A few years ago an advertising exec pulled me aside after sitting through one of our “No Parent Left Behind”seminars where I spend some time unpacking how marketers tap into our unfulfilled desires in order to dupe us into buying their products. I was wrong to think that he was going to take me to task for something I had said. Instead, he told me that he had just returned from a visit to one of his subcontractors who was involved in some high-level brain research. . . all for the purpose of working to discover how to use advertising to stimulate the kind of brain chemistry that would lead to addiction to a product. He proceeded to confess how dirty it all made him feel. And, rightly so.
Marketing taps into our desire to be redeemed, to be made whole, to be at one with our Creator. . . whether we realize that’s what our yearning is for or not. In effect, marketing is a spiritual endeavor which can go beyond informing us of what’s out there, to promising redemption through the acquisition and consumption of what’s out there. And in every case where wholeness is promised, the promise is empty. Only God can fill the G0d-shaped-vacuum that exists in all of us who live in a post-Genesis 3:6 world.
I was reminded of my conversation with this man once again this morning, as I’ve continued to carefully read through Jonathan Grant’s amazing book, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age. So far, this is not so much a book about sex, but a deep and compelling analysis of the cultural forces that are combining to reframe our understanding and practice of sexuality in ways that undermine human flourishing. (As an aside, this is one of those books where every sentence is worth pausing over and pondering).
In his chapter “We Are What We Acquire,” Grant brilliantly describes how our search for redemption and wholeness leads us to our shopping malls where we “worship” according to the “new global religion” of consumerism by engaging in the “spiritual disciplines” of acquisition and consumption. Stand back as you read Grant’s analysis, and you’ll see an almost embarrassing picture of our culture, our kids, and yes. . . even ourselves.
Consider these words from Grant: Rather than being a “neutral” space, the mall is a religious and formational. It shapes our ultimate desires by presenting a vision of human flourishing embedded, and thereby concealed, within its social imaginary. This vision carries an implicit notion of personal brokenness equivalent to ‘sin,’ so that its icons present an image of the perfect life that highlights the gulf between them and us. The mall taps into legitimate human drives, such as the quest for happiness, progress, and beauty, but it exploits these desires by creating a sense of insufficiency in our lives that needs to be filled. Within the identity crisis that it creates, consumerism offers us hope of redemption through its own gods: again, acquisition and consumption.
Good stuff. And sadly, oh so true.
As an example of this reality, Grant mentions a short documentary film that provides a philosophical window into how this all works. The film is called 34 x 25 x 36, and it is stunning. The seven-minute-short takes you inside a female mannequin factory. And if you don’t believe what Grant unpacks in relationship to our quest for wholeness and never-ending money-spending trips to the mall as a form of worship. . . well. . . give this a look. I think it’s worth pondering with our more thoughtful kids. . .