There is no cultural event in contemporary life that draws as much cross-demographic interest as the Super Bowl. In a world where the monoculture has largely gone extinct, the Super Bowl remains that one thing where men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, conservative and liberal, the football passionate and the football tolerant gather together for the same experience. In a land where religious rites have become rare, every tribe, language, people, and nation still gather for this annual festival of football, food, and fellowship.
Like it does for everything else, social media has changed the experience of Super Bowl Sunday. We don’t just watch the game with the people in the room with us; we also watch it alongside of thousands of others (most of them strangers) online. When something big happens in the game or there is a noteworthy commercial or there is a levitating pregnant woman singing during half-time, our first look is down at our screens to see how others are responding. I’ve come to enjoy this aspect of watching the game, but it has also incentivized a particular type of online activity – the hot take. Chris Stapleton delivered the best anthem since Whitney. Rihanna’s half-time performance looked like something out of Super Smash Bros. The NFL has no idea what a catch is. I can’t believe the Bears traded up for Trubisky and ignored Mahomes. This is the second game the refs gave to the Chiefs. In most houses, the biggest yell of the game was during that Tubi commercial. Speaking of commercials . . .
There was a lot of conversation online during and after the game about the two “He Gets Us” ads. These ads, which have been running on television for a while, are expertly done. They are challenging without wagging a finger; they are welcoming without compromising. They present a Jesus who looks familiar to the Jesus of the gospels, distinct yet near, calling us to something greater while sympathizing with us in our weaknesses.
Most people seem to have appreciated the commercials. Atheists like Melissa Chen said it was the best commercial of the night. I had a friend tell me that he had several unchurched friends texting him about the commercials right after they aired. Even if you are not a follower of Jesus, there is something about these ads that provides a breathe of fresh air in the midst of the overwhelming consumerism of Super Bowl night. In the noisy, showy, strutting liturgy that is Super Bowl Sunday, these spare, black and white commercials served as a jolting reminder that there are deeper liturgies available to us.
Predictably, there were also people mad online. Some supposed conservatives decided to attack the content of the ads for editorializing the Bible and reflecting progressive values. It is hard for me to take this seriously. Every single sermon ever preached or Bible lesson ever taught has engaged in some sort of “editorializing” if all you mean by that is applying the truths of scripture to everyday life. Affirming that the incarnate son of God identifies with the conflicts and complexities of modern life is not “woke.” Spreading a message of Jesus that seeks to heal divisions and tribalism with love is not progressive. It’s Christian. Seeing wokeness everywhere you look is not advancing or safeguarding the gospel the way you think it is. Speaking of seeing the world through a set of blinders . . .
AOC decided that she needed to weigh in. Apparently, the commercials were about fascism or something.
A Democratic strategist named Sawyer Hackett offered this hot take which summarized a lot of the hand wringing about the ads.
It probably never entered Sawyer’s mind to ask about the tens of millions of dollars spent on campaign ads every year. I wonder how many people could be permanently housed if the Democrats decided to stop running ads about homelessness and spend the money trying to fix it. No, it isn’t a waste for Chevy or Pepsi to run an ad during the Super Bowl or the two political parties to spend 14.4 BILLION DOLLARS during the 2020 Presidential election. No, only Christians trying to tell people about Jesus are capable of wasting money.
Both of these hot takes are ridiculous on their face, but they do bring up an issue worth thinking about. Should Christians invest millions of dollars in a commercial? Aren’t there better investments to make? One person commenting on Twitter wondered how many missionaries could be supported with this money. Before diving into the question, a little historical perspective is needed.
Quentin Schultze has written numerous books on the church and technology through the years. One book in particular addresses evangelical uses of technology in North America. Evangelicals have a long history of using mass media to evangelistic ends in North America. In the 1830s, Christians took advantage of the development of the penny newspaper to launch massive gospel tract societies. In the twentieth century, Christians had an outsized presence in the radio and television industries. By 1986 there were 1,134 religious radio stations in the United States and 200 television stations. From 1968 to 1985 the roster of organizations affiliated with the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) increased more than tenfold, from 104 to 1,050. One evangelist said in 1974, “No pastor today should build a church without building the chancel for television or radio . . . Gospel broadcasting represents the growing edge of Christendom…the best methodology of evangelizing the world with the good news of the gospel.” In short, evangelicals in North America have a long history of leveraging mass media for the gospel. Schultze’s book was written well before 2020, but the movement towards online churches and streaming services are just the latest iteration of a 200 year trend. Schultze summarizes his thesis this way:
American evangelicalism was not a revolt against modernization as much as an attempt to steer the new industrial world in a millennial direction, to co-opt the rational use of technology for the goals of the kingdom of God and especially for the salvation of individual souls before the return of Jesus Christ.
Now, Schultze advises us to think well about our use of mass media in spreading the gospel. We run the risk, for instance, of turning the gospel into another consumer product, a commodity not altogether different from Doritos, Dunkin Donuts, T-Mobile, or any of the other companies enticing consumers during the Super Bowl. We would be wise to heed that warning. But that wasn’t really the criticism being leveled against the ads. The criticism was that the ads were wasteful and decadent. Simply put, most of the criticism was echoing the words of Judas in John 12:4-8.
On a purely practical level, you won’t ever convince me that spending exorbitant amounts of money to purchase time on the world’s largest stage to tell people about Jesus is a bad investment. You’re telling me that the Super Bowl needs less Jesus, not more? I’m sorry. That’s just not an argument that you’ll win. I suspect that many of the people (including many Christians) upset by the ads have appropriated a type of secular worldview which is generally embarrassed by public displays of religion. Of course a commercial will make you cringe if you’ve been conditioned over time to believe that religion must remain private, but it is absurd to believe that evangelicals should share this worldview. If you believe that individuals and societies are made better by hearing the gospel, you will naturally look for the largest megaphone possible.
In addition to the practical, there is also the theological level to consider. It is a bit ironic that those criticizing the money spent on the commercials are actually reflecting one of Protestantism’s historical flaws (in my opinion). We don’t do extravagance well. No, we work hard and spend our money sensibly without flare or excess. There’s a reason evangelicals love Dave Ramsey. He speaks their native tongue! Don’t get me wrong, there is something to be said about using wisdom and discretion in stewarding our resources. There is also something to be said about spending extravagantly for no other purpose than to glorify God. Such extravagance, done in the right heart, is a profound act of worship demonstrating that God is of infinitely greater worth than our own money and possessions. I’ll offer one example. Several years ago, I visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Now, I’m not naïve about what it took to build that edifice. I knew it was built largely on the backs of European peasants. But I defy you to visit St. Peter’s and tell me that building it was a mistake. It is extravagant and “wasteful” in the way that all art is wasteful, but it is also a building designed to elicit reflexive awe in everyone that visits. I am glad for its excesses.
Maybe you disagree. Maybe you think the excess of St. Peter’s or a Super Bowl commercial was unwarranted. Maybe you think there are better things to spend money on. Fine. Maybe you’re right. But I would ask you to consider this. With that as a standard, there is almost no expensive, personal or corporate, that can be justified. Does your church really need new carpet? Think about the people you could feed with that money. Do you really need that new pair of shoes? While people are homeless and living on the streets? You’re saving for retirement while people in your own town can’t put food on their table? I’m not trying to be snarky. I’m trying to get you to consider the standard that you’re setting up for yourself and the inevitable hypocrisy that will follow.
Maybe everyone just needs to chill about who is spending money on what and just rejoice in the fact that Jesus is being made known. This is what I concluded on Twitter: The “He Gets Us” ads are a litmus test for Christians. I’ve seen some on the right and the left express cynicism and even anger about the ads. If you saw the ads and thought “That’s nice. I’m glad someone did that. I hope it makes a positive difference.” Congrats. You’re normal.
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Great insight, Chad. May it be that Christians are prepared and willing to disciple those whose hearts were moved one step closer to Jesus because of these ads. God bless you and keep up the great work!
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