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Dodge Trucks and the Kingdom of God

This article originally appeared in “The Kingdom of God as Biblical Worldview,” the first session in Ridley’s A King Called Jesus:  A Biblical Theology of Christian Citizenship.  Registration to attend in person or participate via our livestream service remains open for two more weeks.  Sign up today!

Stories are all around us.  They’re in books.  They’re in film.  They’re in advertising.  They’re in family traditions as well as national ceremonies.  These stories shape what can be called a worldview.  Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright describes the function of worldview as the means by which we address:

the ultimate concerns of human beings…all deep-level human perceptions of reality, including the question of whether or not a god exists, what he, she, it or they is or are like, and how such a being, or such beings, might relate to the world.

For both the medieval as well as much of the modern period of Western history, Christians have enjoyed a monopoly on worldviews in the Western world.  This however, is no longer the case.  In the late modern era, which some describe as postmodernity, worldviews have proliferated like popcorn in the kettle.  Rather than one coherent worldview presented by a religious majority, now worldviews are conceived and shared by traditional majority groups such as governments and religious organizations as well as ethnic and sexual minorities as well as commercial interests such as Silicon Valley as well as entertainment interests such as Hollywood as well as …. we could go on and on.

What this means is that the traditional worldview of Western Christianity now has competitors, competitors that offer different answers to life’s big questions.  And though the proliferation of worldviews has progressed at breakneck speed, our ability to identify when worldviews are being advanced by political, religious, or commercial interests has actually been weakened, not strengthened by this emergent worldview diversity.  Bluntly put, Western people suffer from what could be described as worldview naiveté.  Modern Westerners are largely incapable of articulating their own worldview, as well as identifying when opposing worldviews are being foisted upon them.

A helpful example of worldview naiveté comes from Dodge Ram’s 2013 Super Bowl Commercial.  The commercial opens with a speech from conservative radio host Paul Harvey, first delivered in 1978.  You can watch it here.

The commercial is more than a T.V. spot.  It’s storytelling.  And the story goes to reinforce and fill out a worldview.  The commercial won over audiences as well as critics.  The magazine Adweek rated the commercial as second in its list of the year’s best.  The commercial particularly appealed to Christians, with prominent Christian pastors such as Mark Driscoll, Ed Stetzer, Steve McCoy, among others lending their hearty endorsement and enthusiasm for the spot.  But despite the hearty enthusiasm, it is worth looking more closely at the commercial itself and asking whether or not it actually presents a worldview that Christians should celebrate.

Ethan Tussey, writing for Critical Commons noted that the ad succeeds by “tapping into a spiritual connectedness among the audience” while nevertheless skillfully avoiding any issues, theological or otherwise that would “alienate various audiences.”  Samuel Goldman, writing for The American Conservative described the commercial as reflecting ” the blend of American civil religion, Jeffersonian idealism, and corporate capitalism that has long defined America’s public culture.”  The point of the commercial, as Tussey rightly points out, is not to advance a particular religious worldview (Christian or otherwise) but to “call upon deeply held beliefs about American identity.”  All this done for the simple purpose of selling a truck.

The success of Dodge’s “God made a farmer” commercial should alert us to what I earlier described as worldview naiveté.  The worldview set forth in the commercial appealed to Christians, even though the worldview in the commercial wasn’t Christian.  Rather, the worldview reflected in the commercial was packaged to appeal to religious people, especially Christians, but what the commercial really reflected was what could be described as the worldview of Western consumerism.

British theologian W.T. Cavanaugh describes the worldview of consumerism as a “type of spirituality” whereby through our purchases we “pursue meaning and identity.” The commercial sets forth powerfully that the meaning of life is found in hard, honest work for self and family.  The identity being pursued is that of the salt of the earth, the simple, hard-working, God-fearing farmer.  How does one enter into this identity?  Purchase a Dodge Ram. “The power of the ad,” writes Goldman, “suggests the formula still sells, even to consumers who regard themselves as too sophisticated for such a cloying brew.”  And that’s precisely the power as well as the danger of worldview naiveté.  Viewers no doubt regard themselves as too sophisticated to fall for such cheap tricks, and yet the film has been seen more than 20 million times and shared several million times on social media.  The audience had the inelegant worldview of Western consumerism thrust upon them in the guise of religious respectability and no one even noticed.  That’s the essence of worldview naiveté.

Whereas the worldview of Western Consumerism claims that identity is acquired through purchase, the Christian worldview claims that identity is a gift given by God at creation (Gen 1.27) but lost through sin (Gen 3).  Like a child denouncing the family name, sin causes us to forsake our God given identity (Luke 15.11-32).  Unlike Western Consumerism, God does not require us to buy back our identity from him with works or cash.  Rather, identity is generously, and at great cost re-gifted through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ whereby we are made “Children of God” (Rom 8.15).  The danger of worldview naiveté is that no one notices when the bottom barrel worldview of Western Consumerism (or others)  clothes itself in the trappings of religion, even Christianity.  And of course if no one notices, it doesn’t take long before people can’t tell the difference between Western Consumerism and Christianity.  That may just be a tragedy with eternal consequences.

The particular consequence that this has for the Christian is that the Christian may unwittingly heed the call of a King other than Jesus.  In this case the call of Western Consumerism, with its accompanying command of “Come buy and be saved!”  But it could just as easily be the call of Nationalism, which claims that salvation is pursued through national greatness (in Jesus name), or Western Liberalism, which claims that salvation is gained through the pursuit of the uninhibited life.  One could go on and on.  Not only does such worldview naiveté lead the Christian unwillingly astray, but it misrepresents Christianity to a watching world, which will no doubt be incapable of rightly distinguishing the imposters from the real thing.

This post was written by Rob Sturdy

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