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Culture Friday: Jesus and Super Bowl commercials


WORLD Radio - Culture Friday: Jesus and Super Bowl commercials

Plus, Christianity grounds a person with dignity, value, and purpose amid this culture of mental illness

Screenshot from the "He Saves Us" commercial

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: It’s Friday the 16th of February, 2024. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Lindsay Mast.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. It’s time for Culture Friday, and joining us now is John Stonestreet. He’s president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast.

Morning, John!


BROWN: John, the details are still coming in on Sunday’s shooting at Lakewood Church in Houston. The shooter was shot and killed by two off-duty officers providing security at the church.

Two people, one of them a child, was injured, the shooter’s son. Court records identify Genesse Moreno as female, despite multiple aliases including the name Jeffery. Of course, that led to questions about whether or not she identified as transgender. At the very least, she was troubled.

As we reported on WORLD Radio, Moreno attended Lakewood Church, and even donated to it.

A couple of observations John: Lakewood is a prosperity-teaching megachurch. Obviously Moreno needed more than that kind of teaching in her life.

Generally speaking, what role should the church play in meeting the physical, mental and spiritual needs of people?

STONESTREET: Well, it’s a great question. And it’s a tragedy, and you can’t actually blame this or any lack of on the church or the pastor, anyone who did anything like that. I have had my own criticisms of megachurches, particularly this one in the past. And I remember just about to speak at an event and a woman who had found Jesus out of a lesbian lifestyle. And one of the things that led her to Christ was the billboard of Lakewood Church, because it was so positive. That it was and you know, of course, that has way more to do with what God does to reach out to people than the excellencies of our strategies or the lack thereof.

But you know, I think what’s really important here is that there is a series obviously, of comorbidities in terms of mental illnesses. That’s something that we see associated with people who struggle with gender. That’s not a very popular thing to say, and I’m not trying to use this as kind of my wedge, in order to say this about this. This is something that’s not being said, that needs to be said. But beyond that, it’s an example of a culture of mental illness, a culture where people are not okay, at a degree that we’ve not yet seen. And, you know, so many people talk about being harmed and hurt by their background in the church. We need more people talking about being harmed and hurt by this expressive, individualistic secular culture that gives them no strong resources of a stable family, a stable sense of identity or anything else. And it’s expressing itself, I think, in two main forms.

One is the popularized phrase, so-called deaths of despair - addiction and suicidality - and we’re seeing such, you know, skyrocketing rates of things that would fit into that category. This falls into the category of acts of desperation, both a nonstop search to try to achieve an identity, to putting your own child at risk and acting out like this. And you can kind of see, too, that on the stock of the barrel, there was a, you know, a Palestine sticker. She had these other issues. You know, you have somebody just grasping for a cause, grasping for hope, grasping for anything. And the church has, I think, the ability right now, when everybody else is out of ideas, in grounding people with a sense of meaning, purpose, and value, and dignity.

So this is where the rubber hits the road, because we’ve talked about these issues. Like, well, Christianity grounds dignity and value and purpose, and atheism does not or secularism does not. and we’ve done it primarily in a theoretical way. In other words, let’s compare worldviews, and let’s compare what logically follows from this set of assumptions and that set of assumptions, which is exactly right. No one was wrong to do that. But I think now we’ve moved into the time where the theoretical has become existential. And we see example after example, where no, really people are struggling with meaninglessness. And when that happens, it takes these various forms of deaths of despair and acts of desperation. And who else has the ground of meaning other than the church. So this is a mission moment, I think.

MAST: Switching gears. Lots of talk this week about the Super Bowl, and its ads of course. I want to talk for a minute about one campaign in particular.

The “He Gets Us” ads ran for a total of 75 seconds over the course of the game. They cost an estimated 17.5 million dollars– that’s according to AdWeek.com.

I’ll paint the picture here: The longer of the two featured a slowed-down cover of a song called “Never Tear Us Apart” and images of one person washing the feet of someone they might seemingly be at ideological odds with.

They included a police officer, a pro-life advocate, a priest for a transgender individual, the list goes on.

The end of the ad featured the words: “Jesus didn’t teach hate. He washed feet. He gets us. All of us.”

Opinions on this are all over the place. Some say they stopped short of telling the whole truth about what it means to experience Jesus. British pastor and content creator Jamie Bambrick made a response video called “He Saves Us.” It showed a number of prominent people who have experienced radical life changes after coming to Christ.

John, why did these ads strike such a nerve? And what is the right response in trying to make sense of them?

STONESTREET: Yeah, it’s a great question. When I first saw the “He Gets Us” campaign, and from the very beginning, I thought it was absolutely brilliant and genius, because it’s introducing Jesus to a group of people in a particular missional moment. And our missional moment is one where people don’t have that familiarity. Jesus gets mistaken for a Far East guru, Jesus gets mistaken for, you know, this kind of esoteric God sort of figure from a religion that’s not really true. Jesus, you know, gets considered a myth or, you know, just kind of whatever, and to actually introduce, you know, the humanity of Jesus in this way, I thought was an incredibly important campaign.

Some of the ads I thought were great, some of the ads I thought weren't. It was kind of a hit and miss thing. This Superbowl ad, I thought was a real miss. And it was a real miss because what it ended up saying I think was, you know, Jesus gets, you know, all of you who think Christians are the problem with the world. Jesus gets all of you who think that Christian morality is stifling of your radical individualism. Jesus, you know, gets all of you unless, you know, you’re on the right, whether theologically or politically. And so I think it undermined the message.

I think you can tell the wonderful story of how Jesus condescended to humanity, which was one of the most unique aspects of Christian theology, and its compelling nature to us that the God of the universe doesn’t just exist and has moral laws that we have to follow and we’ve broken, but that he has lived our life. And this is a point of emphasis in Scripture, something that Paul talks about, something that he's felt, all of the author of Hebrews, he’s been tempted in the same way. There’s a lot there that will bring people you know, potentially to Christ without having to go after Christians.

You asked specifically about the amazing turnaround on the “He Saves Us” commercial, which was like 24 hours later. And I thought, “Wow, that really is something,” and it, because I think it actually did some of the things that the better ads in the “He Gets Us” campaign does, first of all. 

And then secondly, I think, I think we’re in a moment where there’s probably more exhaustion from having kind of run into an unfettered life of rebellion against God that our culture allows, right? You don’t even have the cultural structures of family and kind of religious norms, or old fashioned cultural norms to keep you from making bad, you know, basically anything goes. And so there’s probably a lot more regret from the communities that we often consider our ideological enemies. And to actually just offer, you know what, this is a former lesbian activist, and look here, this is a former KKK member, and look here, this is a former, you know, fill in the blank. That’s compelling, because I think people know that the sin that they’ve entered has taken them away from their humanness, not to it, and that’s what restoration and redemption promises us.

So I was blown away by how quickly that was, was brought to the table and how great it was. It’s been shared on my social media feed about 8 million times. So I don’t know, you know, what the views are on that, but I’m excited. And you know, in a way you could just say that “He Saves Us” was a response to the “He Gets Us” so, you know, God is bringing out his truth in his own way. And, you know, I’m grateful that all the results belong to Him.

BROWN: For sure. John, I want to preface this last question with a question. Do you have a family pet?

STONESTREET: Not at the moment. Okay. I mean, not ones we plan on, we’ve got you know, bugs and some rabbits in the backyard, but you know, nothing  we feed intentionally.

BROWN: Lindsay, what about you?

MAST: We currently have, we have one fish right now.

STONESTREET: You have one fish?

BROWN: One fish, okay. Okay. And we and I have a dog who belongs to my daughter who lives in our basement. So there we go. I asked that question because, John, you have some strong words in response to an article written in The Atlantic. Specifically, this assertion, and I’m gonna quote here from the article.

The writer says, “Pet owners deserve the same support systems that help people care for any loved ones. After all, psychologically, scientifically, the bonds humans forge with animals can feel as strong as the ones we make with each other, even those with family, even with our kids.”

As Americans, we are a huge culture of pet lovers, and they are amazing companions. So what’s the problem, John?

STONESTREET: Yeah, I got in a lot of trouble for a commentary on Breakpoint. So thank you so much for asking it so that the listeners to this podcast can also write in hate mail. But thankfully, those emails go to you and not to me.

Look, I don’t think that a relationship between humans and animals is the problem. I don’t think actually feeling affection and finding companionship in those relationships are in and of themselves a problem at all. In fact, in Christian history, it is Christians, most notably William Wilberforce. Here’s someone who stood for human dignity and also stood for the dignity of animals, and the treatment of animals and that it should be well. And that’s basically it has to come from the first three chapters of Genesis where you have a specific intent and purpose for living things that God put into the creation. He calls his creation good, even very good. And you have this relationship of care and so on.

The problem is, is we live in a culture that devalues humans. The problem is, is that we’re using pets as replacements. We actually use language where, you know, this article was actually calling for paw-ternity leave. In other words, when you get a new pet, you should get the same amount of time off work as someone who just had a baby. You know, we should have health insurance that is provided by employers at the same level. We have people that call their pets “fur babies.” Now, for some people that don’t mean anything by it. But you need to understand there’s a whole rising generation of young adults who actually don’t believe in family. Family is not a norm for them. It’s an abnormal thing. It’s something that’s a source of pain, not a source of good. And in their minds, pets actually are replacements for people and for children, they’ve made that choice.

But even listen to the line that you read: “Psychologically, scientifically, the bonds human forge with animals can feel as strong as the ones we make with each other.” So now we have that the substance of a relationship is based on feelings. What could go wrong with that picture? Well, what goes wrong is what we already know, which is when our feelings change, we walk away from relational commitments with other humans. So really, I think the problem with the Atlantic article, and their proposal in particular, is not that we’re even valuing pets too much, although some of the money we spend on them is pretty ridiculous. On the other hand, I think it is happening in a context in which we’re not valuing people, specifically the young and the elderly. And we’re not maintaining our commitments that we’ve made to each other relationally.

So, you know, I always go back to a story of a friend who said, you know, “Hey, last week, I walked up to the gate at the airport, and I saw a kid on a leash and a dog in a stroller,” and I thought that says it all right there. Look, I get why you put little dogs in strollers in airports, because they’re gonna get run over. And trust me, I have a six year old boy–if I didn’t mention that. I get why you put leashes on kids sometimes, you know, but the point is, is that we’ve got this got this backwards as a culture. And that’s not to say if you have a pet and he’s great that you don’t love them. Of course you do. And that’s okay.

MAST: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast. Thanks so much, John.

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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