By: Christopher West
Time Magazine recently reported that a “sexy” PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) commercial was “too hot” for TV and got nixed from the Superbowl’s line up of provocative commercials. That’s good, I thought. At least somebody is drawing a line somewhere. But as I thought about it, I realized that the fact that that was my first reaction only demonstrates how numb I’ve become to the absurdity of using sex to sell, well, everything. A commercial on saving cows from the butcher block so “sexy” that it’s “too hot” for the Superbowl? C’mon!
So, Why Does Sex Sell?
That may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but I want to dig a little deeper. I recently came across an article by James K.A. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, that provides some provocative insights into this question. And he draws from none other than St. Augustine to make his point. In the article, entitled “The Erotics of Truth, and Other Scandalous Lessons from Augustine of Hippo,” Smith wrote:
“I think [Christians] should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry — which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connect to our heart and imagination — is … able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because they have rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures…. They have figured out the way to our heart because they ‘get it’: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures — creatures who are oriented by love and passion and desire” (Comment, June 2008).
Here it seems Smith is referring to “eros” in the sense that Plato used the term — the inner desire and yearning of the human being for the true, the good, and the beautiful. This yearning passes by way of sexuality, but it points beyond it as well. Eros speaks to our longing for transcendence — for a beauty, for a love ultimately beyond what this world has to offer.
Ironically, eros cannot be satisfied by the merely “erotic.” Even Freud understood this: “We must reckon,” he wrote, “with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavorable to the realization of complete satisfaction” (“On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” sct. 3). And it’s on this point that the media does not “get it.” Marketers continually promise “complete satisfaction” for “three easy payments of 19.95.” As Smith puts it, “Certain modes of advertizing appeal … directly to eros, … and then in a bait-and-switch move of substitution, channel our desire into a product.” Smith rightly calls this the “bastardization of the erotic.”
Debasing the Erotic Desire
To “bastardize” means to debase something — to reduce from a high state to a lower state. That’s precisely what’s happening in us when we image that eros can be satisfied by the things of this world. The union of man and woman — as beautiful and wonderful as it can be — is only a sign, an icon that is meant to point us to something Infinitely greater — the love of God himself. As Augustine famously put it: “You have made us for yourself oh God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” A beloved professor of mine, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, put it this way: “We talk about different ‘sexual orientations’ in human life. But the ultimate orientation of human sexuality is the human heart’s yearning for infinity. Human sexuality, therefore, is a sign of eternity” (God at the Ritz, p. 120). This means, as Smith observes, that the “erotic — even misdirected eros — is a sign of the kinds of animals we are: creatures who desire God.”
Christians are right to raise serious concerns about the provocative and even pornographic nature of so much of today’s advertizing. But how should we respond? Rather than condemning the media outright, Smith suggests that Christians should honor what the marketing industry has right — that we are creatures of desire — and then respond in kind with counter-measures that demonstrate where desire really points us (to God). The Church is not opposed to desire! Rather, she is opposed to counterfeit satisfaction of desire and yearns to lead the world to the One alone who satisfies. “Why spend your money for what is not bread … for what fails to satisfy? Heed me and you shall … delight in rich fare” (Is 55:1-2).