The world seems to have two sorts of people – those who care about the Super Bowl and those who don’t! There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground – either you know the teams playing, the time of kick-off, and the vital post-season stats…or you don’t. So for the latter sort of people, the Super Bowl took place last night and it was contested between the New England Patriots (the favourites, after winning 3 out of the last 4 Super Bowls) and the Philadelphia Eagles (the underdogs, having had to replace their quarterback late into the playoffs). In case you didn’t stay up for the 11pm start (and the resulting small hours finish) and are planning to watch it still, I’ll not reveal the winner…but by all accounts it is worth the watch!
Behind the headlines of the game and the halftime show (Justin Timberlake going some way to atoning for his previous halftime appearance) there was a side issue that caught my attention. Each year the adverts shown during the half time intermission amass almost as much attention as the game itself. Careers have been launched through these adverts (UK indie artist, Passenger, topped the US charts after his song, Let Her Go, was used during the 2014 Super Bowl) and millions of dollars ride on the adverts (30 seconds of airtime reportedly costs around $5 million).
People sometimes ask me, why does studying theology help me to live as a Christian? Why does research on an obscure French philosopher help me to deal with real issues? I think this year’s Super Bowl adverts have helped me to articulate an answer (at least to some degree!)
In a one minute video, Dodge (the US car manufacturer) cleverly (?) used a speech by Martin Luther King, given exactly 50 years prior to Super Bowl LII, to advertise their Ram Trucks, and used the strapline “Built to Serve.” The speech was an extract from MLK’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon preached in Atlanta, which expounds Mark’s gospel, from the section that suggests whoever wishes to be the greatest must be the servant of all. In one sense, the use of MLK’s (paraphrased) words are perfect – “greatness comes from service”, and Dodge chimes in (paraphrased), “we have a car that serves you, so it must be great.” (All this is to say nothing of a link to the race issue that has been an undercurrent to the NFL season).
The problem comes, however, when you read the rest of King’s sermon. It is, I think, a masterful speech. Succinctly, MLK suggests ‘the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are “joiners”’ and this ‘explains why we are so often taken by advertisers.’ We crave attention (like a drum major) and this craving drives us to ‘live above our means’ as we try to keep up with the Joneses. (I would recommend reading the whole sermon for yourself). And here’s the interesting thing for me, Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher, also inspired by events in 1968 (albeit the student riots in France, not the race issues of the US), writes something very similar. He writes that we are dominated by the ‘code’ and this code is what drives us to consume endlessly. We want to differentiate ourselves from each other (in MLK’s words – grab attention) but in doing so we become slaves to the code of consumption. We have to consume more and more in order to get more and more attention. In an effort to stand out, we become conformed to the norm of consumption that flows throughout our contemporary culture. Baudrillard writes in The Consumer Society that ‘strictly speaking, the humans of the age of affluence are surrounded not so much by other human beings, as they were in all previous ages, but by objects.’ In a world of mobile phones, social media, and the Internet, so often we can be surrounded more by “things” than by people and our identity arises from objects rather than relationships. Consumerism has caused a breakdown of authentic community to the point that we compete with one another rather than serve the other.
In this context, MLK’s words ring out as a warning against the charm of advertisers, which are further enlightened by Baudrillard’s lament at the loss of relationship through consumption. Dodge seem to have shot themselves in the foot by using an anti-consumerist sermon to try to sell people their idea. What Dodge has done, is completely antithetical to what MLK was exhorting. Through the extended work of Baudrillard in the field of media and representation helps me to understand the contemporary world a little better. He develops an idea that suggests we lose perspective in a mediated world. Due to the dominance of consumption and the code, we find it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what is a creation of the media. Of course, this was all written before the days of social media. When we combine King’s “keeping up with the Joneses” and Baudrillard’s “mediated world” we realise that we live in a world where keeping up with the Joneses is not just the Joneses, but the millions of other social media users; and the mediated world means there is the ability to manipulate images, ideas, even the news, to the point where we cannot be certain what parts of the “Joneses” are real and what are created.
MLK’s words should ring clear today as much as 50 years ago – perhaps even clearer now than then. In one sense, I am pleased Dodge brought the sermon to the forefront of the public eye (though I am certain this was not their intention!) To exemplify Christ’s call to be servants, the church needs to be a place where consumerism of this sort does not take hold; where there is authentic encounter and not competitive attention-grabbing. Therefore, perhaps, we talk of relational ministry too glibly in discussions of church and mission. Relational ministry has become a buzzword (almost a consumer-driven package in itself) and yet, when we pitch authentic encounter against an ideology of consumption, we see the real potency in what MLK was saying:
‘Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. . . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.’
And so that is why I continue to read obscure philosophers and great theologians – to help the church become who it can be.
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!