Human beings are “enstoried” creatures. We find ourselves inundated, moment by moment, with data of various kinds that must be interpreted, and the stories that we live within form the framework for our interpretation of the world around us. This can be true at the simplest level of life—I recognize and understand the different functions of a fork and a knife because of the narrative surrounding such implements (especially around proper table etiquette)—to the most profound of social difficulties—see, for example, the highly charged competing narratives on either side of various race issues in the United States. The stories we tell ourselves and that we live by thus have powerful implications for every facet of life, from ethics to epistemology to ontology. So what stories are we living by? (e.g., a grammarian lives by the story that this is an improperly built sentence in English; here, I am a deconstructionist: Down with the Binaries!)
What has brought this to mind, recently, is a return to Neil Postman’s incisive engagement with public discourse over the Christmas holidays. My colleague, Keith Stanglin, mentioned that he has been reading Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and that prompted me to revisit Postman’s portrayal of the salvific narrative of commercials, found especially in his essay “The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar,” in his book Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble about Language, Technology, and Education. If you haven’t read this one, you need to get hold of it.
Postman begins by explaining that the essay is a hermeneutical exercise, insofar as the majority of commercial advertisements are in fact a “form of religious literature.” Postman illustrates this by what he refers to as the “Parable of the Ring Around the Collar.” This particular commercial, Postman argues, serves as something of an “archetype” of what a commercial parable is: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it offers hope of salvation amidst transgression. The commercial proceeds as follows:
A married couple is depicted in some relaxed setting—a restaurant, say—in which they are enjoying each other’s company and generally having a wonderful time. But then a waitress approaches their table, notices that the man has a dirty collar, stares at it boldly, sneers with cold contempt, and announces to all within hearing the nature of his transgression. The man is humiliated and glares at his wife with scorn, for she is the source of his shame. She, in turn, assumes an expression of self-loathing mixed with self-pity. This is the parable’s beginning: the presentation of the problem.
The parable continues by showing the wife at home using a detergent that never fails to eliminate dirt around the collars of men’s shirts. She proudly shows her husband what she is doing, and he forgives her with an adoring smile. This is the parable’s middle: the solution of the problem. Finally, we are shown the couple in a restaurant once again, but this time they are free of the waitress’s probing eyes and bitter social chastisement. This is the parable’s end: the moral, the explication, the exegesis. From this, we should draw the proper conclusion (pp. 67–68).
Postman’s insight here could be updated and applied to our own culture, in which (especially) various pharmaceuticals promise salvation from all unhappiness. Notice how dark clouds part and smiles emerge and beautiful women or men suddenly appear when the patient takes the pill—even amidst the twelve second hurried narration of side-effects!
The truth is, commercial advertising is offering a quite different story by which we modern Americans can live our lives. We can find true happiness, satisfaction, and joy in our purchasing of products! Without these products and their powerful hope, you must live in deep, dark, overbearing despair. But with them! Oh happy day! You will have nothing but fun in life, probably even retire early, and be surrounded by beautiful people of whatever sex you prefer!
In many ways James K.A. Smith’s work in his Cultural Liturgies series is a theological extension of Postman’s thought, and Smith offers poignant insight and wisdom for anyone interested in helping the church navigate the maelstrom of the liturgies on offer in the late-capitalist world. The story in which we find ourselves immersed is that of consumerism, and it stands as a powerful threat to a church which is trying to find itself living by the authentic, true gospel story—the gospel of God, “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3–4)
What is the story of the church? It is the story of a broken relationship restored and broken people made whole through the grace of an infinitely loving and purely holy God, made manifest and shed freely through his Son, Jesus Christ. And this story has implications for how interpret the world around us, how we live our lives, how we resist the story of the age that calls us to be cogs in an economic machine. It gives us hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulty. And it calls us to holiness, to live lives in such a way that the world sees in us the story of God made manifest in our own lives toward the blessing of those around us. The gospel of God—not the empty, unfulfilling gospel of consumption—is our story. We should live as if it is so.