Last week, I assigned my sophomore Chistology students an odd assignment: they were to go home and watch commercials. Yep, I risked offending the TiVo generation by suggesting they actually watch (or endure) commercials. You see, I wanted them to see how clever marketing companies were in manipulating them into buying their products.
That marketing agencies are clever in pitching products is nothing new. Yet, what I wanted to reveal to my students is that the very same dynamic that undergirds successful ad campaigns also undergirds the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Arguably the most talked-about commercial from this year's Superbowl was the "Imported From Detroit" ad from Chrysler.
What is it that is being sold? If you said a Chrysler 200, you're right...but only in a sense. If they wanted to tell you how great a car it was, they could simply have put up the statistics and done some cross-comparisons between the Chrysler 200 and other models. Yet this is not the strategy employed, for Chrysler is not interested only in selling a product. They are trying to sell you a way of life.
Theorist René Girard has dedicated himself to exploring the contours of human desire. His insight is that desire is mimetic or imitative. The handy catch-phrase might be articulated as "I desire according to the desire of another." How is it that a person comes to desire anything at all? By observing what others want.
Quick thought experiment: you know how sometimes you bring home leftovers without any thought of actually eating them? You push the container into the refrigerator and resign yourself to throwing them out in a week...until your spouse or roommate comes by and eats them. "Hey! I wanted that!!" Did you, though? Why is it that you want it now, all of a sudden?
Or imagine a three-year old with 20 toys set out before him. He can have any toy he wants but which one will he want? He will want the very toy that some other baby will choose. From infancy, perhaps, it is true that "I desire according to the desire of another."
Watch the commercial. Look at what Chrysler is really selling. You have Gospel music (music originating in the experiences of slavery, of oppression, and that gives rise to hope) and Eminem juxtaposed: the old and the new. You have gritty images of abandoned buildings, rough edges, yet these are played off against images of real people doing everyday things. You are confronted with a sense that this is a city that has stared into the abyss of nothingness and has, somehow, managed to pull itself back from the brink.
When you buy the Chrysler, you aren't buying just a car. You are buying a lifestyle, a way of "being in the world." By buying the 200, you are buying not just an automobile, but a statement of your life's values.
I will write more on this later, but is Jesus offering us any less as he preaches the Kingdom of God through Word and Deed? Is he simply selling us a product - some promise of salvation - or is he trying to sell us a way of "being in the world" as a Christian, trying to carve out a Christian way of being a human being? Jesus doesn't want you simply to buy a product. He wants you to embrace a style of life, discipleship, and to make his values your values. Christians look to Jesus not as the one who gives us all of the answers at all times but instead as the one who tells us how to desire rightly. I desire according to the desire of another; I make my own the desires of Christ Jesus; I desire the Kingdom...and will not count the cost.
If you don't believe me, start watching commercials. It's funny that marketing agencies know how to influence our way of seeing reality, but too often our preachers neglect this fundamental dimension of being human. The practice of the Christian faith, rather than an escape from the challenges of the world, may actually turn out to be the therapy of our desire that helps to give credibility to the Word of God and its taking root in the Kingdom on earth.