Calvin, Hobbes, McLuhan, Green & Church Marketing

kinnon —  August 21, 2007 — Leave a comment


I heard Marshall McLuhan speak at the University of Toronto when I was in my final year of High School. It was a truly momentous occasion. At least, it should have been. I understood the language he was speaking. The concepts, ideas and conclusions were over the head of someone more concerned with who was playing on the next Steely Dan album – rather than on ideas critical to western thought. Perhaps if Bill Watterson had begun Calvin and Hobbes 15 years earlier – I would have had a better chance of understanding McLuhan…or not.

Challies points to this post from Fred Sanders this morning that is definitely worth the read, What You Can Learn from Calvin and Hobbes about the Message and the Medium. My family and I are huge fans of Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. My most favourite birthday present ever was receiving The Complete Calvin and Hobbes Box Set for my 50th birthday (almost two years ago) as I blog posted here. (Note that I’ve used the same graphic in both posts. ‘Tis one of my favourites.)

Sanders speaks of Watterson’s resistance to creating the marketing juggernaut that Calvin and Hobbes could have become. He then deftly moves the discussion to the marketing of the church.

Marshal McLuhan may have overstated the case when he pronounced that “the medium is the message,” but he surely indicated the way that what you say is entangled with how you say it. If you want to make a statement about people in relationships over time, you had better not try saying it on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Communicators need to understand their message well enough, organically enough, to pick an appropriate medium for getting it across. Insensitivity to the medium-message connection is what makes most pop music so bathetic when it attempts profundity.

It also explains why the Christian message seems so bizarre and irrelevant when it is communicated via slogans, marketing campaigns, fashion, and advertising knick-knacks. Pointing this out hardly qualifies me for prophet status; any sensitive person confronted with the modern Christian marketing machine is bound to feel queasy.

Sanders then cites the prophetic voice of 25-years-dead Keith Green,

It pains me to see the beautiful truths of Scripture being plastered about like beer advertisements. Many think it is wise to “get the word out” in this way but, believe that we are really just inoculating the world with bits and pieces of truth – giving them their “gospel shots.”

Then Sanders returns to Calvin and Hobbes,

Watterson was worried that the very existence of these products would sap the power from the real thing; that a million Calvin window decals would make the Calvin comic strip harder to read. It’s possible that too many ineffective Jesus reminders all over the place might have a degrading effect on our ability to read Jesus where he really is. The only way to know if that’s the case is to know our message as well as Watterson knew his. Watterson could spot a deviation from the integrity and fullness of the Calvin and Hobbes mystique in an instant. Do modern Christians have senses so well trained, or a grasp of the gospel message so acute, that we can spot such deviations?

Although less focused on Jesus Junk than Sanders, I’ve written my own series on Church Marketing* that you might find worth reading, although my cartoons leave much to be desired in light of Watterson or Fred Sanders – and as odd as being self-referential is, allow me to quote myself in the conclusion to that series:

…the church isn’t marketable. Programs, conferences, services even, may be –  but the church itself is not. I understand that this a polemical statement. And there will be those who vehemently disagree.

The church is a people who pick up their crosses and follow Jesus. It is a people who forget about themselves as they pour out their lives for others. It is the way of discipleship – becoming like Jesus – who laid down his life for his friends…and enemies. It is not about "living your best life now" or any other such silly talk. (Ed: Or tee-shirt slogans, gospel trinkets, FLASHy websites or other such crap.)

Marketing presupposes a product or service to market. The church is neither. It is a living breathing organism that exists for those outside of it.

Would that those of us engaged in communicating the truth of the Gospel had the integrity of a Bill Watterson:

I’m convinced that licensing would sell out the soul of Calvin and Hobbes. The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens.

*My Church Marketing series: here, here, here, here, here and here.

UPDATE: Of course, a proper understanding of the Gospel can be helpful in marketing closet organization.

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

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