It seems that in our present cultural moment many, if not most, things are filtered by ‘left’ and right’, and then hotly contested on those grounds. These categories can transcend other potential allegiances and differences such as ethnicity, social class, and creed, so that many people are operating on binary assumptions in terms of what they approve of and what they abominate. The recent advert from razor manufacturer Gillette, has been passed through the machinery of each side of this debate, finding a home in the world of the left, and finding a measure of hatred in the world of the right.
The difficulty with any intellectual binary is its capacity to mask complexity, to hide nuance, and depth of meaning, and even to obscure bigger issues which may be hiding behind the hysterics of whose camp a cultural object belongs to. This is almost certainly the case with Gillette’s latest campaign. Unless we understand that this advert is not really about men, but is instead superficially about marketing, and fundamentally about meaning, then we are focussing on the wrong part of the playing field. In this short post I want to highlight some of the bigger issues behind ‘The Best a Man Can Be’, in the hope of demonstrating what it says about society, and more specifically what it says about the church’s voice in that realm.
Marketing has subtly moved from ‘get’ to ‘be’: the marketing executives at Gillette clearly had their heads screwed on when they came up with this ad. They have managed to subsume so many cultural issues into a 90 second sample that one can only stand back in astonishment at the creativity and ingenuity involved. Male identity (the actors are looking at themselves in the mirror, with the gaze of those poised for soliloquy), the aftermath of ‘Me Too’ with its insistence on clearing up the moral wreckage of male chauvinism, the profound needs of fatherless boys, and society as a leaderless realm, the intersection of moral absolutes like courage with the disaffection of lost boys – all of these issues are powerfully woven into the narrative. The most telling frame in the whole sequence, however, is when the old ad banner of ‘The Best a Man Can Get’ is flashed on the screen only to be replaced with ‘The Best a Man Can Be’. The swapping out of those concluding verbs in the strap line reveal to us a world of ideology, epistemology, and even theology.
Marketing has seized the moment, it has recognised that in the post-postmodern void there is a generation of middle aged people (in this case men) who are crying out for meaning, for moral direction, for some kind of social and personal fibre on which to build their decisions, and with which to equip their young. The old bastions of meaning are gone – government, the church, aesthetic depth, agreed social morals – and so our eyes have wandered to the screen, to the flashing image, to the emotive story. Marketers have come to understand that our value judgements are almost entirely sensory now, that we are more vulnerable to banners than previous generations, and that we are desperate for someone to give us identity. Ultimately Gillette want to sell razors, but if the gateway to doing this is to sell reason, then so be it. This is an astonishing display of what has been quietly taking place in Western culture for a generation, a final affirmation that morals can be commercialised and that commercials can be moralised, and we will follow the company who most affectively taps into this vein. We can now purchase our existential *raison d’etre*along with our razors.
In an imperative culture indicatives are no longer needed: if we step back from the ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ and think about the strength of this slogan in comparison to its source, then a picture emerges of the cognitive processes that now lie behind our reasoning as 21st century people. If the point above raised the issue of why a razor company would peddle reason, then I am trying here to tease out why we would accept their version of it. Gillette have no moral indicatives to offer, Proctor and Gamble cannot give us good reasons why their version of masculinity and morality should be accepted above any other, and the telling part of this is that they don’t need to. Society wants truth, but only of the imperative kind, and only if it can be reduced to a slogan, or to a simple moral reflex. The fact that marketers know that customers will be slow to ask ‘who are you to tell me what to do?’ suggests that the eclipse of objective rationale and critique is almost complete.
This is a massive cultural issue, but it also really matters for the church. The tragedy of broad evangelicalism is that the Gillette advert does not sound very unlike the content of the sermons that many Christians will listen to this coming Sunday. In a therapeutic culture, in a society which wants to be fixed without ever being diagnosed, the teaching from the pulpit can transgress into a slogan laden, morality slanted, motivational talk which simply tells us what to do. Why we should do that, what gospel indicatives lie behind our identity and our morality are either skimmed through, glossed over, or entirely ignored. And the people love it.
As a preacher this means that I am going to have to do some major reconstructive work in the minds of my hearers in order for there to be true gospel living among believers. It means that I am going to have retune and retain the ears of those who listen to my ministry, and recalibrate their appetites to understand the why before I speak to them of the what and the how. This might sound depressive, but it really ought not to be. As a minster of the gospel of Jesus Christ I can offer to men and women the objective message of true life from and union with the only Saviour. I can reason as well as appeal, I can teach rather than tempt, I can with the Holy Spirit’s help speak absolute truth to the will of those who hear me, but I’m going to have value such a task myself, before I expect others to respond to it. It’s interesting that so much of our men’s work in particular can be an invite to activism, to ‘man up’, rather than an invite to understand what the gospel is in order to experience what the gospel does.
The Enlightenment is alive and well among our razor blades: the final observation to be made here is the grounds for moral and social transformation that ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ establishes. The task of men cleaning up their act, of putting chauvinism to bed (alone), of raising up boys who will be true men, is found within the moral resolve of the individual. As the series of actors stare into the mirror at the beginning of the advert we are witnessing our steady Enlightenment insistence that we turn to the subject, that the grit to make decisions to engage in redemptive action lies within us alone, that we have been given (or have by evolution developed for ourselves) everything we need to answer the #MeToo movement with #NewMe.
This is Kantian, and it is deeply counter Christian, and yet we are slow to recognise it precisely because the church has at times downplayed the need and nature of true salvation. The world will not be turned upside down by men who watch this ad, the juvenile lynch mobs will continue to stab and hate, the lecherous male will continue to ogle and grope, the feckless among men will continue to stand back while the world disintegrates, because ultimately we are broken, and are utterly bereft of fixing ourselves. If our ministry as preachers, or as churches, is not making this clear, then we are no longer preaching Christ but are marketing the church as one commodity among many which can lead us to self realisation.