Revisiting Calvin, Hobbes, McLuhan & Church Marketing

kinnon —  August 7, 2008 — 6 Comments


I heard Marshall McLuhan speak at the University of Toronto when I was in my final year of High School. The medium is the message, I think, or was it the message is the medium, hmmm. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t messages from mediums.

It was a truly momentous occasion. At least, it should have been. I understood the language he was speaking. His concepts, ideas and conclusions, however, were way over the head of an 18 year old more concerned with who was playing on the next Steely Dan album.

Perhaps if Bill Watterson had begun Calvin and Hobbes 15 years earlier – I would have had a better chance of understanding McLuhan… but then again, probably not.

I was amused and enlightened by this post from Fred Sanders, 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 favourite birthday present being The Complete Calvin and Hobbes Box Set – given to me for my 50th birthday (almost three years ago) as I blog posted here.

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 26-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.”

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 consider 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. (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. [via]

*My Church Marketing series: here, here, here, here, here and here. You might also enjoy A Little Retail Aversion Therapy and It Really Isn’t Funny.

Calvin and JobsAside: Perhaps Calvin and Jobs is more representative of the present Zeitgeist. (Click on the pic for a larger version.)

Note: The bones of this post were ripped from the archives of these non-achievable ends – appearing in a less edited form in August 2007.



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.

6 responses to Revisiting Calvin, Hobbes, McLuhan & Church Marketing

  1. What has happened is that the church has replace the medium of people’s lives with the medium of technology. The Gospel is personal, not technological. Where technology should be used, it should be to enhance the personal, not to replace it.

  2. At the Image conference a couple of years ago, Kathleen Norris mentioned a pastor in Arizona who had boasted that he wanted folks to feel as comfortable coming to church as they did going to the mall. Norris quipped that she wanted to write him a letter thanking him for raising the next generation of Orthodox and Catholic converts.

  3. Thanks Bill – as a fan of both McLuhan and Calvin & Hobbes – it is great to see them linked in your thoughts.

    Thanks for digging up the archived post. I often wish Marshall was around to give his thoughts on Facebook, Twitter etc. I think I can figure it out, but he would have said it so much better.

  4. heh … I’m currently reading “Rapture Ready” … or trying to. It’s very difficult. The reading isn’t, but the message is hard to swallow. It’s written by a 30-ish NY Jew who wandered into the evangelical sub-culture for a year to see what it was like. This book is the result of the wandering. I’ll just say that the book makes your blog post look like encouragement for the church. And leave it at that.

    BTW … my 11 yo son absolutely loves C & H. He also has the complete collection and is constantly poring over them and brings them to us to read, etc. He’s convinced that the greatest cartoonists are named “Bill” so … you have an aspiring career ahead of you.

  5. Look. One page dedicated to Calvin, Hobbes, Watterson and the Culture.

    link to

  6. 11.0
    Homo Modernus
    believes that Image
    is a new language.

    But if religion was the opium of the masses,
    Style is the opium of sophistication.

    Medium was the message
    and man, his own style.
    But at present,
    Style is the Message,
    and man, the medium.

    This has Sovietised personality,
    creating a Stakhanovist need for originality.

    from Homo Modernus, Tratatus Philosophicus


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