November 3, 2005
Marketing Narnia: Is the Church Being Used?
The following is by Abram Book, Leadership editorial resident, who reported the nationwide Narnia promotion campaign that rolled out last month in Wheaton, Illinois, now the home of C.S. Lewis's wardrobe. OK, one of several such wardrobes. This one has a solid wood back, we're told, behind the fur coats.
The marketing machine for the big C.S. Lewis Narnia movie is just getting cranked up, and they're using all the tactics that made The Passion of the Christ a blockbuster. But as sample marketing materials for use in churches and as preacher's magazines with Narnia covers arrive in our office mailbox, and as attenders at the Catalyst conference for church leaders were treated to Narnia previews and promo tools, we have to wonder, Is the church being used? Or more precisely, How crassly is the church being used?
After a promotional stop that brought C.S. Lewis's stepson and a slew of marketers to the platform of a nearby church in October, I asked Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whether the church's cooperation with Hollywood in movie marketing is a trend.
"I don't think there is any particular trend toward religious movies or even toward Christian themes in movies," Schultze responded. "Just take a look at the current lineup in most theaters. A couple of movies do not make a trend in an industry that cranks out hundreds of them annually. Moreover, both of these types of religious films (The Passion and Narnia) have been addressed before, although not necessarily with the same styles or budgets."
Maybe. Maybe not.
Two movies may not make a trend, but the church's teaming with the Walt Disney Company in promotion of Narnia certainly represents a shift in thinking, and a growing acceptance of Hollywood by church leaders. Until recently, Disney was the subject of a boycott by Southern Baptists and other conservative groups for their perceived perversion of family values. Now that the moguls and marketers have discovered the power of the Christian community to boost their box office, they will no doubt want to make the most of the alliance.
One recent example, related by colleagues in my office, was the promotion of Cinderella Man at a convention of Christian journalists this spring. The film had some religious elements (the trailers showed people praying for the boxing contender), but moviegoers reported Cinderella Man had a really foul mouth, objectionable to many Christians, and to say the movie had Christian themes was a stretch.
Church leaders and churchgoers alike must be discerning about such marketing alliances. Whether the film is overtly Christian, as in The Passion, has Christian themes, or merely upholds values Christians support, church leaders must be careful about endorsing Hollywood productions and the degree to which their support is expressed in their local congregations. There is, after all, considerable difference between referencing a current movie in a sermon and supplying the congregation with mass-produced study guides and small group materials. There is ponderable difference between supporting a movie about the Crucifixion that had input from a broad range of Christian scholars, and endorsing a film that will be seen by some as Christian allegory, or, eventually, nice movies that have vague Judeo-Christian underpinnings.
Christians may welcome a better relationship between our community and the dominant media of the day; we can appreciate the opportunity for the Church to influence the types of films that the machine produces; but such influence comes at a price.
Some Christian leaders tell me they are uncomfortable about the Narnia deal, not because of the promotion of this particular film within the church, but because of the next church-Hollywood collaboration this campaign may encourage. Where do you think this road will take us?