Like most of America, I watched the Super Bowl last night. I had fun with my family, and it was kind of funny to watch how excited my 13 year old son got after every big play. I suppose being a father comes with a rather strange set of perks.
While I enjoyed the game, my eyes usually glazed over during the commercials. Honestly, I don’t need to be entertained into a lame excuse to go and consume something. Then it happened. The 1 minute spot came up with a simple black screen surrounding plain white text with the words “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” I sat up to take notice thinking that maybe this time it would be different, and someone was trying to say something important.
“February 4, 1968,” it said, followed by “spoken 50 years ago today.” The dramatic music continued to build. Over the next 30 seconds, the words of Dr. King calling all of us to some form of service to others rang over the airwaves, accompanied by wholesome images of communities, workers, centers of faith, and true public servants all coming together to be a particular people. I was thrilled.
Then came second 47. A Ram pickup truck, engines revved, came towards us, and it was then that I knew. I knew. This company had taken the highest ideals of Christian service, spoken by a man who lived the reality, and used our common heritage to sell us crap. Like Esau to Jacob, I thought, we have sold our birthright for a bowl of stew.
This isn’t to say that Ram trucks are necessarily bad (though some might argue that they are mechanically less sound than other brands), but rather, our vision of what it means to be human and sacred words spoken about that vision at a place in history where we are all desperately seeking to discern the sacred from the profane was sacrificed on the altar of profit. This was a prime example of truth in service to Mammon.
What does this say about us, as a society? Sure, maybe you would have red flagged the commercial if you were in the marketing conference that day. Nevertheless, smart and thoughtful people somewhere decided otherwise, and they decided it because, unlike us, they know the truth: we will fall for anything. Nothing is sacred anymore. Like Max Weber, I concur with the sentiment that we live in a disenchanted society that has only room for profit, production and consumption. We have measured mystery out of the universe.
The only question left to us, if we care to continue to ask questions, is what we will do about it? What thing will we stop buying so that they get the message? When will we stop filling our waking moments with the incessant need to produce something, whether it is at our job or, like me, producing words on a screen for a blog post most will likely never read? When will we realize that today’s bread, today’s garment and today’s problems are enough for today? (Matthew 6:28-34)
I don’t have an answer to that set of questions. What I do know is that in invoking the sacred, the ad execs invited trouble. While truth may be bent to serve Mammon, truth is sharper than a two-edged sword, and it cuts deep. Since they pulled from that sermon, I decided to pull the whole thing up. Actually read Dr. King’s words in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, and here is what you get:
“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying… And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. (Yes) That’s the way the advertisers do it….But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.”
Dr. King took a play right out of St. Augustine’s playbook in his City of God, Book 1, section 30:
“For certainly your desire for peace, and prosperity, and plenty is not prompted by any purpose of using these blessings honestly,…your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures, and thus generate from your prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousandfold more disastrous than the fiercest enemy.”
Both King and Augustine saw that from our natural and good desires for comfort, peace and prosperity, there runs in our hearts a tendency to pervert these goods and warp them into idols that serve our own vanity. For King, he labeled this the drum major instinct, the instinct to love what others love (rightfully good things in themselves), but to love them in such a way that we use them to dominate and exclude others. For Augustine, our loves distort our wills and chain us to the treadmill of habit and the perverse desire to be all in all, and he spends the entirety of the City of God using this model to lampoon Rome’s vain pursuit of glory. Both understood that this path of the “city of man” leads to doom. Augustine actually witnessed that doom in his lifetime. I think we are in the process of seeing it in ours.
If we are to have a future, it will be a future where we have thrown Mammon’s servants out of the Temple and learned sacred language again, language that gives to God what is God’s. Until that day, we will continue to profane the ideas, concepts, memories and practices that ought to define us as human, showing ourselves to be nothing more than ever-consuming bellies attached to life support units that threaten to eat us all, literally, out of our house and home. Ram might have sold a few more trucks, but Lord knows, it lacks the horsepower to pull our civilization out of the ditch.