An advertising campaign on buses declares ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
The creator of the advert, Ariane Sherine, says it is a counter campaign to one run on buses in June 2008 which had Bible quotes on them such as ‘Jesus died for your sins’ and a URL for a web site which included statements saying that ‘All non Christians would burn in hell for eternity in a lake of fire’. So she decided to design an advert with a positive message which said the opposite.
It poses a serious question to Christians about the image of our faith which we wish to present to the world. We are familiar wayside pulpits; posters with bible quotations such as ‘The wages of sin is death’, and we have to ask ourselves whether people put out this kind of message just in order to feel smug, rather than to attract an outsider to a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Coincidentally, The Daily Mirror carried a story today about a priest who clearly was sensitive about the message which his church projected, and replaced a particularly gruesome crucifix with a cross.
He said ‘It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn’t want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying.’ The sculpture was a brilliant piece of work. When it was conceived in the 1960s the majority of young people in Britain would have attended Sunday School, and would have been able to place the image in context. There was in the thin figure with protruding rib cage, a disturbing reminder of the images of inmates of Belsen. People might have understood that this Jesus showed God identified with the worst suffering that humanity can inflict, and sharing in human pain. But a church which always proclaimed Good Friday and never Easter might be open to misunderstanding. Replacing the crucifix with a cross has been a move towards a message which many Christians would find more appropriate. Removing the crucifix and having nothing to replace it would certainly have conveyed the wrong message, and the newspaper article is unfair in declaring that it been ‘unceremoniously yanked’ from its place.
One of the early campaigns from the Churches Advertising Network was judged to be controversial because it went rather further in removing a crucifix. At the time the most common Christian advertising in the week leading up to Easter had been a small poster produced by the Knights of St. Columba with a silhouette of Christ on the Cross and the words ‘THIS IS HOLY WEEK’. The criticism was that the Network’s advert had ‘dropped the cross’ completely. Instead it declared ‘SURPRISE! said Jesus to his friends three days after they buried him…’ But the campaign was for Easter Day, and a number of those within the Christian Church who during Lent had complained about ‘dropping the cross’ actually admitted that when it came to writing the Easter sermon, the campaign was right on target.
However, the evidence for this final statement is somewhat anecdotal: very little research has been done about the image which Christianity presents to the world and the impression which it has on outsiders. This is worrying in a faith which has mission at its heart. We don’t have evidence about what actually keeps people out of church rather than welcoming them in. But the ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD’ advert should make us think about the way we appear to outsiders. The creator of the campaign was very clear about the way Christianity appeared to be presented to her, and she was clearly not alone. With no organisation, donations of more than £140,000 have made this as visible as the largest Christian campaigns, such as those which advertised the Billy Graham missions or the Alpha Course. It really has struck a chord with very many people who probably see religious people as killjoys, for this is what the advert says. The author goes further in seeing Christians as people who worry and threaten those who do not subscribe to their faith.
This presents us with a clear challenge to present a positive image of faith. It ought to be obvious. As the Westminster Confession states ‘Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever’. Real enjoyment is at the heart of faith.
But in our presentation of the gospel we easily slip into trying to motivate people out of fear rather than love. Some presentations of the gospel go so far as to portray the atonement as ‘cosmic child abuse’ to use Steve Chalk’s phrase. And to outsiders it must appear that we reserve a special hatred for religious believers whose faith is closest to our own, but who hold differences of opinion on matters which are not even touched on in the Creeds.
The advert is surely a wake up call to all religious believers. Our response might begin with a heartfelt cry, ‘There IS a God!’ for it is this realisation which frees us from worry and leads to real joy.