Monday, October 4, 2010

Jack Benny: Lutheran Witness?

The October copy of The Lutheran magazine arrived on my desk today.  A large, caption-less picture of an old man wearing a suit, black-rimmed glasses, and a donning peculiar pose is the cover image.  

Having no idea who this man is - or, more important, why he's on the cover of The Lutheran - I asked one of my older co-workers.  

His name is Jack Benny.  

Bob Sitze alludes to a Jack Benny comedy sketch in his cover story, "It Really Is Your Money or Life." 

In one of his ageless sketches, comedian Jack Benny (right) is confronted by a robber's insistence, "Your money or your life." Benny defers for several moments. When pushed by the robber for his decision, the characteristically frugal Benny replies, "I'm thinking about it!"

According to Wikipedia, Benny's comedic character is "cheap, petty, vain, and self-congratulatory."  

So why am I annoyed by this picture?

Because Sitze writes a great article!  Here's the best sentence in the whole piece:

Heading toward simplicity means slowing down; living within your means; saving more, ramping up your understanding and practice of generosity; and finding satisfaction, serenity and joy inside of what others might think of as scarcity — all good ideals for the life of a reformation-minded steward of God's gifts.

He makes ONE reference to a dead comedian (1894-1974), and it becomes THE image for the primary publication of a 4.6 million member church.

Furthermore, this is the featured image on The Lutheran's newly formatted web site.  People who are visiting this site to check out the fresh look will be presented with images of...Jack Benny.

For Lutherans who don't know of Jack Benny, or his reputation, this is just another in a long list of occasions that the church is skewing-old with references that mean nothing to people under the age of 40.

For Lutherans who do know of Jack Benny, they have confused a frugal, selfish life turned inward with a Christ's call for a simple, sustainable life turned outward.  

For non-Lutherans who are looking for an identity snapshot, they will likely see us as a bunch of old tight-wads that are trying to cling to archaic traditions and images that don't point to our mission or identity in Christ.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, what is being said about this?


  1. I had to ask my husband who it was. I thought it was Benny, but couldn't remember for sure.

    Interestingly, I read the article, because I just couldn't imagine what he had to do with Lutherans.


  2. Maybe the use of Benny's image served its purpose in getting you to read something that you may not have been drawn to otherwise. I loved the article; I just wish we didn't have to buy into the stereotype that Lutherans are a bunch of old people fixated on nostalgia.

  3. Thanks for posting on this. I support The Lutheran as much as I can; they have been supportive of the ministries of which I am a part. But the cover of this edition is absolutely baffling and disappointing. It's not so much controversial, it's just painfully out of touch. I wonder if The Lutheran has some marketing studies that say people under 45 (I'm 40 and I only know who Jack Benny is, but he has zero impact on my cultural radar) don't even bother to pick up the magazine. It's a head-scratcher and a head-shaker. It is a good article--the picture doesn't match on many levels.

  4. but what a brilliant question: "your money or your life?" have we really been joking about the response to this question for that long, probably longer? Why is it so difficult to let go of money in favor of living life? It's not a new question, and kind of refreshing that we Millenials are not the only generation that's been stuck with the stereotype of struggling with money over life.
    also, is there any chance our 'nostalgia' might just become 'vintage', and what could that look like?

  5. @joesmith - If The Lutheran is really posturing itself as an older person's resource, what message does that send? Is it the magazine of the whole church, or just the people that are inclined to read/buy it?

    @bloodrelative - I agree that it's a brilliant question - the whole article is brilliant. When it's couched in an image that is foreign to many young people, the implication is "this is just for old people".

  6. Here is another question. Are they catering to the audience that they already have? I stopped reading it once Kevin wasn't sent his rostered leader subscription - only getting e-newsletter links occasionally. Questions like this are the only reason I get into it.

    Of course, I like reading things like Christian Century where this type of question is in the magazine every month. However, if the Lutheran is appealing to those who already read it, it won't change to try to capture me.

    Then the question becomes: does it need to try to capture a new market or keep the one it has?


  7. I probably shouldn’t do this, but here goes. Use of the Benny photo was indeed an acknowledgement of the magazine’s older readers—more than half are 60-plus. We also guessed the photo would draw those who didn’t know of him into the story to find out. And we thought the line “your money or your life” was spot on with the Sitze article. Some covers work, some don’t. I appreciate your comments and concerns—they are helpful. Now the challenge (and to be a bit defensive): why judge the magazine on one cover? Do you do that with other publications you read, either online or in print? In the last year we’ve featured on the cover a female prison inmate, a father grieving over his son, kids at camp, an old man alone at worship, a homeless Haitian father and child, a young man in front of computers, and a young Indian woman selling corn. Look at the totality of the product in a year, the stories throughout the publication and then make a judgment about the quality of the publication and its targeted audience. Help us improve by sharing your thoughts. And remember, there’s nothing older than last month’s magazine and there’s always a chance to do it better in the next issue.
    Daniel J. Lehmann
    Editor, The Lutheran

  8. I'm just flabbergasted you didn't know who Jack Benny is. The fact that I didn't even realize how many people dont' know who he is shows how out of touch I am (and I thought I was pretty up on things)

    I think you raise some good questions though about the use of it. No you don't just a magazine by the cover but the question of who are we catering to...ourselves? is a good one.

  9. @Daniel - Thanks for offering your perspective. For my part, I am a person who reads The Lutheran cover-to-cover every month. I really enjoy the diverse voices that are offered in each publication. The variety of topics, cover images, and authors have been excellent.

    However, most people my age (and younger) aren't a dedicated audience. Your market research bears that out. Fairly or unfairly, many people DO judge a magazine by its cover. They don't read The Lutheran every month, so they don't look at the total body of work.

    If I didn't enjoy The Lutheran - if I thought it was archaic and out of touch - I wouldn't have wasted my time being critical.

    The larger question for all church-related entities is "who is this for"? Are we targeting people who are already dialed-in, or are we trying to connect with people that aren't present?

    A sincere thank you for joining the conversation here on koinonia, Daniel.

  10. An "ageless" sketch? Perhaps for those of a certain, ahem, age ...

  11. I realize that, as a 28 year old, the fact that I immediately got the joke/reference is not normative. However, the fact that I did means that we can end the blanket statements about the cover only being meant for 40+ year olds.

    More constructively, I'd ask if there isn't a little bit of ageism going on here. Would we, the under 40s (if we stoop so low as to draw 40 as a dividing line) be equally up in arms about a cover reference to Conan O'Brien, if the story warranted it?

    We've got to understand. Jack Benny is a cultural icon on par with O'Brien, or Steve Martin, or any other number of comedians who have defined or shaped their particular generations. In his day, George Burns, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby -- all the greats, were on a tier just under Jack Benny. When he changed stations, entire stations' lineups went with him. He /was/ television comedy.

    It isn't the Lutheran's fault that our generation has such a short memory -- if the cover has caused more people to become familiar with Benny's work, then I'd say they've done us a great service.

  12. @Jarrod

    Thanks for your insights on this topic. I really appreciate your perspective.

    Much of the analysis from both of us is, by its very nature, ageist and subjective. This is what many organizations do when crafting marketing/evangelism strategies. They look for trends. Daniel indicated as much when he said "Use of the Benny photo was indeed an acknowledgement of the magazine’s older readers—more than half are 60-plus."

    For what it's worth, I thought the use of the Jack Benny line "your money or your life" was really good. I'm glad that I read the article - it framed the topic beautifully.

    I also think that, if you were setting out to pick a cover image that engages people who don't typically read The Lutheran, Jack Benny might not be the #1 choice.

    Could you elaborate more on why you think it's "a great service" for The Lutheran to "cause more people to become familiar with Benny's work."

    Thanks again for joining the conversation!

  13. @Erik

    Thanks for responding!

    On the first question, I'm not convinced that using the picture was not outreach in some regard. While the demographics of those who do read the Lutheran may skew upwards in age, there's also then the question of how many in that focused age group do not read the Lutheran, and for whom seeing an iconic image might serve as enticement to pick up a magazine that has changed editorial focus drastically since they last decided to to stop reading. The Lutheran, from my understanding, isn't solely fighting to gain readership amongst the younger generations, but is likewise trying to re-gain readership that different editorial policies have lost over the years. I feel that often we look at "those who don't normally read" to only mean younger people, where I feel that readership is down in general.

    As for 'doing a service,' it was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but anything that causes us to reconnect with the story and legacy of someone who has, known to us or not, shaped the very nature of our society*, is good for us both personally and, perhaps more importantly, gives us another tool -- another common ground -- in our outreach and evangelism to others.

    (On the point that Benny's stage persona is not one to be emulated, I'll give way, and counter that Benny did what so few were willing to do during his time; when America was falling in love with commercialism and wealth, Benny was critiquing the mindset, albeit subtly and from within the system.)

    * [(1) Mini-defense of this point: Radio and television entertainment have shaped the way we perceive ourselves, especially in the early days. (2) Jack Benny was a major force in shaping radio and television entertainment.]g

  14. Good exchange going on here, and very glad the Editor of the Lutheran posted. It's the combination of cover and website presence that is misplaced. Interesting that the cover played to the reader demographic. I appreciate the candid nature of Lehmann's response.

    The place of Jack Benny in the pantheon of cultural significance is also interesting. I don't hear Benny referenced like other television comedians of history (Hope or Carson). Not sure if Benny's staying power is all that strong.

    The question of the Lutheran being a magazine for the whole ELCA--this is also interesting, considering the future of magazines in general is in doubt. Therefore, the illustration is in tension because it's not abundantly clear whether the magazine's mission is to address its demographic or serve the entire ELCA.

    In the end, the question raised in creating a cover for a magazine is similar to choosing an illustration for a sermon. Am I creating any immediate walls through this illustration? Jack Benny is not a good primary illustration, certainly not worthy of a cover or an image on a website (I agree with Chris, the author faltered by saying the sketch was "timeless"). After a sermon, the congregation gives me feedback on what works and what doesn't. The Lutheran should be happy that at least a few Gen Xers are at least conversing about the magazine. Now...if The Lutheran could open up their message boards to non-subscribers, more might talk about the articles.

    (By the way, 40+ as a reference point is a little off, Benny went off the air when I was 3 years old.)

  15. I find it rather amusing that "each cover" must be for under 40 readers. At 75 I've learned that you can only reach some people with each issue and I've learned to read the articles I find interesting. Just like in football you don't score a touchdown with each play, and sometimes you go backward. But I've never heard of anyone leaving the game just because their team is behind at the half, unless it's a blowout.
    Loosen up people. Jack Benny was much funnier than some of today's comedians.
    As a retired clergy I find people becoming more pessimistic and fearful and less forgiving as a nation. Sometimes we need to search for the good but isn't that better than always searching for the bad? The heart of Christianity is love but sometimes I question if we realize that.
    Thanks Daniel for commenting.

  16. @lifecoach

    I'm not sure any of us are uptight (or need to "loosen up") about the Jack Benny cover. I, and a few others, are merely pointing out how it could be perceived as cover choice that is unknown to a certain segment of the population. Just some healthy engagement and disagreement. In fact, the only person who got defensive, by his own admission, was Daniel Lehmann.

    I think people in this space have been very "loving" of the church and its publication. I have expressed my appreciation for the work The Lutheran has done, and I continue to be an ardent supporter and regular reader. I love the article that accompanied the Benny reference and said as much many times. I'm not sure how questioning a cover choice moves me into the realm of "pessimistic and fearful and less forgiving."

    I also don't see where anyone said that "each cover" must be for under 40 readers. The main point is that we in the church often do things that resonate with certain groups without realizing that they might exclude others. While it might be true that you can only reach certain people at various times, does it have to come at the expense of alienating other people?

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say when you indicate that Jack Benny was “funnier than some of today’s comedians.” Not only is humor subjective, it’s also irrelevant to the conversation about the Benny cover.

    I'm honestly amazed at how much of a stir this blogpost has caused. Given the kinds of hostile, accusatory, narrow-minded things that are expressed each month in the "Letters to the Editor", I'd like to think that I shared my critique in a respectful and measured way.

    The great thing about being Lutheran is that we can live together in the midst of our disagreements. Hopefully the conversation here has demonstrated as much.


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