In what is probably an indication of a prattled brain, a movie made in the 1940s and a TV commercial made in 2018 gave me a thought of biblical proportions.
I can almost guarantee without fear of contradiction this was not the intent of either the 1940s filmmakers or the 2018 Madison Avenue mavens — still, there it was. Both examples of popular culture, though separated by more than seven decades, hold fast to concepts that are in direct contradiction to tenets found in both the Old and New Testament.
The old movie I saw on cable was about a middle-aged man who flirts with a young lady and suddenly gets himself embroiled in murder, conspiracy, blackmail, and general mayhem. Things go from bad to really bad in no time and when it looks like the poor sap is doomed, poof, he wakes up and finds himself in the comfy confines of his private club. It was all a dream. The murder victim is actually the kindly valet at the club, the blackmailer, the happy-go-lucky doorman.
According to the host of the program that aired this movie, even 1944 movie audiences didn’t like being fooled. But they did like happy endings. We are all looking for that happily-ever-after moment and culture, seemingly from the time we began walking upright, has sought to slake that thirst for earthly things.
The more modern version of this human inclination I found the same day on a TV commercial for a financial planning company. The commercial was eye catching. They must have used Computer Generated Imaging to take a couple from courtship to marriage to children to major career and finally, in old age, enjoying a rather cushy retirement thanks to the prowess of the financial planning company of course.
It was another ending full of rainbows and unicorns, which immediately — remember, I possess prattled grey matter — had me thinking about a biblical context. Happily ever afters may be standard popular culture motifs, but they are few and far between in scripture.
Adam and Eve get booted from the Garden of Eden. Noah runs into an awkward mess after surviving the flood, Moses is not allowed to put one toe into the Promised Land and King David falls from grace faster than Wile E. Coyote plummets into the abyss of the Grand Canyon in a Road Runner cartoon. Let’s see somebody else marry biblical commentary to Warner Brothers cartoons.
New Testament giants don’t do much better. I don’t believe hanging upside down on a cross was the happy ending St. Peter imagined for himself…more about that later.
And many people who encounter Jesus throughout the Gospels are not only underwhelmed by his message but are often rather hostile to it. It’s another reason to believe the truth of holy scripture. If someone was making this up, if someone was trying to “grab” a bigger share of the audience, they would not have included so many difficult things that came out of Jesus’ mouth. The public (the popular culture of any age if you will) always wants the same thing — minimum amounts of pain and maximum amounts of earthly pleasure.
It’s part of every TV commercial, show, and movie from the beginning of televised time. And it is a philosophy that has run into the exact same wall over and over again from the beginning of all time.
In the TV commercial about financial planning, the popular culture teaches that if you do everything right, plan effectively and have, based on the commercial I saw, a pretty high paying job to begin with, you will be set for life.
Jesus teaches that if you do everything right, plan effectively, you can expect to be hung upside down on a cross. Another great indicator of the truth of the Gospel.
How can such a notion get traction? Certainly, the ancient Romans rejected it at first on their way to the circus or the vomitorium, just as not so ancient people also turn their backs on it in pursuit of NFL ticket, their golden parachutes, and vacation homes.
But the message took root in the first century AD and continues to blossom and grow today despite so many challenges from within and without, because the truth taught by Jesus is Madison Avenue proof.
Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.
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