When You’re Asked to Steal
When I was kid, I was a thief. Okay, that might be a little dramatic, so let’s back up. Here’s what happened.
I was probably around 5 years old and lived in a really small town. So I was able to run around without a whole lot of supervision. I was given an allowance, and one of my favorite things to do was to go down to the corner drug store and buy really cheap candy.
One day I went in and was in the mood for Jolly Ranchers, so I immediately went to that aisle. Looking at the various flavors, my eyes affixed upon the cinnamon flavored one, which was called Fire.
Keep in mind, I couldn’t read very well. So in my little mind, I mistook the word Fire for the word Free. “Score,” I thought, since I didn’t have to spend any of my money. So without another thought, I grabbed a piece of candy and walked out of the store.
But as I was heading home, I started to think about it. I usually had to pay for the candy, so it didn’t seem right that this one would be free. All of the sudden I realized the truth—I had stolen the candy! In desperation, I ran back to the store and put the candy back, hoping beyond hope that no one noticed and I wouldn’t be thrown in jail.
No one did. It was the perfect crime.
When you’re a kid, you know things like stealing are clearly wrong, and if you’re raised correctly you avoid it at all costs. But somehow, when we grow up we tend to rationalize the obvious into murkiness, sometimes even enough to justify what a 6 year old would know is wrong.
The worst part is when we do this sort of thing in the name of God. But the sad truth is that it happens all the time, and sometimes we designers get caught in the middle of doing what is wrong and being required to do it.
So what do you do when you’re asked to steal?
No doubt you’ve experienced this before in your church or from a client. Usually with churches, it takes the form of being asked to rip-off some of the latest pop culture imagery, all in the name of being relevant or reaching people where they are or something like that. That might sound a little harsh, but it’s pretty spot on if you give more than a moment’s consideration to it.
The other half of the truth is that not only is it wrong, but it’s a great way to completely invalidate what you are attempting to accomplish with it. Let’s look at the reasons why.
First, stealing in this manner is wrong because it takes someone else’s idea and tries to pass it off as your own. I don’t know how many churches I saw try to make some kind of “Heroes” series when that series was on, and in most cases there was little to no departure from the aesthetic employed by the original series. The lack of creativity is appalling in its own right, but to shamelessly try and ride the coattails of someone else’s effort and expense is little better than theft, since the designers don’t get any payment for the use.
To be sure, sometimes we are simply ignorant; we don’t know when the line is crossed. In my experience this explains the vast majority of how churches run afoul of stealing intellectual property.
As an example, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen churches take something from pop culture and modify it slightly (or worse, Christianizing it in a really cheesy way) and say that they are doing a “parody.” After all, parodies are a perfectly acceptable means of transforming existing art. However, I have almost never seen a good parody done by churches. In fact, the single example I can think of is the extremely well done Baby Got Book. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now.
Here’s a hint: if your work does not transform the source material at least as much as Space Balls did for Star Wars, it’s not a parody.
Other legal issues could be adduced, but let’s move on to the more important matter: when your church or client asks you to steal, they are only undermining their mission.
I know that relevance and outreach and such are contemporary buzzwords in churches. Unfortunately, that leads many churches to think that to be relevant they have to mimic the surrounding culture. This somewhat explains why we have coffee shops in our churches and have concerts at our worship services, but that is probably beyond the point. And all of that may be fine, who knows? But when we try to mimic pop culture, we will always fail.
Want to know why? Think about the movie or TV show or whatever that you want to mimic. Now think about how much money they used to pull it off and make it so dazzlingly successful that you want to parody rip it off. Now think about how much money you have to do this with.
Hopefully you don’t have to think any more.
The truth is that your church will always rip off pop culture poorly, simply because you don’t have the budget and probably don’t have the talent.
But that’s not even the deepest issue. By the time you get around to mimicking whatever is the current fad, it will be old hat to everyone but you, leaving your church looking like it is left in the dust. You can bloviate all you want about how creative and relevant you are, but the type of relevance you are chasing here is as ephemeral as the fad you are trying to appropriate. We sometimes make fun of the churches that seem like they are stuck in the 60’s or 70’s, but I sometimes think modern churches are even worse, since they relegate themselves to be stuck in an even worse time: yesterday’s news.
Is that the sort of message we want our churches to send to the culture we declare our mission field?
As we sort through the still-crumbling ruins of Western Civilization, maybe it’s time we start creating anew like the church did from the ashes of the Roman Empire. We serve a God who created all things, and we are made in his image. Creativity is thus not just a fine if unnecessary accoutrement, it is in fact a mandate, since we participate in God’s being and thus in his creativity.
In the final analysis, our stealing and lack of creativity can at root be a form of blasphemy, for we take a God-given gift and substitute whatever scraps from the culture we can scrounge. If this is how we define creativity and relevance, it would be far better for us to just not do it at all.
This may seem over-dramatic, but it really is that important. Since beauty is a transcendental, it is convertible with the good and the true. We are a body of believers who claim to follow the One who is the truth, and thus the creative works we make must as a consequence be in line with the truth; otherwise, what are they?
The faith we profess is too rich and too deep to entrust to the dregs of what we can steal from the surrounding culture; it’s time we put aside our blasphemous ways and proclaim the truth not only in what we say and in what we do, but also in what we create.