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Another afternoon on the way home from campus, another set of flyers being handed out at the pedestrian crossing, another failure to indicate with a polite smile that you don’t want one, whether it entitles you to 10% off a taxi, free entry before 11pm if dressed in a Baywatch outfit, or delivery off any of the chicken dishes over five pounds within a two mile radius.  From the colour and the typography I assumed it was a club night and looked again in surprise – as I’m sure I was intended to – before stuffing it into my coat pocket and making a mental note to look for a bin on the way home.  PORN AGAIN CHRISTIAN the leaflet read, in a font that hovered somewhere between Durex advert and discount nightclub.

porn again crop

The event itself was part of a tour by the organization StudentLife, who held a series of meetings at universities where an ex-porn actress spoke about finding God.  I’m sure people have opinions about the event itself, but I wanted to think about the flyer.  (What’s that, you say, an Anglican dodging a moral issue in favour of the aesthetics and semiotics of the thing?)  Leaving side the title – though I think if you find Mark Driscoll has got there first, you might want to think about where you’re getting – there’s something about the image here that bothers me.

Of course, modern Evangelicalism has a long history of engaging with, subverting and reworking cultural forms from what it would think of as “the culture”, to the extent that this provides one of the ways neo-Evangelicalism can be distinguished from Fundamentalism.  David Bebbington and Steve Holmes’ new collection cites the old joke that a neo-Evangelical is a Fundamentalist who watches The Simpsons (or The Office, or Friends, etc) and Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple points out the complex relationship many young conservative Evangelicals have with the “alternative” cultural platforms (such as the social network “MyPraise”) their milieu produces.  This flyer is clearly an attempt to do a particular kind of cultural work: adopt the rhetoric and form of a culture they find damaging and produce an Evangelical critique of it at the same time.  However, I think it misfires badly.

Embrace pleasure Gels

On one hand, it has an odd relationship with the viewer. Many people, I suspect, will have gone through the same intellectual process as me on being handed it: registered it as a club night advert, been surprised by the terminology, and then looked closer to see what it was.  (At first glance, I wasn’t sure whether this was a  remarkably unpleasant co-opting of a religious tradition – a more extreme version of those DJ nights which use “Buddha” in the title – or a religious co-opting of an avowedly “secular” graphic style.)  Thus far, it has clearly achieved its end.  The reader has been caught out, and induced to read advertising material which they might not otherwise have done.  The problem is that this slightly implies scorn for the reader: it implies that they have read the flyer because their eye was caught by the reference to porn, or because they were hoping for an outrageous club night, or because they were astonished by the coupling of the two terms.  In any of those situations the design appears rather smug, either positioning itself as trickster or morally superior to the person who has been induced to take in the real details of what is happening.

On the other hand, there is a bit of an issue with using the design language of a particular genre whilst claiming to utterly disclaim its implications.  I don’t think it’s over-reading to point out that the reason this advert works is because it taps into a system of signs which are associated with the male gaze.  Googling Durex posters provides lots of “comic” images of cucumbers, bananas, and so on, alongside lots of “sensual” images of women’s bodies.  Not so many of men’s bodies commodified and presented for the female gaze.  The implications aren’t just “here be sex” but a specific way in which images of women are presented to men in a commercial context.  That’s probably the reason it looks faintly like a club flyers too, another genre famously used to presenting anonymous women’s bodies to attract the attention of men who might pay money to go to the club.  These connotations don’t simply disappear when the viewer realizes that one of the words in the advert is “Christian”.

Indeed any event which is going to present a woman as the focus of men’s attention, specifically in the context of her discussing sex work, might want to shy away from images which implicate the spectator in the male gaze which sees women as curvy sign systems for their gratification.  I’m not sure Christianity has such an entirely blameless record in this area that it can take that risk.  Particularly when there isn’t yet such a well-established and secure store of imagery of women as teachers, speakers and figures of authority when they appear in front of Christian men.  The intended “subversion” of the usual relationship between viewer, subject and event has the potential to slip back, in this instance, into exactly the model it claims to be critiquing: a group of men whose attention has been caught by a poster promising women’s bodies as the object of spectatorial knowledge.  Possibly I’m reading too much into this, but I found the image a bit troublesome and I’d love to know what other people think.

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