. Remember when old cathedrals had amazingly high steeples? Why? To draw the eyes toward God. The medium was the message. Ever asked the question as to what the modern architecture/design of our suburban American churches says about our message? Hint: it might fall toward comfort, passivity & consumerism.
We do this with our sermons. It’s well documented that you don’t remember much of sermons you hear, even if you’re a note-taker like me. Want me to prove it? Tell me something you learned from last week’s. Got something? Okay. Three weeks ago. Five weeks ago. The monologue sermon is a part of our spiritual growth, to be sure. Hey, I’m a sermon geek and listen to 3 per week minimum. But to put so much energy and effort into it as the be-all, end-all of learning the spiritual life seems like spinning our wheels.
We do this with our seminaries. We have lecture formats and train ministers to be professional according to our definition of professional and then wonder why our churches look like they do.
And, most importantly, we do this with us. Our very lives are our message. Paul said that. We are “living letters.” The things we emphasize to ourselves and our children, the values we hold, the dreams we dream, the love we show…the medium of our lives is the message.
And, yes. I’ve been the beneficiary of these realities both personally and professionally. So, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they don’t help people in their journey. Not at all.
Say it with me, this time for emphasis: I’M NOT SAYING THEY DON’T HELP people in their journey. Hey, I like air-conditioning here in Texas. I like a good cup of joe while I’m listening to the sermon/music in a church service. I loved my seminary professors (some of them, anyway). My life is better because of the journey I’ve walked with people I care about greatly.
I’m saying it’s okay to question the MESSAGE our MEDIUM sends and re-think how and why we do things…because folks are picking up on the MESSAGE our MEDIUMS send out.
Why not rearrange our buildings to say something about how we value community? We did a little thing at the church I used to work for that I thought was great: Instead of communion on brass trays with grape juice and plastic cups, we put tables with elders to lead smaller groups in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. A small change…but one that made a healthy statement. Could we arrange our buildings with a community emphasis? Things like soup kitchens or clothes dispensaries or medical clinic or automotive mechanic availability, etc.?
Why not have interactive sermons? Why not more film and theology discussions? Why not have a Sunday where families stay home and read the word and pray together? Why not have beer & theology groups that meet in pubs on various nights? Who says it has to be all on Sundays or Wednesdays?
Why not make seminaries more like one professor who basically leads life groups of 10-15 students and trains them for ministries?
Why not make deep community, love among people, as our ultimate apologetic? And provide/design ways to establish authentic community rather than successful programs? Even at the expense of successful programs?
Because, frankly, the MEDIUM is the MESSAGE. I can’t say it enough.
And, like the kid who hears a punk song on a video game can never really HEAR the message (because the message is how to get points and win, and when you think about it, it’s the very opposite of learning how to be an artist and express a point of view through that medium)…
…a person who is drawn by any anything less than Christ won’t either.
Your thoughts, patrons?