Jesus and Three Movies You’ve Never Watched at Christmas

Image by Marko Milošević
Several years ago, I pitched the idea of drawing names for Christmas in order to avoid the time- and bank-demanding reality of shopping for two dozen family members. Only one sibling joined me and we soon relented due to pushback. We tried again the following year. More on board, but still no go. Then it finally stuck and now it’s the norm.

My sister and I fought our own desires to maintain tradition. What we proposed was taboo, even scandalous. Okay, I admit that all we did was save a little money, but it was hard!

I want to tell you about three movie characters who are truly taboo. The summaries, I feel, are rather dry, but they convey uncanny similarities between Babette, Vianne, and Mary, characters who changed my Christmas this year.

Read more about these three at The High Calling. The High Calling hosts everyday conversations about work, life, and God.



  by Sam Van Eman

Transcript of this recording:

Welcome to New Breed of Advertisers. The following Christmas post is called “But, MAAAaaaAAAHM!”

Parents have it rough. Toy companies market directly at kids, and the kids respond, "Yes!" while parents' wallets say "No!"

But who's to blame? The parents, for not setting good boundaries for their kids? The kids, for having low discernment skills? Or the advertisers, for putting on an irresistible show? Perhaps a little of all three.

I read an article about parents complaining to toy companies. The organization leading the push-back was Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and they wanted ads to stop being aimed at kids. Let parents make the decisions, they said.

I like this idea, but even I want half of the toys on TV, and I'm pushing 40. Maybe it's because I only had one Star Wars action figure as a kid: no spaceships, no detailed model of a far away planet, no accompanying action-figure troops, and certainly no special effects like the kids in TV commercials had.

Commercials have come a long, tempting, way since my childhood, and kids are even more seduced now. Only the strongest could resist such an onslaught of allure. I want to say to the marketing minds behind this brilliance, "Stop sucking us in. Enough is enough. Help us to lead simple lives. Quit enticing, my children!"

But my first responsibility is not to change the market. It's to curb my own desires and to teach discernment to my kids. My kids have to learn the difference between wants and needs, quality and junk, genuine interests and peer pressure. I can't protect them forever.

And what about the advertisers? They certainly carry guilt, but how much? Well, just imagine how toy advertising would change if they cared more about our kids than about profit. We might be able to say – and you might want to brace yourself for this – "Johnny, if the advertiser says it's a good toy, then it's a good toy because she loves you and wants the best for you."

Without all of us – parents, kids and advertisers – doing more than we’re doing now, Christmas will always be a commercial holiday.

Here’s to a simple, commercial-free, whine-free, generous Christmas.


Visit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.



Transcript + link to an exercise:
Try thinking about every item you see and every act you do in terms of the raw ingredients that form them. Just as flour and baking soda go into cookies, so do wood and cotton go into chairs, and creativity and ink (and pixels) go into a logo.

Your work – my work – is a combination of a long list of raw ingredients. How we assemble them makes a world of difference. Some recipes produce work that tastes great, but isn’t healthy; other times it’s loaded with nutrition but lacks anything resembling flavor. This presents a challenge. We need to assemble ingredients that end up tasting great and benefiting the consumer. Not always an easy task.


For more thoughts on ingredients and their relation to media consumption, read A Recipe for Film Consumption. You'll find an exercise at the end with a downloadable TV commercial (one of my all-time faves).


Angelic Gas

Image by Ruth Hallam
It’s hard to be burdened with your parents’ hell while learning how to make a cow fart. Bobby’s uncle ran a farmette about a mile from our flea market trailer and kept a single cow in the pasture. One summer afternoon while admiring neatly routered crafts in the half-wood shop, half-stall, Bobby called to me.

“Wanna see something cool?”

“Sure,” I said. “What is it?”

“C’mere.” And he turned mischievously for me to follow.

I stepped through the shop door and up onto the rail that contained the heifer. I ran my hand along her back, watching the skin twitch at flies and suddenly forgetting that Bobby had something in mind. Her brown coat felt hot and soft. He was petting along her side, just in front of the pelvic bone, and began to depress the area like a doctor checking for appendicitis. His other hand joined the first and he pressed harder, massaging slowly, front to back, front to back.

And then it happened...a long, loud expulsion of gas from the cow’s behind. To a recent seventh grade graduate, it was possibly the best thing I had ever heard. Bobby had trouble containing himself while pressing again, this time slower now that he had it going, and the beautiful, wonderful sound came forth in a tremendous second wave. They both finally quit. The cow’s wide eye stared at the two of us hanging there in tears.

That’s when the smell hit. Rot and heat mixed to burn our lungs and punish us for teasing. We jumped out of the stall, gagging and laughing hysterically.

I liked Bobby. He parted his hair and said Yes ma’am and swore conservatively like people do who live in the Bible Belt but don’t really go to church. And he was good for me in a way I couldn’t have known then. Beyond the cow and dares to touch the electric fence, bike rides, fort-building and praying we wouldn’t fall to our deaths when his brother whipped rocks at us high in the tree branches, Bobby was helping me escape.

One particular memory confirmed it.

We had constructed a battle scene of figures and machines on his bedroom carpet. I remember the white walls and ceiling fan in his room because these were nicer than what I had in my closet space with the furnace in the corner. We tied fishing line around the body of a WWII fighter plane and to a blade of the ceiling fan. The slow circling threat kept soldiers on their toes. It was a G.I. Joe action-figure set-up like only the kids in TV commercials had.

We pulled the chain to Medium, continuing with our battle language but shifting more attention to the plane. It picked up speed. The painted pilot banked wider and had trouble maintaining control before settling arythmically. Bobby and I glanced at the bedroom door and then at each other.

“What do you think would happen?” he whispered.

I had no other answer. “Let’s find out.”

As soon as I pulled the chain to High and backed away, the plane rose, weaving and dipping wildly. Its left wing caught the ceiling and caused the aircraft to spin desperately out of control. Bobby and I ducked in fear. Neither of us could reach the speed chain before the red fang-mouthed decal on the nose struck the ceiling.

The string broke. The fighter plane shot over us and exploded against the wall above Bobby’s pillow, shattering into plastic pieces of camouflage and outdoing everything those kids on TV had. 

Mischief, I figured then, but it’s therapy to me now because I realize that I had my own commercial going on there; a break from the usual program. Dad had drunk himself reckless, mom was on the run with four of us in a far state, middle school kept me awake at night. Welfare and church people put food on the steps by the scraggly palmetto bush. We all wondered when normal might return.

Here I thought Bobby and I were making cow farts and wrecking his models. We weren’t. He was being normal, with a normal family and normal bedroom walls and a normal life. He was my grace in a battle I couldn’t fight alone; a TV commercial of normalcy in a program of chaos.

And I loved every minute of it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Angelic Gas" is a response to Marcus Goodyear's call for epiphany stories in the Books & Culture article Only Zombies Worship Styrofoam Jesus.


Self-promotion for Christmas

I don't feel comfortable with a lot of self-promotion but, hey, you might be shopping for Christmas and I just so happen to have a possible encouragement for someone on your list. Glynn Young, author of the newly published Dancing Priest, shared a few nice words about On Earth as It is in Advertising? Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope.

I received the compliments as a gift and pass them along as such. Here's an excerpt:

"...Author Sam Van Eman is tossing a live hand grenade right into the middle of Christian complacency...[and] is taking on what is still the most significant issue affecting American Christianity – how consumer culture has invaded and taken over the church, resulting in our inability to tell the difference between what he calls the 'SimGospel' and the Gospel of the church."

Read the full review and then get your copy of On Earth at Wipf & Stock Publishers.


The Work of a Roofer

Jessie Romaneix by permission via Flickr.
For a long time, I refused to work with Pete. He scared me. He didn’t say much beyond his tattoos of naked women and unusual profanities. The story goes that he reacted to a honking driver by exploding out of his car, shirtless and ripped like Bruce Lee, with a baseball bat and wearing his son’s Mickey Mouse Halloween mask. He jumped on the driver’s car hood and screamed the man into repentance.

I knew I had to love Pete. Wasn’t he among the “least of these”? The mean appearance and stories that accompanied his work-release life made a definite first impression. But I had to love him. If I didn’t realize the high calling of roofing as a trade then, at least I knew from the brokenness of my workmates that I had a job to do:
"If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God's love? It disappears. And you made it disappear" (1 John 3:17, The Message).
To hear more about my most memorable job (Cold tar tear-offs, for an example), read the rest of this featured article at The High Calling. The High Calling hosts everyday conversations about work, life and God.


Self-pleasure for Christmas

In my recent poll, 68% of you "lounged like Mary with family and friends" on Black Friday. Mary, the one blamed by her sister Martha for lazily sitting at Jesus' feet for story time, may have gotten it right. But that doesn't make the 4% of you who "toiled like Martha for family and friends" feel any better. (Sons of Martha might, however.)

Tied for second were the categories "Other" and "took advantage of the shopping deals."

Speaking of taking advantage of shopping deals, I came across an article at AdAge this morning about new holiday ads focused on me. The National Retail Federation

"recently highlighted J.Crew, which featured a 'Gift Yourself' section on its website, along with the text 'To: You, From: You.' And this week Gap is promoting sleepwear as the perfect gift to give yourself: 'Tuck Yourself In: Dots, pops of color, and soft flannel -- perfectly sized sleepwear just for you. Give (yourself!) the gift of good sleep.'"  
Photo by leapetey
I hadn't seen these ads, but certainly felt more desire to shop for myself this year. Maybe I picked up the vibe subconsciously. I went out at midnight on Black Friday to buy something for my wife. The 1000-strong lines sent me home empty-handed, but I had every intention of making the purchase and then proceeding to fondle numerous additional items I could imagine having as my own.

John Ross, CEO of Shopper Sciences, said, "It looks like retailers across the board widened the draw of their promotional assortment to appeal to a broader audience." (Broader sounds so inclusive, but the only audience added to what used to be a focus on you, is me. So broad, isn't it?) "To the extent that retailers can change their ads, we'd be advising them to do it," he said. "It appears to be something that the shopper is already embracing."

Of course we're embracing it.

What I didn't realize, but what would have been something to celebrate had I known about it, is that "Shoppers have actively tried to be less impulsive and haven't been spending on themselves for some time."

In Mr. Ross's world, this less impulsive bit isn't a point of celebration. It's a problem. It isn't a sign of stewardship or self-control, but a weakness in the system. His aim is to push retailers toward adopting a self-pleasure strategy because it's good for business. Buying for self isn't inherently bad, especially when the price is right, but to employ a self-pleasure strategy in the season most known for charity and altruism can't be good for humanity.


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