A couple weeks back I reviewed Veneer, the new book by Jason Locy and Timothy Willard. Check out their book video trailer for more. Veneer is worth reading, especially for those of us caught between the tension of marketing and ministry. No matter how meaningful our message, for the most part, we still use the same methods and mediums that also promote porn, profits and pundits!
After reading Veneer, I had a few more questions for the authors:
You are both involved in marketing, packaging, design and selling. How do you reconcile your careers with these convictions in Veneer?
Jason Locy: Yeah, that is a big rub and we certainly “get” that it exists. And, personally, it is a complicated idea to wade through. For me, it comes down to a couple things.
One, how do we operate our businesses? Are we entering into engagements with clients just because of the money or are we partnering, building relationships, with organizations that we care about and where there is a shared set of values. If you have a similar starting point in how you want to conduct business, how you want to market, how you want to communicate then a lot of issues self-resolve.
Second, what is your work philosophy? Our design/marketing/communication philosophy comes from a different place than most agencies or people in this space. And, because we have try to have a shared set of values with our clients we can navigate that world in a constructive way. So you have to ask yourself, are you contributing to the problem or working against it? And this doesn’t mean just working for clients who “do good” but really resolving to work in your field and restore it as best you can. Gabe Lyons and Jon Tyson talk about working on the “redemptive edge” of your profession versus the “fallen edge.” I think this is a good way to look at it and we do our best to show glimpses of restoration in what we do.
Third, the tension is always there. It doesn’t matter whether you work in the ad world, construction world or inside the home as a mom, the ideas of veneer creep in everywhere. That is why the first part of the book focuses on examining the language of culture. Taking a look at how the world speaks and how it is affecting us. Once we understand this we can start to weave our way through, and around, some of the things in society we may not agree with.
Tim Willard: For me, reconciling my career with the convictions in veneer is a matter of awareness and then helping the situation by providing thoughtful guidance in a specific scenario. Jason and I recently collaborated on a project where instead of writing something for a person, I offered to coach them through the process and help mold this person’s own thoughts. The typical inclination, even in the Christian world, is to have a writer formulate and write a piece. This is done for brevity sake and is often a shortcut to actually putting in the necessary time to be thoughtful about what needs to be written. I feel it’s my responsibility as a writer and editor to help teach concepts like author responsibility and intellectual integrity.
As far as marketing copy is concerned, it’s a matter of guiding a client to a point where they see the intrinsic value in being open and honest about their organization instead of relying on hype. Contrary to popular belief, hype does not sell, honesty does. A good example of great honest copy is found on Saddleback Leather Co. website. This company sells premium leather goods. Their product stands for itself. The craftsmanship is unrivaled and so is their customer service, ask Jason, he owns one of these awesome bags. Their website copy reflects the honesty and quality of the product. It’s not pretentious, it’s colorful, it’s fun—you find yourself wanting to keep reading all their copy because their approach to communication.
In the book we certainly critique elements of capitalism, but we also concede that this is the world on which we live. As Christians, it’s our responsibility to steward all things well and that includes how we partake in a world that revolves around media hype and value inflation. So, when Jason and I collaborate on a project we do our best—and I know Jason does this in general—to help clients approach their campaigns through their Christian worldview.
How can creative people, especially those who have to “sell” what they create, stay away from dressing up reality?
Tim: A friend of ours says that if it’s not truly art it’s just advertising. It’s the idea that art points us back to the creator and anything that does not accomplish this is merely advertising—it’s pointing us to a product or a persona or a brand. The idea seems to hold true in an age where everyone and their brother is “creative.”
Jason and I have interviewed several “creatives” in mainstream culture and we pose this same question. The tension between painting in order to make a living and painting a timeless piece remains a battle. On the one hand technology has made it possible for artists to gain notoriety and make a living. On the other hand that same technology makes it possible for everyone with a camera to be a photographer or everyone with a blog to be a writer. Is that good or bad? In many ways, the term “creative” has been so diminished it fails to hold significant meaning.
It seems like your question is equating artistry (being an artist) with creativity, but we identify a distinction. Lady Gaga, for example, is an expression of a creative person. She’s successfully created a celebrity persona, garnered exuberant record sales, and amassed millions of Twitter followers. She has therefore achieved cultural success (to the world’s standard), utilizing creative methods, but is she an “artist?” No, she’s a creative advertiser.
The point here is that it is presumptuous to unilaterally equate creativity with art. Any person can be creative, but not every creative person is an artist. According to a global study in a Fast Company article last year the number one leadership characteristic for CEOs is creativity. So are we to assume that every top CEO in the world is producing art? Everyone can be creative in their vocation and can do so without guile. But a true artist, from a Judeo-Christian point of view, is unique in that she produces a product that points people to the Creator of creativity.
Jason and I tend to agree on the idea that true artistry comes from the grueling disciplined work of producing something in obscurity. When you diligently work to hone your craft a certain amount of honesty and integrity emanates from your work. And this, to me, is the key to staying away from “dressing up reality.” I know this may be a more purist way to look at things, but a true creative—can we say artist?—will do what they do because it is in them. They cannot help it. And they will hack away at it until it kills them (metaphorically speaking of course).
The bottom line is if you are hired to create a product that sells, then do that to the best of your ability—glory to God! If the endeavor before you is to create art, then do that with the integrity of the vision that God’s given you. And if you’re blessed enough to be offered remuneration for your art—glory to God! But don’t cut a corner or water it down because it’s outside what is culturally cool or acceptable.
You guys are pretty harsh in your perspective on modern day church services? What is a better way? Help us re-imagine the weekend service/experience?
Tim: It’s no secret that the “relevant-church” movement (as we call it in the book) openly utilizes the ways and means of the culture in order to create a comfortable and familiar environment for the congregants. What happens though is this mindset trickles into smaller churches who think they have to mimic what the big churches are doing to stay “cutting edge.” So a church may be well-intentioned but may end up getting caught up in over-producing a “worship service.” But to what end?
Our hope in bringing this discussion to light is that we can begin to have honest dialogue about how we “leverage” the language of culture in our church expression and what that is saying to the outside world about God and his bride. What does it say to the world when we have iPad giveaways at church just like Best Buy does?
We think a better way, as you put it, is to take some time and define the purpose of the church. We believe that church gatherings are first for the saints—the family of God. If that is the case, then how should our services reflect that purpose? Would they be less seeker-sensitive and more God-sensitive? What would happen if we just backed away from our current paradigm of doing church and tried to see how it looks to God? Wouldn’t it be great if our gatherings centered more on prayer and confession, to God and one another; more on deeper biblical exposition?
Jason: Yeah, I agree with Tim. I would ask though, is it that we are harsh or that we are asking questions most are afraid to ask? I think that in the context of the book, and with the discussion of how society acts, it is fair to examine the church. Right? After all it is one of the biggest channels of culture so to not look at it and pretend everything was okay, or the church was above examination, would be intellectually dishonest. What’s funny is that if we were “harsh” towards fundamentalists or Rapture Prediction Guy no one would care. But, if we question the status-quo then it seems harsh. Most of the feedback we have gotten around the conversation with the church has been “thank you.” So, maybe we are talking to the wrong folks (ha) or maybe the critique is refreshing.
Keep in mind, a very small portion of the book focuses on the church. The bigger point of the book is an examination of who we are as people and how we are engaging with those around us. We ask people to consider society (and church) and what those interactions are communicating to others. Then, make a decision about how to live (or do church) in that context.
In the book review for Veneer, I mentioned my surprise to see how little you guys share your personal stories and struggles. Why is that?
Jason: Actually, our personal stories and struggles are throughout the book. But, because of the nature of writing with two authors we choose to write things in the third person. We really struggled with the best way to do this. In the end we thought that not disrupting the flow of the narrative with a parenthetical to explain who was writing, for example I (Jason) or I (Tim), would allow for a more enjoyable reading experience. Hopefully readers will agree!
The other thing this did was allow us to incorporate stories that weren’t particular to us but indicative of society. Or, to include experiences of other people we know. This, hopefully, gives the book a broader perspective than just the shared experience that Tim and I might have.
How have the ideas in Veneer shaped the way you live?
Jason: We say in the Authors’ Note that this book was written to ourselves. And, that is absolutely the case. Both of us have been profoundly impacted by the topic and the writing process was quite introspective.
For me, the biggest way the book has shaped the way I live is through the positive impact it has had on my relationships. I always joke that I am an “emotional introvert,” meaning I tend to keep my deeper feelings and thoughts and struggles to myself. As a result, some of my closest friends were unaware of stuff I was dealing with and how those things were impacting the way I lived my life.
The book challenged me to open up. To share. To be vulnerable with those I am close with. The impact of this new perspective has had really positive impact in my relationships.
Tim: For me the process of writing the book revealed the subtleties of veneer. It’s when I think that I have no veneer that I need to reassess and dig a little deeper—sure enough, there it is. It also challenged me to evaluate my relationship with God. Was I just going through the motions? Was the relationship “me” centered or Christ centered? Perhaps the most profound shaping by-product of dealing with this content was how it affected my interaction with my wife. I was challenged to seek times of honesty and renewals, using our shared Eucharist times as an opportunity to pray and draw close through confession. How were we doing? Were there unresolved hurts? The unveneered life can be challenging, but also beautifully freeing.