A church advertising campaign for Christmas, which depicts the baby Jesus in his mother Mary's womb, has been defended by its creators against charges of naivete and political meddling.
The 'Ultrasound Jesus' image shows an almost fully-formed but unborn baby in the womb, with a halo superimposed on the foetus head. It carries the message, "He's On His Way: Christmas starts with Christ".
The poster will feature on billboards across the Christmas season. Produced by the inter-church charity Churchads.net, the 'Ultrasound Jesus' campaign is backed by a number of Christian denominations including the Church of England, the Baptist Union, the United Reformed Church and the Methodist Church. It is also supported by the Evangelical Alliance UK and the Church Army, among other related groups and networks.
Others have been quick to praise and condemn the initiative. The National Secular Society, which campaigns to restrict the role and influence of religion in society, accused Churchads.net of being "naive" in using an image which NSS believes belongs to one side of the abortion debate.
They were quickly backed up in this belief by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), which says the campaign will make people think about the value and potential of unborn human life in relation to the abortion debate.
The NSS, which has frequently accused some religious people of taking offence too easily, is itself offended by a poster which it sees as "politically motivated". It accuses Churchads.net of "trying to put across some sort of subliminal message."
Attacks on adverting campaigns or attempts to ban them usually simply have the impact of making them more famous and widespread, professional publicity and PR bodies point out.
The producers of the 'Ultrasound Jesus' poster seem unfazed by the mini-furore and hope that the campaign will be one of their most successful yet.
Church and Christian advertising has in the past been accused of being bland, over-pious, or out of touch. "This one seems to have touched nerves and excited a response right away," a PR commentator told Ekklesia this morning.
The 'Ultrasound Jesus' image and poster was generated with the help of ad creative Chas Bayfield, who is best known for his award-winning blackcurrant Tango soft drink advertising campaign.
It follows on from a Churchads.net poster campaign last Christmas where paintings by artist Andrew Gadd depicted the nativity scene in a bus shelter.
Mike Elms, who is vice-chair of ChurchAds.net, says that the sole purpose of the poster is to convey the Christian message of Christmas in a modern, secular context.
"We wanted to convey that Christmas starts with Christ," he explained. "That this baby was on the way. Then we thought that the scan was a way of conveying that: it is modern currency in announcing a modern birth."
The halo is a pointer to Jesus as embodying both humanity and divinity in Christian thought and experience, he added.
Mr Elms continued: "People are entitled to talk about it, but when the posters are put up, from the 6 till 20 December, it will be seen in context and its real message will become clear."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Eklesia commented: "Whether it's the 'atheist bus campaign' or this Christmas message from the churches, public comment and advocacy around religion and belief excites a good deal of response, much of it pretty heated. As we all adjust to living in a mixed-belief society where no one group of people, religious or non-religious, can automatically get their way, the need to take stock rather than to take offence will become ever more significant - but for some it's a big cultural adjustment."
He added: "There seems little 'subliminal' about the Ultrasound Jesus image. It's a pretty straightforward depiction of a late-term womb, such as most parents will be familiar with - though the halo is not the first thing many will immediately identify with their much-loved little ones! However, the notion that foetal images have now been captured exclusively by one lobbying cause, or that they are somehow 'off-limits', is a perception which itself might need questioning and thinking through some more."
"At the same time, no-one, whether they are pro- or anti- this poster can realistically claim that the arrival of Jesus on the scene is an apolitical event," said Mr Barrow. "Historically, he confronted the status quo in the interests of the marginalised and the poor, and was put to death by a toxic combination of misplaced religious and political authority. The figure of Christ will inevitably create controversy and contention - but that can happen in a positive, peaceful and forward-looking way."
ChurchAds.Net, previously know as the Churches Advertising Network (CAN), has secured the services of some of the UK's top award winning advertising executives and designers, who give their work to the church for free.
More on Churchads.net: http://www.churchads.net/