God goes to the Super Bowl: Lutheran theology & commercials collide

I know it might seem strange to post about Super Bowl commercials on what is usually a blog dealing with spiritual issues, but I saw three advertisements which had a distinct spiritual and community dynamic. These stood out for their positive messages and in two cases, explicit reference to spiritual life. Others are here as they raise interesting theological points for discussion. We often say that “God is everywhere,” so why shouldn’t theology and advertisement meet?

Surely, as many scholarly books attest, I understand that consumerism can negatively impact and shape our spiritual views. Spirituality and community life can become just another marketing ploy. The “perfect life” can prove a hollow idol created by advertising executives and leading us away from God and our neighbor. These are true risks in our world.

In addition, some churches have adapted a sales approach to mission and ministry; striving to entertain an audience while seeking to outdo the competitor congregations through fresh, sometimes extreme marketing. This sometimes creates a church which one observant friend described as “theologically a mile wide but only an inch deep.” Such faith communities tend not to be rooted in the past nor truly engaging the inner lives of participants in the present. They can become not much different than the local car lot offering a special drawing or showplace just trying to fill seats and maximize the take.

Still, I found these entries in the Super Bowl race for attention unique and worthy of mention. Perhaps they might seem hokey to some. Maybe the companies have some alternative, darker reasons behind the pitch. Conceivable, I can be making too much out of nothing. Yet when so many companies go for tasteless shock and awe, it was refreshing to watch these.

My Top 3 Super Bowl Ads for 2013:

1st Place – Ram: The Farmer

I appreciated that the video presentation seamlessly echoed the great Paul Harvey’s wonderful reflections on the often forgotten or underappreciated farmer. Having lived for a time in the mid-west, I remember well the hardworking individuals staying out all night in sub-zero weather to care for a calf. I saw them tend to their families, their fields, their animals, and their business with passion, dedication and love. I admired the magnificent images; many of them like artwork and showing the many facets of the people we call farmers. Subtly placed within the images are diverse people praying, hoping, and loving while trying to make a living. At the same time, they have the ability to make the world a better place. Indeed, the farmer shares a vocation in the purest sense. Their work is a call from God. Let’s pray that they succeed in nobley living up to that call.

2nd Place – The Jeep: Whole Again

In our small church community, we have had a number of people who have served in the military to include wartime. Some have suffered from post-traumatic stress decades after their experience, while others are younger and dealing with fresher but what will likely be long-lasting wounds. Fortunately, not all suffer in this way. Yet no matter their status, we have a very affirming community for our military veterans. Several military installations are nearby, and a number of our people in our community work in support of the military which defends us.

We read news items of deaths. We hear of injuries and disability. Instead of statistics, we see our family members, friends, comrades, and neighbors. We know families split apart for far too long of a time (and any length of time is too long, even if necessary). Through these shared experiences, we sense the validity of Martin Luther’s reflections on the military being a vocation, a sacred calling:

…In the same way, when I think of a soldier fulfilling his office by punishing the wicked, killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love. But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honor and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish… (excerpted from Martin Luther’s Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved)

With the historic love affair between jeeps and the military, along with this tasteful presentation (even explicitly yet subtley mentioning prayer no less), their advertisement doesn’t come across as jingoistic to me. It speaks of yearning, servant leadership, and love. We are not whole until there is peace and our military can be with us once again. The wounds of wars and a fallen world run deep, but there is hope. We can remain in a loving communion as we wait upon the Lord to restore peace and wholeness to our lives and our world.

3rd Place – Budweiser : The Clydesdales – Brotherhood

This ad could have perhaps made Francis of Assissi feel verklempt. Although fictional, the love that can be shared between man and animal reminds me of the “pets” in my own life who teach me about laughter and love every day. These relationships are spiritual in nature. Genesis may indicate God shares his dominion over the world and all that’s in it with us, but we are not to be abusive lords. We are to be loving stewards, caring for creation and the lives within it. This tender commercial has touched the hearts of many. If only more people would look deeper to see how all creation points us toward the majestic love of our God.

Lastly, some may questions the use of a beer commercial on this blog, but recall that Martin Luther and his wife, Katie, made their own beer and even sold it to support their Reformation work. For the theological merits of making or imbibing alcohol, that must wait for another time.


Samsung Mobile USA: The Next Big Thing

Although snarky, this runner-up is mentioned not only for its humor, but how it reflects our all too common tendency to be “bent inward upon ourselves” (as Martin Luther used to say). Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd play themselves, called in to promote the next big thing from Samsung. They both assume they are being recruited as “the next big thing,” rising stars in a media culture. This flash point to humor reminds us of our shared Achilles heel, our hubris. It was, is and remains the source of our common Fall.

Questionable Mention:

Tide: No stain is sacred

Certainly, I could have picked many of the hyper-sexual, juvenile, or abusive ads seeking to attract attention through shock. Instead, I will only mention this Tide commercial. I get the humor in it, but it also gave me reason to pause. Many people fall in the trap of a simple, superstitious faith where they see images and find meaning in questionable things – an image of Jesus on toast or a taco for example. Yet, there are other images such as Our Lady of Guadalupe that are much harder to explain away.

Lutherans (and Protestants in general) become cautious when discussing the mixing of spirit and matter, the gift of something spiritual – grace – by means of physical things. We do so because human nature often leads us toward excess. We have a tendency to create idols and pay for relics. We begin to worship things of humanity or earth rather than God. Lutherans do believe God can use the physical bound to the Word through faith as a means of grace (as in our two Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), but we would reject the superstitious sightings of grace so often merged with transitory things.

Martin Luther often used humor himself to attack this tendency in the church of his time (a church made of very fallible people just like today). Yet while on one hand I see the humor of this modern ad, I fear it might make people laugh at faith as a whole in some manner. I don’t personally like to mock my neighbors who might find spiritual meaning in such things, even if I don’t. I never hesitate to speak openly of my concerns about such behaviors, but hopefully, we can do so out of love for our neighbor and show them respect.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.


Leave a comment

Filed under Community Life, Theology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s