Having recently completed a study course titled Reading the Bible in 90 Days, it occurred to me the authors of scripture were essentially acting as the original Public Relations firm for God. Spreading the Good News seems to have been accomplished in different ways back then, including inscriptions on stone tablets, mass gatherings where prophets preached the message of God and carefully conscripted town-to-town communication by disciples willing to risk their lives in the name of holiness. Actually, when you think about it, not all that much really has changed about the way we human beings communicate, especially when it comes to religion. So as a practitioner of PR you have to admire the effectiveness of the original methodologies even if you don’t abide by the message or embrace its deliverers.
God did apparently employ a few unique tools in getting people’s attention. The ability to call up thunder or generate flame-filled clouds can come in handy when you want to grab people’s attention. But God did not rely on those methods long term to deliver the message of salvation. Instead the Almighty placed trust in a series of leaders and prophets commissioned to speak the truth and lead the way by their own, humanly example. This proved much more effective in the end.
Some of God’s representatives were more successful than others. But even recruits such as Jonah, who initially ran away from the assignment given to him by God, were used to show that flawed people can still do good things. That example is the presiding message of the Bible. The principle aim in Public Relations for God is that while the human race is imperfect (and always will be), it is still important to do the right thing.
The world’s religions inherited this message and were in turn commissioned to spread the word to the uninitiated.
Two of the leading figures in religion are Mohammed, communicator of the Muslim faith, and Jesus, the Son of God according to the Judeo-Christian Bible. Both individuals delivered an essentially confrontational message of “change or die.” Those are not the words most people like to hear about their daily lives. The Public Relations challenge going forward was to attract people to the goal––eternal life––without losing them to the difficulty in requirements to do so.
Jesus chose to communicate his message using thoroughly familiar terminology. He taught using parables reliant upon earthy, homespun images to which people could easily relate. This genius method endeared him to the masses because he did not appear to be speaking “above their heads.” Of course his success simultaneously proved a threat to the leaders in charge of religion at the time, a fact that eventually got him killed. But we recall that was all part of the plan. So the PR really did work in that case.
Equally unfortunate for Jesus was the fact that people were expecting not a heavenly warrior but a king on the order of David who was a great vindicator for the early Jewish faith. This contradiction in terms was confusing even to Jesus’ disciples, who had trouble understanding the metaphorical significance of his parables along with the idea that there was no plan to politically or physically resist the Roman Empire.
But Jesus adhered to the plan. The lesson in Public Relations is that sticking to your goal despite the shortcomings of your delivery system can be crucial.
Similarly Mohammed had to literally fight his own people over the right to claim the role of God’s messenger. Several times he had to fight for his life and honor in order to sustain the mission of communicating the truth he was receiving from God.
Both are powerful examples of the fortitude it sometimes takes to do the right thing, especially in a world with so many competing messages.
Yet these faith traditions have gone on to huge success with billions of followers worldwide. The secrets of their success should be well known; localize and simplify the messages, find a system to share it with others, give people ownership while reinforcing the “brand” and then repeat, repeat, repeat. Sounds like a good formula for Social Media, right?
Now the question is how well the core tradition of each of these faiths (incorporating Judaism, the origin of Christianity…but for that matter, any faith tradition) has managed itself over the millennia.
Most faith traditions offer a written document to which believers can turn for guidance. It is the interpretation of these scriptures that has caused the worst problems in delivery of the message over the centuries. In particular, literalism is a nightmare when it comes to twisting the message of faith. Despite the fact that all scripture depends on use of symbolic language to communicate the truth of God, factions of believers inevitably try to turn scripture into a literal interpretation of fact. That was the problem for which Jesus castigated the Pharisees, calling them a “brood of vipers” and “hypocrites” for using literal interpretation of scripture to invent laws that gave them control over fellow believers.
The result of literalism is always that the message becomes confused. Remember those parables used by Jesus to communicate spiritual truths? His own disciples often misinterpreted or misunderstood them. Jesus warned them repeatedly that they were screwing up the message if they did not learn to distinguish symbolism from the message behind it. “Are you so dull?” he complained.
And yet we still find religions of all types allowing this brand of literalism to fester among its sects. And from this misunderstanding of scripture we derive things like biblical creationism, a literal interpretation of Genesis that leads to resistance of science, evolution and other empirically sustainable facts of existence.
From literalism we also get Muslim extremism with its calls for “holy wars” based on an aggressively literal interpretation of certain key phrases from the Koran.
So despite the Public Relations success of organized religions as a movement worldwide, the inability of these faith traditions to manage the message is causing cultural pain and even wars founded on misinterpretation of holy writ. This is a Public Relations failure of huge magnitude.
But not one that God did not expect. One wonders what adjustment might be necessary to get the whole religion Public Relations thing back on track. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.