Book Review: "Branding Faith" by Phil Cooke


Full disclosure. Phil Cooke is a friend and occasional colleague. We have frequently found ourselves at the same conference table working for the same media ministry client. I like Phil and find him a smart, funny and unfailingly stimulating guy to talk to. But our friendship doesn’t mean I can’t review his upcoming book with a fair measure of objectivity. 

Phil’s latest, Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact the Culture and Others Don’t, will be released in a few weeks but I was privileged to receive an advance copy. I looked forward to seeing what Phil had to say about the way ministries can and should present themselves for greater impact in this media-saturated, YouTubed, MySpaced, mobile-messaged environment. 

A big reason for my expectancy was the fact that I know Phil Cooke to be genuinely passionate about the subject. A lot more than I am, to be honest. Even though I’m in “the business,” when I see crappy Christian media I just want to walk away shaking my head. Phil wants to run forward and fix it. 

You don’t have to be around him very long to discover that Phil is genuinely, deeply bothered—grieved may be a better word—by the shoddy, backward and ineffective ways many ministries go about presenting themselves to a world they claim they want to engage and influence. 

I also know that Phil has taken more than a little flak from religious folks over the years for his efforts to challenge ministry leaders to raise their standards (and therefore their production budgets). A sampling of some of the cranky-grams the editors of Charisma magazine receive in reaction to Phil’s regular column there testify to that fact. 

The truth is, there are powerful segments of American Christendom that recoil when guys like Phil use the terms marketing, branding and packaging in a conversation about ministry effectiveness. They are offended by the very idea of applying “worldly wisdom” to the sacred business of carrying out the Great Commission. 

For some in ministry, it just doesn’t matter that what they present looks bad, sounds bad, communicates poorly, and feels utterly irrelevant to the intended target. To them, all that matters is that the presenters love Jesus and that they mean well. They don’t feel the need to be effective. Only sincere. 

But there are others in ministry leadership who know their organizations need to change. They desire to be a more positive reflection on the Savior they serve and hunger to increase their ability to engage the culture for the Gospel. They’re just not sure how. And they’ve heard enough from the old-school religious nay-sayers to have doubts about whether their desires are fully biblical. 

It is for these folks that Branding Faith is a God-send.

In it, Phil Cooke exposes the tension I just described as a false dilemma. He makes a compelling case that we don’t have to choose between being effective marketers and fully biblical Christians—that, in fact, the former is a natural extension of the latter. 

One of the great values of this book is the way it de-mystifies a lot of the branding and marketing jargon that so permeates these discussions. For example, throughout the book Phil—correctly, in my opinion—encourages us to think of effective branding, design and marketing as simply excellence in “story telling.” This is a key insight.

Of all people, a preacher viscerally understands the power of being an effective storyteller. These are guys who work tirelessly on their live presentations. They deploy a variety of oratorical techniques to make sure they hold the congregation’s attention; make their points memorable, touch the emotions and well as the intellect, and pretty much do whatever is necessary to get that listener to act—whether that desired action be receiving salvation, repenting, committing more deeply, tithing or simply reading their Bible’s more. 

And yet some of these same guys will look at you like you’re advocating child sacrifice if you suggest revamping the logo, re-formatting the broadcast, or putting some underlining in their letters—all to accomplish the very same thing. That is, telling the story in a clearer, more compelling way.

In the rapidly emerging world of 500 television channels; hundreds of radio micro-formats,; downloadable, portable media; and ubiquitous wireless connectivity—just how are 21st Century ministries and churches supposed to breakthrough the clutter so they can do their thing? 

In Branding Faith, Phil Cooke offers us some timely answers. 

[Available for pre-order here]

Perhaps We Should Define Terms

Today Iran’s Blusterer-in-Chief declared:

“Everybody has understood that Iran is the number one power in the world.”

This makes one suspect the man may be operating with a different definition of the term “everybody,” than the rest of us. The same goes for the words, “understood,” “number one,” “power,” and “world.”


The Clock has Started on My 15 Minutes

The goofy new blog I launched on a whim the other day has apparently gone a little viral. “Chris Matthews’ Leg” has received several thousand hits in the last few hours.

It started this morning when Michelle Malkin designated the “Leg” site,

 “Best New Blog Name of the Month.” A little later the closely-affiliated Hot Air blog mentioned it as well. Both sites generate huge traffic so not surprisingly other sites begin to mention and link, too. Like this one. And this one. A bunch of others.

Now I’m feeling all this pressure! People are staring! Quick…say something clever! Um . . . O’Swami!

William F. Buckley (1925—2008)


I can tell you the precise the moment I became aware of the existence of William F. Buckley, Jr. I was a kid in the late sixties watching the Ed Sullivan Show and Frank Gorshen (who was an impressionist before he was The Riddler) did an outlandish impression of him—head thrown back, lips pursed, tongue flickering, and pen as prop and surrogate cigarette.

I had never heard of William Buckley but the audience clearly had. They roared.

Now that I think about it, how remarkable that an intellectual conservative with a dry interview show on PBS should become such a national icon that comedians “did him.”

It is not hyperbolic to say that Bill Buckley changed the course of this nation. He almost single-handedly created an intellectually respectable way to be anti-communist and anti-collectivist without having to join the ranks of the conspiratorial and paranoid John Birchers.

He was scary smart, a great novelist, but also self-deprecating.

Once, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, I heard Buckley recall a mid-70s organized debate about the controversial Panama Canal Treaty (remember that?) with Buckley and George Will teamed up on the pro side, and former governor Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan on the con side.

WFB said something along the lines of, “Will and I trounced them so soundly, Reagan was never heard from again.”

I started reading National Review in my latter college years and it was huge in helping me crystallize a conservative (classical liberal) grid.

Thinker. Spy Novelist. Sailor. Celebrity. World Changer. From here, it looked like a life well lived. Very well lived indeed.

WSJ’s obit here.

National Review’s Symposium here.

A Muslim Reformation?

 Here’s one for the “Wow. Didn’t See That Coming” file. Friend-of-Blather Fergus in the UK points me toward this fairly stunning report from the BBC.

The Turkish government has deployed some Muslim theologians in an attempt to save Islam from its rapid descent into medieval barbarism and spark what amounts to a Reformation—one that hopes to make the religion compatible with modernity.

How? By pulling the Koranic rug out from under the Luddites and jihadists:

The country’s powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.

The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings reputed to come from the Prophet Muhammad.

As such, it is the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic law, or Sharia.

Lots of outsider voices have been calling for an Islamic equivalent of The Great Reformation  of the 17th Century. But until now, I haven’t seen any credible evidence that any forces within Islam were interested in trying. Until now.

For decades now, Saudi-centered Wahhabism has been spreading like a cancer to mosques all over the world. It looks like a counter-force within Islam may be trying to rouse itself.

But is it too late?

"Why Don’t Jews Like the Christians Who Like Them?"

The super-smart James Q. Wilson struggles for an answer in City Journal.

An excerpt:

Evangelical Christians have a high opinion not just of the Jewish state but of Jews as people. That Jewish voters are overwhelmingly liberal doesn’t seem to bother evangelicals, despite their own conservative politics. Yet Jews don’t return the favor: in one Pew survey, 42 percent of Jewish respondents expressed hostility to evangelicals and fundamentalists. As two scholars from Baruch College have shown, a much smaller fraction—about 16 percent—of the American public has similarly antagonistic feelings toward Christian fundamentalists.

Wilson is clearly writing for a secular audience that needs some orientation on who evangelicals are and what they believe. But it’s refreshing to hear a non-evangelical make the case he does.

He closes with a word of advice to Jewish Americans who value the continued existence of Israel:

Whatever the reason for Jewish distrust of evangelicals, it may be a high price to pay when Israel’s future, its very existence, is in question. . . .When it comes to helping secure Israel’s survival, the tiny Jewish minority in America should not reject the help offered by a group that is ten times larger and whose views on the central propositions of a democratic society are much like everybody else’s.

I’m not hopeful that many are going to heed that counsel.

Our New Age of Slavery


There is an article in the most recent issue of Foriegn Policy magazine (subscription req.) that is at once chilling, heartbreaking and maddening.

“A World Enslaved” by author/journalist Benjamin Skinner tells us, “There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history.” Ponder that for a moment.

If the typical American is aware at all of the 21st Century slave trade, it is in reference to Sudan, where the Arab/Islamic fundamentalist government there has been taking slaves from the predominantly black/Christian South for a couple of decades now.

But as Skinner points out:

Few in the developed world have a grasp of the enormity of modern-day slavery. Fewer still are doing anything to combat it . . .even the quiet and diligent work of some within the U.S. State Department, which credibly claims to have secured more than 100 antitrafficking laws and more than 10,000 trafficking convictions worldwide, has resulted in no measurable decline in the number of slaves worldwide.

The article notes that a huge segment of slaves at this moment are women and children. And that their primary tasks involve sex and domestic labor.

Skinner describes how he flew to Haiti and secretly recorded a negotiation with a man on a street corner to purchase a 10-year-old girl. And you can hear his recording of a negotiation in a Romanian brothel for the acquisition of a handicapped, suicidal young girl in trade for a used car—here.

It’s breathtaking to contemplate that nearly 300 years after the nations of Western Civilization began progressively outlawing slavery and nearly 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—we are currently witnesses to unprecedented levels of human bondage and suffering around the world.

Of course, there is a very logical reason for this horror. Wherever the slave trade thrives, you’ll find one of three elements in place culturally. 1. Fundamentalist Islam; 2. Communist Totalitarianism/Marxism; or 3. Post-Communist Atheism.

Muslim Africa, China, North Korea, Russia and the client states of the former Soviet Union, and Marxist Haiti—these are the dark and hopeless spots on the planet where slavery is resurgent. Not coincidentally, they are some of the least Christian places on earth.

What few history textbooks dare to acknowledge anymore is that the anti-slavery impulse was essentially a Christian one. Three centuries ago, wherever Christianity permeated the culture, abolitionist feeling grew.

The fires of the anti-slavery movement were kindled and stoked from the pulpits of British and American churches.

Thus, it stands to reason that the spots where slavery is once again tolerated are those places where Christianity’s light shines least and dimmest.

The founder of the historic Christian faith launched His movement by declaring that he had come to “proclaim liberty to the captives.” Perhaps it’s time for those of us who claim His name to launch a new abolitionist movement.

And just maybe our smug new militant atheists like Bill Maher and Sam Harris might pause in their crusade to extinguish Christianity’s influence in our culture long enough to wonder what old evils might awaken in our own land once they’ve succeeded.

{E. Benjamin Skinner’s FP article was adapted from his new book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery}

Still Speaking of Movies

Rob Long is a comedy writer who started out as a writer on Cheers and who is now, among many other things, an occasional contributor for National Review (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more).

Rob has a great media-oriented blog where he recently mentioned a new project he’s working on—something called “Loopy.”

Four improv comics get one look at some film footage and then have to dub new dialogue for it. It’s pretty hilarious.

Here’s a sample. The “China Town” bit is especially tasty. (warning:  A wee bit of salty language.)

Speaking of Movies

Way back here I made a wise-acre remark about how George Lucas had ruined the Star Wars prequels. Well, while I was perusing movie posters after the post below, I came across this poster for a movie coming “Winter 2009”. . .


It’s for a documentary called “The People vs George Lucas.” I’m guessing it’s a film in which people get to share on camera how deeply betrayed they feel by Jar Jar Binks.

Here’s the official site for the movie.