Thursday, April 14, 2005

on Motivating v. Preaching

(this entry is part of a "celebration of new Christian fiction" that will take place on 19 April; on that date I'll have a link to find other participants in the fiesta)

A few years back BMW came up with a marketing campaign featuring Clive Owen and the many beautiful cars in the Beemer line-up. Clive was “The Driver” and he’s shown taking the cars through their paces in a variety of action-oriented stories (save a kidnapped woman from drowning, race to beat the Devil on the Vegas Strip, get Madonna to her gig on time, keep the Buddhist “Golden Child” safe). The movies were all directed by famous Hollywood types (John Woo, Tony Scott, Guy Ritchie, Ang Lee) and include famous co-stars (Maury Chaykin, James Brown, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke). The gist of the marketing campaign was buy this car, drive real fast, be cool, drive real fast.

A week or so ago there was a DVD insert in Entertainment Weekly – a movie for the new VW Jetta. It starred Joe Pantoliano. The film tells the story of Joey Pants’ character telling some schmo to grow up, get his life together, etc. Everything takes place in the schmo’s apartment. Eventually, Joe tells Schmo to lose the Jetta (we’re shown a late-model Jetta parked outside) and get a grown up car. Schmo gets on his 12” PowerBook and asks Joe if he means “something like this?” – a nice silver sedan. Joe says “yeah” and leaves. Then Schmo reveals that the silver sedan is the new Jetta (anyone else surprised? Me neither). Message: Get the new Jetta and fool people into thinking you’re a grown-up.

What’s this got to do with anything? The BMW films showed us why we want to buy their car. Jetta only told us. Granted, not getting whacked by Joey Pants is compelling, but avoiding pain is not nearly the motivator seeking pleasure is. Even though a Z3 is out of my price range, I still watch the BMW movies from time to time. I don’t know that I’ll ever watch the Jetta film again.

What’s the writing lesson here? The Show v. Tell implications are obvious. I’m sure the Jetta marketers felt they were showing us why to buy their product – and I’m sure there are folks in their early 30s who want to fake their way through getting their lives together that will respond. But the ad was preachy; it wasn’t motivational in the way the BMW ads were (and let’s be honest, “filmmaking” aside, they’re ads).

Beyond the Show and Tell, there’s also the nature of Metaphor v. Simile. Metaphor shows. Simile tells. Dave’s assistant Jim is golden. The church spire shone like gold. The BMW stands in for a lifestyle of excitement. The Jetta, like pyrite, is a poor substitute for the gold standard. Metaphor’s the real deal; simile not so much.

In writing to communicate the Gospel, we’ve got the same choices: Motivate or preach. Do we show “liberty in Christ” or tell a “don’t go to Hell” sermon? While there are flaws in the “Purpose-Driven” movement and I’m gonna scream before long if I keep hearing about post-modern “conversations” (it’s the term ad nauseum that’s the problem, not the engagement itself), the relational aspect of Christianity (relationship with God and relationship with others) is much more compelling than a didactic “God commands you to” approach.

Revival is in a middle ground. There’s some metaphorical “lifestyle evangelism”: a Lutheran sheriff, an ex-priest bookseller, a devout woman who runs a local B&B, kids enthusiastic about the revival meeting (for religious reasons as well as the change-of-small-town-pace it offers). There’s some "it's like, you know" preachiness, too – hard to avoid with a revival preacher on the scene. I’ve tried to soften the preachiness by showing it filtered through various characters’ reactions. I’ve tried to present both the local pastor and the revival preacher with good and bad sides; there’s conflict between the two men, hostility – easy answers and Christian unity aren’t so simple.

And then there’s humor. At one point, Pastor Jim and Barbara Adams are sharing a coffin to elude the zombies. Here’s a snippet from the first draft:
Bromfeld felt himself getting lightheaded, and not just because of the company. As the oxygen level inside the coffin diminished, his claustrophobia came back with a vengeance.

“Can’t breathe,” he gasped.

Cautiously Barbara raised the lid. Fresh air wafted in without the stench of the creature. “Coast’s clear,” she said, and opened the coffin more.

“Wait.” Bromfeld grabbed the lid and pulled it back down. “It may be in another room.”

Back in the dark, Barbara whispered. “Is that a prayer book in your pocket or are you just happy not to see me?”

“Prayer book? I’m not Episcopalian. Oh ... you mean ....” Bromfeld felt his face flush. He was certain red light was shining out of the coffin, a handy beacon for the creatures to find their hiding place.

“Actually, it’s a crucifix. I grabbed it when I ran out of the church.”

“Isn’t that for vampires?”

“I figured it couldn’t hurt for these guys. Undead should be undead, after all.”

They lay together in silence.

“By the way,” Bromfeld said, “I’m also happy to not see you.”

Barbara sighed.

“Because the scar bothers you.” It wasn’t quite a question.

“Hungh? No, I like the scar. I mean, I’m not glad you got cut like that.” Bromfeld took a deep breath. “I just mean with the present lighting conditions and all ... I’m happy here in the dark with you.”

“Oh – Haaappy. You’re not too bad looking, yourself. For a minister. In the dark.”


She laughed.

Their first kiss was far from chaste.

(see here for a darker example of church and humor)

The purpose of the book isn’t to preach that you should become a Christian, and it’s really not motivational in that way either. It’s a baby-step book. Think Christians are all nutjobs? Think again. That sort of thing. The Bible’s there and the Gospel’s there, too, so it’s not impossible the Holy Spirit could use the book for life-changing purposes. I’d love for that to happen, but I’ve not invested myself toward that end.


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