Monday, September 25, 2006

"God Is Still Speaking" Psychoanalyzed

Back in Advent 2004 and Lent 2006, the United Church of Christ's "God Is Still Speaking" campaign generated a lot of publicity and controversy with its 30-second "Bouncer" and "Ejector" commercials.

The spots created a wave of discussion and analysis. I even wrote a 22-page theological critique of the campaign that was presented at Faithful & Welcoming Churches national gathering in August.

Now, the God Is Still Speaking campaign is getting psychoanalyzed.

Yes, really.

Dr. Howard Schwartz, professor of management at Oakland University (located in Michigan, not California) has posted a paper probing the psychological reasons that the UCC leadership, despite reason, forged ahead with its advocating and adversarial Still Speaking commercials.

I'll tell you what, if anyone involved with Still Speaking campaign reads it, they won't like it.

The still-to-be-finished work, "Religion Against Itself: The Revolt of the Elite of the United Church of Christ," uses Freudian theory to suggest that UCC "elites" reject the paternal role of father (that is, the self-restraining teachings of the traditional church) for the all-embracing, non-judgmental, loving mother (who preserves and nurtures the child's self-centered commitment to self).

Schwartz asks that the paper not be quoted, yet he posts it on the Internet. I suppose that means he's looking for some feedback before his paper takes its final form. To that end, I'll comment on three observations he makes about the two commercials:

1) Schwartz argues that the ads portray non-UCC churches to be rejecting undesirables from Sunday services and that's simply not true. No church bounces or ejects a person from attending a worship service.

I hope Schwartz isn't missing the comic irony intended by the commercials, but he does have a point. Would the public have taken note of the ads if they were about "certain" people getting rejected/ejected from, say, a church membership ceremony? Wouldn't the public just see that as a squabble among church insiders and of no consequence to them? That certainly wouldn't make for a sexy commercial.

99.9% of all US churches invite everyone to cross the "boundary" of Sunday worship. Everyone is welcome. The reality/controversy facing the broader church today isn't over who may attend Sunday church; rather, it's whether the practicing homosexual is eligible for membership, communion, elder, deacon, pastoral office, etc. These are very different boundaries than mere Sunday attendance. Instead of the "come and see" boundary of Sunday worship, these are "come and be" boundaries that define the church's essence.

2) Schwartz contends that in the elite UCC's mind, those who "reject" homosexuals use the very same reasoning process to also reject single mothers, the handicapped, etc. Again, he says, that's not real world reality.

I see Schwartz's point. The commercials never distinguish the reasons why gays, single moms, brown-skinned people, etc. are bounced and ejected. The viewer just sees them all rejected. In this respect, Schwartz is absolutely right.

However, Schwartz should be sensitive about the church using different reasons to reject people. For example, Christianity Today just recently pleaded for the church to embrace, not stigmatize single mothers. Why the church "looks down" on single women is different than why it "looks down" on homosexual practice. Detractors would respond, "No it isn't." But that is exactly Schwartz's point.

With respect to the UCC's intentions though, my suspicions are the various groups of people represented in the two commercials serve only as shills for the homosexual class. Yes, yes, I know the UCC champions the handicapped and others. However, the only group that the broader church is really arguing about--and the UCC is vigorously advocating--is what place and role should practicing homosexuals have in the church.

3) Schwartz says that even though the ads are aggressive in their condemnation of other churches, the UCC leadership blindly denies any such negative tone.

Is that ever true. While I understand that a 30-second commercial has to quickly create a "problem" and to show how their "product" solves that problem, that approach was exactly the problem of this campaign-- especially since the "problem" was the beliefs and actions of other churches, and even churches within the UCC. Why won't the UCC leadership admit to the ads' negativity? Schwartz finds this an interesting question.

Schwartz's bigger point is that while the God Is Still Speaking marketing campaign was an outreach tool, it served more as the UCC's advocacy campaign--a negative social critique of church in society. That the UCC leadership went ahead and created a "put down" commercial with it's Ejector ad in 2006, after clear feedback from the networks about its 2004 "put down" Bouncer ad, and after clear evidence from a 2001 Hartford Seminary study that the UCC congregations self-identified themselves as equally divided among liberals, moderates, and conservatives, is evidence to Schwartz of some kind of pathology at work.

What kind of pathology, I'll leave to Schwartz to speculate.

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