Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Controversy, Christianity, and Consumer Campaigns

It's hard to be an online Christian these days and not have noticed the brouhaha created by the publicity for Rob Bell's latest book.  While others have commented on the contentious nature of the attacks, and the fact that they have pretty much universally (see what I did there?) been made by people who haven't read the book (which isn't due to be released until the end of the month), and I myself often decry such vitriol, that's not so much what I want to say here.  Rather, I've been thinking about marketing, and what kind of campaign it takes to successfully sell a product.

It's not so much that I'm feeling cynical about Bell's book or his publishers.  While I'm sure that they have been consciously provocative, I don't think anyone could have dreamed that there would be so much buzz about this book.  And even if it is happening because some Christians want to make it clear that they do not think that Bell nor his (apparent) beliefs are within the bounds of orthodoxy, the mantra "there's no such thing as bad publicity" will almost certainly hold true here.  If the self-appointed gate-keepers of Christian orthodoxy hadn't said a thing, Bell's book would undoubtedly be selling fewer copies, and fewer of those who might be led astray by these "heretical" thoughts would ever learn of them, that they might be so tempted.  No amount of planning could have generated the level of response we've seen.  At the most cynical, the marketing folks might have hoped for some of it, but this really has taken on a life of its own.

Even so, it nonetheless should be obvious that controversy sells books (and, indeed, all sorts of stuff).  If you want to be successful, it seems apparent that you need a thick skin.  The successful writer, for example, needs to be able to handle criticism.  This is an area in which I know I'm not as good as I would hope.  When someone gets into an argument with me, I often either become defensive (not good especially when there are indeed valid issues that I need to learn from) or let myself be hurt by the attacks (which means that I'm less likely in the future to say something that might cause offense, even when challenging things need to be said).  A successful writer needs to be able to find that middle ground that allows him or her to keep trying new ideas and communicating them to people who might benefit from them.  If one either "plays it safe" or overreacts to every disagreement that comes along, one neither gains the authority nor notoriety required to be successful.

This should be especially important to Christians.  Although consumerism, in and of itself, should not be our aim, fidelity to proclaim the gospel requires that we understand some of these principles if we want the gospel to be heard.  If we really do believe that we have a message that people need to hear, then we need to find that balance between defensiveness and vulnerability that allows us to say things that might be controversial while not being so bull-headed that people simply stop listening to us (or buying our books!).  I don't know if Rob Bell's beliefs are "orthodox" or not, but he certainly seems to be demonstrating that he can handle the criticism that has been sent his way so far.  Whether or not we agree with him, perhaps we can learn from that.

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