Visual language: evangelical outreach department

What make you of this tract’s cover image? It intrigued me enough to lay out 50c at the religious bookshop, anyway.

Note how the subject is dressed in a very urban metrosexual style, with his earrings and his goatee. What does this signify in the context of Christian evangelical outreach?

Now note the angle of the shot. Interesting choice, isn’t it, shot from the top, concentrating on the forehead and eyes, rest of the body foreshortened? Who else do we ever see photographed like that?

Many of you may not be able to come up with an immediate answer, but as I’ve spent the last few weeks building a site that is a directory of Australian live comedy, I can tell you right away: it’s a standard PR shot for comedians (one that’s becoming a little overdone, BTW), but anyway: it’s a standard representation of people that the rest of us are not meant to take seriously.

Clockwise from top: Scared Weird Little Guys, Sam Bowring, Carl Barron, Judith Lucy, Umbilical Brothers (twice), Akmal Saleh

It screams whimsical, weird-thinking, ridiculous. You never see a serious dramatic character or action hero character shot in this way. It’s enough of a cliche for the Simpsons to mock it in a PR image of Bart.

Do most people know this consciously? Probably not, including the person(s) who selected this image. But there’s a very good reason that comedians are shot from this angle for their publicity headshots and actors are not: it distorts the proportions so that the person doesn’t look quite real. This is great for comedy, but not great for conveying drama or moral authority. Choosing this image for the cover definitely sends the message that ultimately, these evangelists feel that a skeptical attitude to religion is not a serious intellectual position that should be treated with respect, it is just a trifling squib of an unreasonable objection, to be treated as a joke.

The tract itself pleasantly surprised me by not using the Pascal’s Wager argument once. Perhaps Homer Simpson’s succinct two sentence rebuttal has finally put paid to the use of that one as a staple?

(Here’s another comic rebutting the PW argument.)

Grateful as I am to have been spared that particular insult to the intellect, this ministry is still operating on a woefully incorrect premise in how they have approached this piece of outreach. This is the description of the content from the website:

In the age of The Da Vinci Code, it can be difficult to explain the gospel when all your attempts are met with a heavy dose of scepticism. But are the people you talk to really sceptics, or have they just closed their minds to the evidence?

Jesus for Sceptics is our new tract, perfect for Easter or any other evangelistic opportunity. It explains that a healthy dose of scepticism can be a good thing, because a true sceptic will look at the evidence and weigh it up for themselves, rather than taking someone else’s word for it, or closing their mind to it. It also explains why Jesus’ death and resurrection are of such momentous significance.

What they basically end up doing, after a bit of an excursion around urban legends and The Da Vinci Code, is recommending that the sceptical approach the issue with an open mind and read at least one Gospel and some other books about the historicity of Christ. Note the assumption that a skeptic couldn’t possibly have already done this and come to a considered conclusion that has nothing to do with a closed mind to the arguments! It’s just that these arguments are far from new to the average skeptic, who has examined, weighed and found them lacking persuasiveness years ago. There’s simply no compelling new incentive to read them yet again.

Nonetheless, I’m all for people with unanswered questions actually doing exactly what they recommend, because I’m totally with Isaac Asimov:

“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for Atheism ever conceived.”

Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy, language, media, religion, skepticism

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19 replies

  1. Do they know just how many atheists and skeptics went to Christian schools?
    I’m reminded of the scene from Firefly where River Tam “fixes” Book’s Bible.

    Book: What are we up to, sweetheart?
    River Tam: Fixing your Bible.
    Book: I, um…
    Book: What?
    River Tam: Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics – doesn’t make sense.
    [she’s marked up the bible, crossed out passages and torn out pages]
    Book: No, no. You-you-you can’t…
    River Tam: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.
    Book: Really?
    River Tam: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of mammal on the same boat.
    [rips out page]
    Book: River, you don’t fix the Bible.
    River: It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense.
    Book: It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith, River. It fixes you.

  2. Couldn’t agree more with that Isaac Asimov quote. It’s my goal to one day finish the entire Bible, my original premise for reading it being that if I was going to argue against it, I should know exactly what was in it. I’ve made it about halfway through from Genesis, plus I’ve read all of the New Testament – and the main conclusion I’ve come to so far is that there are lots of Christians who have no idea what the Bible is actually about.

  3. The other thing that bothers me about Pascal’s wager is that even if there was only one religion, it relies on the assumption that following that religion is the best possible way to live your life, even if said religion is false– it implies that, if it turns out god isn’t real, you haven’t wasted anything by limiting your life in accordance with the rules imposed by religion (and of course, women are the people usually required to make the greatest sacrifices in the name of religion, in terms of our personal freedom). Given that most athiests believe that this is the only life we have, that’s a pretty big waste.

  4. The other notable thing about that particular angle is that a high-angle shot like this is a traditional cinematic/photographic technique for belittling the subject, making them appear weak, insignificant or ridiculous, just as a low-angle shot is meant to emphasize the subject’s power or their control over the situation.
    The convention may not have been consciously evoked, but it certainly can’t be ignored.

  5. Exactly, Emily. I figured one of you would pick up on that as well!
    Edited to add: arrgh, meant to mention – that choice of shot means that we are literally looking down on the subject.

  6. Along with Asimov, I’ve always enjoyed Pratchett’s take on religion (and I paraphrase here as I can’t remember the quote verbatim):

    ”at an early age lots of reading had led him to understand that prayer was just a formalised way of shouting at thunderstorms”

    Asimov had also responded to Pascal’s wager several times:

    ”If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul.”

    Grendels last blog post..Looming large

  7. On the prayer thing (I love Terry Pratchett’s shouting at thunderstorms btw), it doesn’t make sense.
    According to traditional Christian theology, God is omnipotent and omniscient, and exists outside time. God is also wholly good.
    Given this, logically, anything God causes to happen is (a) for the best (even if He moves in mysterious ways) and (b) has already taken all consequences into account (given that He knows all of them anyway).
    Asking God for something – for example, praying for someone who’s sick to get better – is therefore questioning God’s goodness. If someone is sick, God has caused them to become sick because it’s for the best (mysterious wayishly). As He is omniscient and omnipotent, and exists outside time, either He has already decided to make them better, or He’s decided to keep them sick and/or kill them. Either way, it’s for the best. Attempting to change God’s ineffable mind is clearly a rejection of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, or goodness, and prayer is therefore a Bad Thing.
    QED. Praying just makes God angry.

  8. sceptic=close minded really gets my goat. I was in the studio audience of a TV show last week which will be on Ch. 7 soon and is the search for “Australia’s Best Cold Reader Psychic” (a friend of mine is the token sceptical judge. Going again next Wed if anyone wants to come) — and everything said by the warm up guy, the host, the contestants was sceptic=closed minded which IT.IS.NOT. Grrr. A sceptic will change their mind when the evidence changes, it’s a simple and clear standard.
    Amandas last blog post..Incomparable!

  9. I came to the conclusion a while ago that if someone really believes that God has a perfect and complete plan for the universe, the only sincere prayer can be “thy will be done.” Perhaps with a plea for strength and wisdom to deal with whatever occurs.

  10. This is where I’m thankful I grew up in the family I got. My mother was raised Christadelphian; my father used to be a minister in the Churches of Christ; Mum worked nightshift on Friday and Saturday nights and slept Sundays, so we got taken along to church until we were able to show we were old enough to be left alone at home without burning the house down or waking Mum. I learned a lot about the bible, and I’ve read a lot of it over the years. Enough so that while I can’t quote chapter and verse on a lot of things, I’m certainly able to say more about the general teachings of Christ than most fundamentalist Christians I’ve run across. (I should add: Mum is a rather virulent atheist these days, and she can out-argue Dad on pure biblical textual content any day.)
    My own beliefs tend toward a rather sneaky walk around the edges of Pascal’s wager – I believe all gods are equally likely to exist. If one of them exists, all of them do, and the universe was probably made by a committee (of the Trickster deities, if we’re honest) which explains one heck of a lot of the problems with it.
    Meg Thorntons last blog post..I cannot remain silent any longer.

  11. That photo immediately made me think of The Dog. Definitely not a pose you use to convey respect.

  12. Scepticism is the very definition (cookie for finally learning to use tags?) of open-mindedness, because it means never ceasing to ask questions and weigh the answers objectively.
    When Christians take the line that the resurrection is their keystone, I always want to direct them to their own gospels. The story of the discovery that Christ was risen is told four times, and each telling gives an utterly different version. They can’t even get their own story straight.
    Always found Pascal’s wager an insult to both intelligence and morality.
    Love that bit of Firefly.

  13. Pascal’s Wager is a prince of philosophy compared the “liar, lunatic, lord” which is my personal least favourite bit of apologetics. Nothing gets my eyes rolling more melodramatically than that.
    Amandas last blog post..Incomparable!

  14. Great post, tigtog.
    That picture also makes that fellow’s head look disproportionately large. Combined with his expression, it could be trying to convey how thought and curiosity are viewed from the perspective of ‘wisdom’. The evangelising purchaser of this book is put into the position of wisdom, that of a benign paternalist. ‘Too much’ scepticism thus becomes trivial, comic, but to be forgiven and guided.
    In the case of the comedian photos, they are certainly conveying the idea of not taking the comedians too seriously, but I don’t think the audience is supposed to identify with them in quite the same way. Rather they position the comedians as the ‘underdog’ – aligning them with the mischievous part of ourselves, but not disrupting the authority of the ‘superego’. We are being asked to identify with the back-talking inferior position without disrupting the hold of seriousness in other contexts.

  15. Another aspect of the “underdog” position in the comedian photos is that it makes them look the opposite of intimidating, and that’s actually very important, because most comedians are too clever for their own good and also bottling up more than their fair share of the cranky. They can be very intimidating people sometimes off-stage. Making them look quirky and as if one could give them a pat on the head actually helps to make the audience more prepared to like them and identify with them and their material.
    But what is professionally useful for comedians becomes patronising and dismissive when aimed at skeptics.

  16. Exactly, although I don’t know about ‘dismissive’. From the skeptics position, sure, but from that of the evangelist, being patronising is an entry into leading a skeptic onto the ‘right’ path – ie not dismissing so much as working to cultivate in a particular way. It’s about constructing a position of superiority in order to take on a shepherding role. Probably a psychologically useful position to put evangelists in, given how draining it would be to have to constantly combat and dismiss skeptics.

  17. See the Gruen thread for an explanation of why ‘Adam’ is suddenly answering tigtog, instead of Klaus.

  18. Ha, that will teach you to check your posting details before hitting ‘Send’!

  19. The other lesson is not to be commenting on blogs while I’m supposed to be writing (and thus using the laptop instead of the desktop).

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